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Development Assistance and Conflict in Sri Lanka

Lessons from the Eastern Province

by International Crisis Group, April 16, 2009

The government still has not devolved power to the Eastern Province, as required by the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution, which established the provincial council system in 1987 in response to Tamil demands for regional autonomy in the north and east. The governor of the province, appointed by the president, is blocking the council’s initial piece of authorising legislation, and development planning and implementation continues to be run from Colombo and central government ministries...

Donors should not be treating the situation as a typical post-conflict environment.


Violence, political instability and the government’s reluctance to devolve power or resources to the fledgling provincial council are undermining ambitious plans for developing Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. The east continues to face obstacles to economic and political progress and offers lessons for development agencies and foreign donors considering expanding their work into newly won areas in the Northern Province. While there is still potential for progress in the east, it remains far from being the model of democratisation and post-conflict reconstruction that the government claims. Donors should adopt a more coordinated set of policies for the war-damaged areas of Sri Lanka, emphasising civilian protection, increased monitoring of the effects of aid on conflict dynamics and collective advocacy with the government at the highest levels.

Related content

Conflict Risk Alert: Sri Lanka, 9 March 2009

Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict, Asia Report N°159, 15 October 2008

All Crisis Group Sri Lanka reports

International attention is currently and rightfully focused on the need to protect upwards of 100,000 civilians at risk from fighting in the northern Vanni region, but at the same time, there are still important challenges in the so-called “liberated” area of the Eastern Province. Even now, the Eastern Province is still not the “post-conflict” situation that development agencies had hoped it would be when they started work there in late 2007 and early 2008. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers and police in the east, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have proven able to launch attacks on government forces and on their rivals in the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP). There have also been violent conflicts between different factions of the pro-government TMVP, and impunity for killings and disappearances, many of them apparently committed by government security forces and/or their allies in the TMVP. Extortion and criminality linked to the TMVP also remain problems. Insecurity and fear are undermining the ability of agencies and contractors to implement projects.

Violence between Tamils and Muslims has been kept to a minimum since June 2008, but tensions between the communities over land and political power remain high, and there seems little prospect of reconciliation so long as current government policies remain in place. Tamils are largely alienated from the government, thanks to the heavy hand of government security forces and TMVP activities. Many Muslims feel threatened by TMVP control of the provincial council and what they see as Tamil domination of the provincial administration. Both communities continue to suspect the government has plans for large-scale “Sinhalisation” of the east. Sinhalese villagers, students, contractors and government employees have, in turn, been victims of violent attacks.

The government still has not devolved power to the Eastern Province, as required by the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution, which established the provincial council system in 1987 in response to Tamil demands for regional autonomy in the north and east. The governor of the province, appointed by the president, is blocking the council’s initial piece of authorising legislation, and development planning and implementation continues to be run from Colombo and central government ministries. The government has yet to articulate any plans for a fair and lasting distribution of resources and political power that would satisfy all communities.

In this environment, development of the east remains affected by the conflicts and threatens to exacerbate them. Despite the need for development, there is a danger of funds being wasted or misused. Donors should not be treating the situation as a typical post-conflict environment. Instead, there is a need for additional monitoring and additional coordinated political advocacy. This is all the more important now that donors are considering assistance for the reconstruction of the Northern Province, once security conditions allow.

Bilateral and multilateral donors need to work with the government in a coordinated way and at the highest levels to ensure that its policies provide for effective and sustainable development. This should include a written agreement on basic principles, to be signed during a high-level donor development forum and prior to the commencement of any new projects. The government should agree to provide the basic level of human security necessary to successful development work by ending impunity for human rights violations and placing its counter-insurgency campaign under strict legal accountability.

It should establish a political context conducive to addressing the inevitable future conflicts over land and development in the north and the east by empowering the respective provincial councils to address development and security needs. In the north, this must begin with free and fair elections that feature the full range of Tamil political parties and are conducted with international monitoring. Independent representatives of all communities, including from opposition parties, should be given a significant role in key development decisions. Finally, Tamils and Muslims need assurances that there are no current plans for Sinhalisation – either of the east or the north – and that demographic issues will be dealt with only through negotiation with independent representatives of all three communities as part of a settlement of the larger conflict.

