Connect to share and comment

Sri Lanka: Leaders trumpet coming prosperity

But human rights groups insist leaders will have to atone for alleged war crimes.

Sri Lankan special forces take part in a parade in Maduruoya on Dec. 11, 2010. (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Leaders in Sri Lanka can claim what much wealthier and better-armed nations cannot: the country’s terrorism movement has been thoroughly vanquished.

Situated off India’s east coast, Sri Lankan authorities spent more than three decades battling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Better known as the “Tamil Tigers,” the guerrilla separatists were finally defeated last year in an all-out army assault.

One year later, Sri Lankan leaders are trumpeting the dawn of a vibrant, terrorism-free society.

“There is a unique quality about this moment,” said Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, in a rare meeting with foreign journalists in Bangkok this week. “People sing the national anthem today with much more feeling and vigor.”

Chinese and Indian investors are building ports and railways, he said. Waters once thick with sea-faring Tamil Tiger guerrillas are now open to fisheries. In the most populated city, Colombo, investors will build hotels to support a coming tourism bonanza.

“Whatever the intrinsic strengths of the country were, we were not able to derive the fullest benefit because of escalating violence,” Peiris said. “It is that which we have put behind us.”

But as Sri Lanka forges ahead, a growing chorus of human rights groups — and the United Nations — insists its leaders must atone for alleged war crimes.

“These people will be held accountable for war crimes,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “I’m not saying imminently. But the evidence is so strong, and they’re so unpopular internationally, that a time will come when no one will be there to protect them.”

As the Sri Lankan government often notes, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation considered the pre-defeat Tamil Tigers “among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world.”

Their civil war, waged to create a sovereign nation for the Tamil ethnic minority, began in 1976. It has left more than 70,000 dead on both sides since the mid-1980s, according to the FBI.

An FBI fact sheet on the Tigers says the group “invented the suicide belt,” inspired Al Qaeda and placed “operatives right here in our backyard, discreetly raising money to fund its bloody terrorist campaign overseas.”

The Tigers even maintained a ragtag air force, a navy fleet and a ground force armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers. So despised are the Tigers that electro-pop musician M.I.A., the daughter of a Tamil separatist, has received intense criticism for lyrics that only vaguely criticize the Sri Lanka’s attack on the rebels.

But rights groups claim even the ruthless Tigers weren’t deserving of the brutality Sri Lanka’s military unleashed in May 2009.

In routing the rebels, the army established a “no-fire zone” along the coastline that attracted civilians fleeing to safety. Then they shelled it, Adams said. Video evidence and testimony collected from witnesses and amateur footage suggest a civilian death toll of more than 20,000, according to Human Rights Watch.