Off the Cuff - Peace pays off for Sri Lanka

19 May 2016 / 22:26 H.

    FOR a country that went through untold sufferings, fantastic things are now happening in Sri Lanka with its people reaping the dividends of peace after its protracted civil war finally ended in 2009.
    I visited the island nation twice during the war on the invitation of its high commissioners in Kuala Lumpur and was taken around the country and interviewed officials on the peace process.
    The visits were significant for me as a journalist because two of the officials whom I interviewed were later assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), described as the world's most ruthless terrorist organisation.
    The LTTE started the war in 1983 for an independent Tamil homeland in the east and north of Sri Lanka.
    Neelan Tiruchelvam, who headed the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, and Lakshman Kadirgamar, the then foreign minister, were both Tamils who served the Sinhala-led government.
    They told me that being Tamils they were high on the LTTE hit list. Kadirgamar's residence where I interviewed him in 1996 had sandbags around it with heavily armed soldiers.
    It was in this house that Kadirgamar was assassinated by a sniper in 2005.
    Tiruchelvam was working for the government to draw up plans for devolving power to the Tamil areas in the east and north to erode their support for the LTTE.
    I remember him telling me that he was taking a leaf from the New Economic Policy for inclusion in the devolution plan, adding that he had uncles and aunties in Malaysia.
    He was killed by a suicide bomber in 1999.
    The beginning of the end for the 26-year war, which cost over 200,000 lives came in 2009 when the previously untouchable LTTE supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran was killed in a military operation. Also killed were his three children.
    The LTTE is said to be among the earliest groups to use suicide bombers for its violent acts that included the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadesa at a May Day rally in 1993 and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi two years earlier.
    The LTTE was also the only terrorist organisation that had its own infantry, sea and air wings. It even had branches in 54 countries.
    To make matters worse, Sri Lanka was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed over 30,000 people.
    "The most fantastic thing about Sri Lanka is that in the seven years since the war ended, there had not been a single act of terrorism reported as compared to an almost daily occurrence in those days," said its High Commissioner, Ibrahim Ansar. "Sri Lankans are now reaping the peace dividends at long last."
    Ibrahim said his country used to spend more than 25% of its GDP on defence mainly to fight the war but now with so much savings and defence budget down to a mere 5%, the country's economy was returning to its pre-war boom.
    Foreign investors are coming in droves with Malaysia being one of largest, especially in the telecommunications sector. Malaysian investments in Sri Lanka have hit US$1.5 billion (RM6.13 billion) with Telekom Malaysia, Axiata, Dialog, Maxis and Khazanah Malaysia being the main players.
    Tourism, once Sri Lanka's economic mainstay, is set to boom again. At the height of the war, Sri Lanka which was previously famed for two "T's' – tea and tourism – had another "T" added by observers, terrorism.
    Ibrahim said air connectivity between Sri Lanka and Malaysia is superb with daily flights by Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia and Malindo Air and twice daily by Air Lanka.
    Some 24,000 Malaysians visited Sri Lanka last year while Sri Lankan arrivals in Malaysia topped 84,000.
    "There are vast opportunities for Malaysian businessmen to venture into Sri Lanka now especially in the infrastructure sector," said Ibrahim.
    He said the process of rebuilding the country was in full swing under President Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power in the presidential election in January last year. Then a cabinet minister, he defeated his boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president credited for ending the war.
    Sirisena, who himself twice escaped assassination attempts by the LTTE, vowed to establish good governance free from abuse of power that brought down the previous administration.
    Ties between Malaysia and Sri Lanka have also been one of the closest ever since our independence in 1957 and I can only add that we have nothing but good wishes and goodwill for the long suffering Sri Lankans as they rebuild their equally beautiful country.
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