At the same time, donors and development agencies need to establish stronger procedures to understand the political dynamics in the east and in the north and to monitor the effects and uses of their development projects, so as to limit the risk that their assistance will aggravate existing conflicts or provoke new ones. To do development right, it will have to be done slowly, carefully and with greater political investment. It will also require additional staff and resources. Major donors should form a joint donor task force or monitoring unit to analyse current conflict dynamics in the east (and when possible, in the north) and develop the shared principles for more “conflict-sensitive” work which the government would be requested to adopt.

For these efforts to work, development agencies need to defend the work of local and international non-governmental organisations more vigorously. Threats and intimidation are crippling the necessary information flows, and general insecurity undermines meaningful project monitoring and public consultation. Multilateral donors in particular need to send strong messages to the government that harassment and denial of visas to international humanitarian and development workers and intimidation of local NGOs and community activists undermine their ability to do responsible development work and must stop.


To Japan, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, United Nations, U.S., EU and Other Bilateral Donors:

1.  Meet to review all development assistance to Sri Lanka and agree on principles for equitable and sustainable development in the east and north, to form the basis of a formal memorandum of understanding with the government, to be supported by an adequately funded monitoring process. The government should be requested to:

(a) empower the Eastern – and once elected, the Northern – Provincial Council to play a key role in development decisions through maximising the devolutionary potential of the Thirteenth Amendment and allowing the councils to pass enabling provincial-level legislation without obstruction from the president, governors or parliament;

(b) consult actively with independent community and political leaders from the three ethnic communities, including opposition parties, on all significant development initiatives in the north and the east;

(c) offer assurances to Tamils and Muslims that there are no government plans for Sinhalisation of the east or the north and that demographic issues will be dealt with only through negotiation with independent representatives of all three communities as part of a settlement of the larger conflict;

(d) provide basic security guarantees to the citizens of the north and east and adequate security for development work, beginning with a crackdown on the criminal activities of pro-government armed groups, including the TMVP and the Karuna faction, and an end to disappearances and killings associated with the government’s counter-insurgency campaign;

(e) guarantee free and fair provincial elections in the north, with the full range of political parties allowed to campaign safely and no party allowed to campaign while armed, with international observers in place, and to be held only after the majority of displaced have returned home from government camps;

(f) provide a timetable for the prompt return home of all those displaced from the north, and allow freedom of movement for the displaced prior to return and full access for humanitarian organisations to any displaced while they remain in camps;

(g) respect the right of donors to work with local and international NGOs of their choosing who will be free from harassment and visa restrictions; and

(h) reestablish the rule of law throughout the country, beginning with the president’s activation of the Constitutional Council and the subsequent appointment of independent police, human rights and judicial services commissions.

2.  Recognise that the Sri Lankan context is not a typical post-conflict situation and pay special attention to conflict dynamics that may arise through development work by:

(a) establishing a joint donor task force to review the past two years of donor projects in the Eastern Province and study the political forces currently affecting conditions for development work in the east and, when security permits and civilians have begun to be resettled, in the north.

(b) devoting increased resources for the ongoing and collective monitoring of the effects of development projects on conflict dynamics, either through a joint donor task force or through providing additional staff to the existing Donor Peace Support Group;

(c) hiring additional conflict advisers, increasing the number of project reviews, and establishing regular provincial-level monitoring meetings on land-related policies, especially with regard to fears of Sinhalisation;

(d) engaging in high-level and coordinated lobbying in defence of the work of local and international NGOs, insisting as a condition of aid that they be allowed to play an active role in monitoring and responding to conflicts over land and development in the north and the east; and

(e) undertaking a collective study to determine the nature and extent of extortion, theft and “taxation” by armed groups and government security forces in the north and east, increasing monitoring of the issue, and sending strong messages to the central government, the TMVP and provincial politicians that every effort must be made to end such practices and hold those involved accountable.

3.  Support the empowerment and effectiveness of the Eastern – and eventually the Northern – Provincial Council by:

(a) requesting the government grant them the necessary authority to negotiate projects directly with donors, at least in those areas listed as provincial and concurrent powers under the Thirteenth Amendment; and

(b) working to achieve maximum political consensus for development projects by obtaining agreement from both the ruling coalition on the council and the political opposition, and by encouraging the provincial councils to give a meaningful role to opposition parties and community leaders in development and land-related decisions.

