There are two very different narratives about Sri Lanka. There’s the kind you read in the New York Times, the story about how now, even four years after the civil war has ended, the international community persistently demands that the Sri Lankan government more effectively investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes that took place at the end of the conflict. It’s a narrative about creeping authoritarianism in a country that, having emerged from decades of violence, seems to stand once again on the precipice of trouble. It’s a story corroborated by some inside the country: pointing to the recent passage of a bill that eliminated presidential term limits and led to the appointment of several of the president’s family members to positions in government, one University of Colombo professor put it this way: “We have a strong democratic tradition in this country; [however,] if anything, we’re moving backwards.”

But then there’s the story that emerges when you drive down the A9 highway that connects the predominately Tamil North to the mostly Sinhalese South—a journey that would have been impossible to make just four years ago, not only because the two sides were at war, but also because back then, the highway didn’t even exist. Now it stretches between two alien communities, a physical symbol of the reconciliation that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his regime are trying to forge. The signs that warn of landmines have long since disappeared, and the camps that used to shelter those who were displaced during the war have long been boarded up. Child soldiers and terrorists have been rehabilitated. “I’m just glad that I can drive behind a bus with my two kids in the back seat and not worry about being blown up,” a mother in Colombo told the HPR.

The contrast between these narratives—one grim, the other hopeful—has important ramifications. The United States is set to sponsor its third consecutive resolution against the Sri Lankan government at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. There, the international community intends to demand that the Rajapaksa administration conduct an independent investigation into alleged atrocities at the end of the war, properly prosecute military officials, and expedite its implementation of the recommendations set forth by the country’s own truth and reconciliation commission. The legitimacy of these requests is not a matter of debate. Rather, the concern is how the international community will proceed with the precarious art of international pressure. If it is to be successful, it will have to do so by maintaining a complicated balance between too much pressure and too little, by negotiating with the Rajapaksa regime (instead of alienating it), and by offering economic concessions to recognize the progress that has already been made.

The Goldilocks Rule of International Pressure

International pressure’s influence in postwar Sri Lanka is unquestionable. “The only reason we had the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC),” Dr. Suvitri Mallawarachi, a prominent scholar at the University of Colombo, told the HPR, “is because the international pressure got to be too much. It kept the focus alive.” Dismayed, she continues, “It’s prevented another Rwanda-like scenario, but that’s about it.” On the reverse side, one foreign ministry official explained to the HPR that international pressure has had the unintended effect of helping to consolidate the Rajapaksa regime because, as he puts it, “there is a sense that international pressure is not genuine—it is a product not of good will but of the diaspora’s deep pockets and the political ambitions of its purveyors.”

Supporting this claim, newspapers all over Sri Lanka refer to a neo-imperialist West that seeks to trample upon the national pride of the island country, of an international community that has double standards, that allows superpowers to commit war crimes, but won’t leave a recovering peripheral nation alone. As a result of this sentiment, adds the foreign ministry official, if the Rajapaska government is to be moved by international pressure, this pressure must be levied at just the right dosage.

Foreign ministry officials concede that Rajapaksa is not an exemplar statesman or diplomat. Still, Dr. Charitha Gunasiri, a doctoral student at the University of Jaffna, explaied to the HPR, “Sri Lanka is a top-down society. Any change must be catalyzed by the leadership.” If the West is to be successful, it must engage Rajapaksa, not alienate him. It would seem the West in part realizes this, as the same foreign ministry official explains, “They [the international community] may not like him, but they also know that if Sri Lanka is to have a chance at reconciliation, it will have to be under Rajapaksa. No other politician enjoys enough political support to make this happen except him.”

Playing the Long Game

Ultimately, if the West is to really engage Rajapaksa, it is going to have to respond to his model of reconciliation, which emphasizes economic and infrastructure development first with a view towards a political settlement later. “It doesn’t have to be either/or,” Dr. Mallawarchi argues. “They shouldn’t say we’ll do all the economic development now and then we’ll do the political settlement later; they should be working on both simultaneously.” But for now, if the international community is to convince the Rajapaksa government to adopt this strategy, it is first going to have to prove that its intentions are genuine. A creative means for doing that might mean encouraging investors at home to invest in the country’s northern economy. If the outside world can help Sri Lanka give basic necessities and support to those who were most affected by the war, it will have a firmer basis for demanding a political settlement.

Contrary to the headlines, the people of Sri Lanka are cautiously optimistic; they don’t believe their country to be the basket case some academics warn it to be—at least not yet. Many scholars point to the lessons of Professor John Paul Lederach, who argues that post-conflict reconciliation requires “an encounter” that forces conflicting parties to focus on their relationship after a period of turmoil. If international pressure is to be effective, the international community too must find a way to build anew its relationship with the regime in Colombo. The fate of paradise depends on it.

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Names have been changed to protect the identity of some sources. 

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