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Tackling Ethnic Inequality in Sri Lanka

In April, after reading about a leaked UN report on alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka's army against Tamil civilians, a 23-year-old engineer from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu set himself on fire. His suicide note said he hoped the state's next government's leaders would help their fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka.

There is no question that sensitivities persist over ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority two years after the Sri Lankan military defeated Tamil Tiger separatists and effectively ended a 26-year-long civil war. The good news is that the Sri Lankan government has taken some positive initial steps toward post-conflict reconciliation. For instance, it has begun discussions on a political voice for the Tamil minority in government. It is developing infrastructure in formerly conflicted areas and has set up rehabilitation programs for former Tamil Tiger rebels.

Unfortunately the government has not sufficiently addressed the economic roots of this ethnic conflict. Today stability has returned to Sri Lanka and the government says it is "winning the economic war." Since the conflict ended, growth has skyrocketed to 8 percent (the highest rate in 32 years), bolstered by foreign investment, tourism, and IMF loans. Government officials hail the contributions of the "hard-won peace" to the development of tourism and continued growth in the country. On the surface, all this sounds like the ideal postwar scenario in which to rebuild Sri Lanka's economy. But policymakers are directing little attention to the inherent economic inequality that fed this ethnic conflict in the first place. That is a risky mistake.

Sri Lankan leaders would be wise to focus some energy on explicitly connecting the country's high growth to the Tamil minority that historically has felt marginalized—discriminated against by a Sinhalese-dominated government in terms of education, job opportunities, and development funds. Tensions contributed to ethnic-focused riots in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983, ultimately leading to the civil war.

Tamils Still Feel Marginalized

While a Tamil Tigers resurgence is implausible, policymakers should nonetheless take preemptive measures to reduce ethnic-focused frustration that could bubble up and hinder ongoing efforts to boost growth. Although the government insists it is developing Tamil-dominated areas as never before, representatives of the Tamil Political Parties Forum have said their people still feel ignored and excluded from such development. This obvious perception of discrimination needs to be dealt with before further ethnic frustration builds; it is critical for Sri Lankan leaders to make the explicit connection between economic opportunity and the Tamil minority if they want growth to continue unimpeded.

The first step would be to provide specific opportunities to this ethnic minority. A second, subtler step would be for policymakers to tackle the perception of inequality that may still exist. This would require the government to explicitly show how the Tamil community can now benefit from the country's newfound growth. This public communication strategy could challenge preconceived views about ethnic discrimination that may not necessarily be rooted in current realities. This simple strategy can only help with post-conflict reconciliation efforts.

The third step would be for policymakers to target those groups within the Tamil minority that are most vulnerable: unemployed youth, pro-government Tamil militants, and victims of floods caused by monsoon rains that in January displaced over 1 million people. As the country experiences an economic boom, the existing sense of ethnic-focused frustration among these particular subsets of the Tamil minority are likely to build if they continue to feel marginalized and excluded from the country's notable growth.

Among Sri Lanka's youth, over 20 percent are unemployed. While there is no data specifically on how many of them are from the minority, there is an obvious need for the government to ensure that the island's strong growth produces jobs for unemployed Tamil youth, who may still feel disadvantaged.

Ignoring Armed, Pro-Government Tamils

Pro-government leaders of militant Tamil groups such as the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) have publicly said they feel ignored by a government focused on rehabilitating the Tamil Tigers at the expense of other militants. In November, members of the PLOTE talked of how their armed youth members were educated but jobless, which could push them toward "criminal activities." If the government does not soon tackle this issue, it could face a serious problem.

Flood victims from previously conflict-ridden, Tamil-dominated areas in the North and East have been particularly vocal about not receiving sufficient government support, likely reinforcing their sense of ethnic discrimination. In January hundreds of flood victims attacked a government office in eastern Sri Lanka for allegedly holding back relief goods.

As overall growth surges in postwar Sri Lanka, policymakers must actively cater to this marginalized ethnic group that has felt historically disadvantaged, especially among certain vulnerable subsets. Today's leaders need to consider if economic inequality—real or perceived—still exists among the Tamil minority, which could obstruct the country's path to sustainable growth. If the Central Bank's goal of 9 percent growth by 2012 is to be achieved, strategic thinking by policymakers is urgently needed.

Dr Maha Hosain Aziz is a professor of politics in the MA Program at New York University, a senior analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and a research associate at the University of London (SOAS)

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