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Winning Sri Lanka’s Peace

COLOMBO – Winning a war or revolution, only to lose the subsequent peace, is one of the grim political truths of our time. In Iraq, a quick military victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime soon gave way to insurgency, civil war, and the rise of the murderous Islamic State. In Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, the hopes unleashed by the Arab Spring have similarly turned into an often-violent despair.

Today, a half-decade after the end of its 36-year civil war, Sri Lanka is at a crucial moment in its own efforts to consolidate peace and secure its long-term benefits. Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena and I, as prime minister, are determined to win that peace, and to help our country become what it always should have been: a prosperous Asian island of democracy, civility, and open society.

The risks of a failed peace are appearing only now, because, since 2009, when the war with the Tamil Tigers ended in an enormous spasm of violence, the government led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa made only the most half-hearted of efforts to bring about reconciliation with our Tamil citizens. Reconstruction of war-ravaged Tamil districts, as well as other parts of our society damaged by years of fighting and terrorism, has barely begun.

That neglect was part of a deliberate strategy by Rajapaksa, who saw keeping Sri Lanka on a semi-war footing, and our Tamil citizens aggrieved and alienated, as the most effective way to maintain his iron-fisted rule. But, though his divide and rule strategy worked for a while, allowing him to concentrate an unprecedented amount of power in his own hands, it could not hide the truth of our social divisions and continuing impoverishment. So, in the presidential election of this past January, Sirisena stunned the world by creating a winning coalition of Sri Lankans of all faiths and ethnicities who want to rebuild their democracy, not continue down the path of authoritarian rule.