Sri Lanka, a small island state just southeast of the Indian subcontinent, received independence from England in 1948, created democratic rule, and experienced years of progress before spiraling downward.
A country under immense pressure after 25 years of intermittent insurgency by Tamil Tiger separatists, Sri Lanka's 20 million people comprise two major ethnic groups. The Sinhalese, mostly Buddhists, form 74 percent of the country, while the minority Tamils, religious Hindus, represent another 15 percent. Sri Lanka also has a significant Muslim community.
Civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated Colombo government and rebel Tamils in the north of the island, ongoing since 1983, disrupts everyday life and also impedes initiatives to remove the underlying causes of violence.
Disaffected Tamils in the north represent two-thirds of the Tamil population. Some, organized and known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, regularly engage in both military and terrorist offensives against government forces.
While outsiders describe the conflict as a civil war, most Sinhalese view it in terms of state order versus radical terror. Says Sri Lankan expert and scholar Ravi Aryasinha, the characterization of the fighting as civil warfare remains "very hard to sell in (Sri Lanka)" because they feel that what affects civil society most adversely is "the politically-motivated violence" of the Tamil militants, not the government.
Government forces, though, have experienced little success in combating the LTTE, whose preference for inclusion in the governance of Sri Lanka conflicts with many outsiders' suggestion of devolution for the predominantly Tamil northern Sri Lankans.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita Schaeffer explains that Tamils share an uncommon bond with other Sri Lankans because "most communities in Sir Lanka have a minority complex," Tamils and Muslims because they are a minority in the state, the Sinhalese because Sri Lanka lies so close to 850 million Hindus in India.
Given the political and ethnic dynamics of the civil war, she says, it is "unlikely that force will be effective against militant Tamils."
John Richardson, a professor of international relations at American University and author of the book "Paradise Poisoned," a study of Sri Lanka, agrees. He elaborates that achieving peace requires "candid acknowledgement that military engagement of the LTTE is improbable to succeed. Engaging them politically is therefore critical."
His protocol for attaining stability on the island includes "disposing of polarizing political tactics, meeting the needs and aspirations of young men who might join militant groups and building police and military units that are both apolitical and professional."
"The lack of opportunity in Sri Lanka must be combated in order to prevent disillusionment of the youth population" who feel that taking up arms may be their only option in life, he says, for either the government or for the LTTE.
Furthermore, Richardson cautions, the government must spend more on police units rather than military divisions if they wish to temper the civil war in both and reality and perception. Charges of corruption and human rights violations face the government forces which typically clash with the LTTE using guerilla tactics in dense jungles.
Fighting between the Colombo government and the LTTE dissipated in 2002 due to a cease-fire brokered by Norway, although occasional outbreaks of violence continue because various Tamil factions reject the agreement.
John Richardson also advocates a larger role on the part of multi-national corporations in promoting successful development policies in Sri Lanka. Government attempts at reform and growth have failed because politicization of issues and demagoguery tend to prohibit and constructive dialogue between the multifarious political groups.
Progress in Sri Lanka will begin only "when leaders choose policies that will avoid protracted conflict and terrorism," he says. If that is so, most likely, history should be their guide.