4.  Work together to monitor current land use patterns and policies in the east and north by:

(a) underwriting a study of the effects that planned development projects in the east and north might have on land use and ethnic relations and how to prevent land-related projects from exacerbating conflict dynamics;

(b) linking further funding for housing, irrigation or related development projects to the government’s drafting new and equitable land titling, distribution and dispute resolution policies through a transparent and inclusive process of consultation;

(c) working closely with the government and implementing agencies who build donor-funded houses to ensure that the proper land titles or permits are issued; and

(d) monitoring for any encroachment or arrival of settlers in and around emerging commercial hubs and newly built or expanded roads.

5.  Support conflict-sensitive business development by:

(a) giving preference to local residents in both the contracting and sub-contracting work done with donor money and encouraging government and private investors to do the same; and

(b) actively seeking out Tamil and Muslim businesses that might be interested in expanding into the east, to offset the existing advantages of Colombo and Sinhala businesses.

6.  Insist on a collective basis that international standards are respected at all stages of displacement by establishing as a condition for development assistance the following minimum principles, to be communicated to the government and to donors’ implementing partners, with mechanisms for monitoring compliance:

(a) unrestricted access to the displaced for all relevant humanitarian agencies and representatives of donor countries;

(b) guarantees of protection for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and humanitarian workers, including the presence of the International Committee of the Red Cross at all sites where the military and police conduct security screenings;

(c) freedom of movement for IDPs once they have completed security screenings, with the displaced allowed to stay with relatives or host families;

(d) civilian authorities in charge of security at camps and hospitals that house the displaced;

(e) immediate preparation for a safe and timely return of IDPs to original homes or wherever they wish to go, preceded by a rapid and independent study of the number and location of mines in the north; and

(f) no support given to camps with a semi-permanent or permanent character.

To UNHCR, UNICEF and the Protection Units of Humanitarian Organisations:

7.  In the absence of a full-scale field presence for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, develop a plan for an extensive and coordinated network of protection offices in the north and east which can report on compliance with international standards for the protection of the displaced and those resettled in their home villages.


8.  Strengthen monitoring mechanisms and report on any evidence of underage recruitment by all armed groups, including pro-government groups other than the Pillayan and Karuna factions, and insist that under any future “action plan”, UNICEF has the power of unlimited, independent inspection of all camps and offices of both Pillayan and Karuna factions and has adequate staff to monitor compliance with all terms of the agreement.

To the Government of Sri Lanka:

9.  Negotiate an agreement with international development partners to provide the conditions necessary for sustainable and equitable development in the Eastern and Northern Provinces, as outlined in recommendations above.

10.  Grant provincial councils a strong degree of control over land, in line with, or beyond, the terms of the Thirteenth Amendment, including all necessary authority to negotiate projects with donors, at a minimum in those areas listed as provincial and concurrent powers under the Thirteenth Amendment, and the authority to prevent emergency powers, high security zones (HSZs) or special economic zones (SEZs) from being used to seize land without local consultation, accountability or compensation.

11.  Give Tamils and Muslims in the east and north concrete assurances that land policies will be devised through inclusive and transparent means and will not be used as a tool to politically weaken their communities.

12.  Include the views of independent Tamil and Muslim political representatives and community leaders in development decisions in the east and north and make genuine efforts to ensure that all three communities in the east benefit fairly from government economic development, including the Kappalthurai Industrial Development Zone, and the Oluvil and Valachchenai fisheries ports.

13.  Cease using HSZs and/or SEZs to displace residents without being granted monetary compensation or the right to effective legal challenge.

14.  Grant compensation to businesses in the east and north that have suffered damage from war and ethnic violence and to those in the Eastern Province whose properties were looted during and after the fighting in 2006 and 2007.

15.  Enact preferential hiring and contracting policies for local residents for all development projects in the east and north.

16.  Ensure that security restrictions which limit livelihood options – eg, on fishing, cattle-grazing or wood-collecting – are kept to a minimum and that when enforced they are applied in clear, consistent and non-arbitrary ways.

To the Eastern Provincial Council:

17.  Extend the deadline for registering land clams until the regulations have been rewritten to remove any serious causes for concern expressed by representatives of any of the three ethnic communities.

Full report here.

Colombo/Brussels, 16 April 2009


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