31 Jan - 6 Feb 2014 #692

A tale of two nations

Nepal and Sri Lanka are two South Asian countries in post-conflict transition, but that is about all they have in common

One is an Indian Ocean island with a hoary history of hydraulic civilisations where engineer kings built incredible reservoirs in the arid plains. Ceylon was colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British and their influences turned Colombo into a cosmopolitan entrepôt. After independence in 1948, the state invested heavily in education and health, giving the country the highest literacy and life expectancy in the region.

The other is a landlocked Himalayan country that escaped being colonised and preferred to remain marinated in a feudal monarchy for centuries. It opened up to outsiders only 60 years ago and has been trying to catch up with the rest of the world ever since.

Both countries were ravaged by civil wars. In the late 1980s, in fact, Sri Lanka had two civil wars going on at the same time: the Tamil separatist war in the north and the Marxist uprising in the south. More than 120,000 people were killed in 30 years. The Sri Lanka war ended in 2009 with a clear victor and vanquished, in Nepal by contrast, neither side lost and the warring sides both became the state after 2006.

The two countries have also diverged in the way they have approached post-conflict reconciliation and rehabilitation. As a Nepali used to the perpetual state of road-widening in Kathmandu and the dark and potholed streets, it is a shock to see a fellow South Asian capital with world class infrastructure. Twenty-five years ago, Sri Lanka looked like southern India. Today, it looks like Malaysia.

Colombo airport is now linked to the city by an expressway and it continues on south to connect to a new airport at Hambantota. In Nepal we are thankful to the Chinese for widening the 7km section of the Ring Road from Kalanki to Koteswor, but in Sri Lanka, China is building nearly 700km of highways, a new port city, new airports, and upgrading the railroads.

Stung by western ostracisation for the brutal end to the war in May 2009 in which up to 30,000 Tamil civilians were said to have been killed, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gothbaya, who is defence minister, have invested heavily in high-profile infrastructure projects to clinch domestic support. It seems to be working. Most Sinhalese appear to approve of the government’s can-do attitude. The state’s PR drive is in high gear: in January vehicles using the new southern expressway got free 2014 calendars with the president’s pictures and every mobile phone user in Sri Lanka received SMSs from Rajapaksa himself wishing them a happy new year.

Rajapaksa has formed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which critics say does not even begin to address human rights violations and war excesses. The UN Human Rights Commission meeting in March in Geneva will debate a resolution that is expected to censure the Sri Lankan government and may even recommend economic sanctions.

There was nothing to stop successive governments in Nepal after 2006 from investing in infrastructure and development like the Sri Lankans did, but our leaders were incapable of multitasking. Nepal’s Truth and Reconciliation Bill is also stalled, we have had two elections to write a new constitution.

Sri Lanka’s elected rulers have been brazenly populist, but they know that winning elections is not enough, they have to show performance accountability. Hence the focus on the economy to take people’s minds off politics. In post-conflict Nepal, both the economy and the politics are stuck.

There will be those who will argue that we should follow the Sri Lankan model, postpone democracy, and curb freedoms to first kickstart the economy. But we tried authoritarianism before and it was far worse. Our only hope is that the new constitution will install an inclusive democracy system designed to remove exclusion and discrimination and pave the way for peace. Sleek highways and glossy airports are not enough to protect the peace and we have demonstrated in the past that only through meaningful democracy and the accountability that it imposes on elected leaders, can we guarantee equitable economic growth.

Read also:

True reconciliation, George Varughese and Tamar Luster