Sri Lanka (Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka) is an island in the Indian Ocean, lying off the Southeastern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar separate Sri Lanka from India. The Arabian Sea lies to the west, the Bay of Bengal to the NorthEast, and the Indian Ocean to the South, Colombo, situated on the western coast, is the largest city and the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. The Administrative capital is Sri Jayewardenepura (Kotte), located about 16 km (about 10 miles) East of Colombo.
The total area of Sri Lanka is 65, 610 sq km (25,332 sq.mi). The greatest length, from North to South, is 440 km (270 mi). The greatest width from east to west across the island’s broad Southern portion is 220 km (140 mi). Sri Lanka’s coastline extends to a length of about 1,300 km (about 830 mi) The elevation of the surrounded plains ranges from sea level to 90m (300 ft). The plains are broadest in the North and North Central areas. The coastal belt rises about 30 m (about 100 ft) above sea level. Lagoons, sand beaches, sand dunes, and marshes predominate along the coast, although steep rocky cliffs are found in the Northeast and Southwest. There are mountains in the central hill country that rise up to 6000 feet.
The population of Sri Lanka is nearly 20 million. Ethnic groups are the Sinhalese, who form the majority (74%) of the population the Sri Lankan Tamils (12.6%), Tamils of recent Indian origin (5.5%), Sri Lanka Moors (7.7%), and other groups like Malays, and Burghers forming the rest. Agriculture is the largest sector of the economy in terms of employment, but manufacturing, especially the garment industry generates the majority of export earnings. Remittances from Sri Lankan expatriates particularly in the Middle and Gulf have recently become an important foreign exchange contributor. Sri Lanka has a democratic political system, with a directly elected President as Head of State as well as a directly elected Parliament, a Prime Minister and a Cabinet of Ministers.
Sri Lanka claims a democratic tradition matched by few other developing countries, and since its independence in 1948, successive governments have been freely elected. Sri Lanka's citizens enjoy a long life expectancy, advanced health standards, and one of the highest literacy rates in the world despite the fact that the country has one of the lowest per capita incomes.
After almost three decades of separatist war, on May 17, 2009, the terrorist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) officially conceded defeat. Two days later, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared total victory after government soldiers killed the Tamil Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and took control of the entire country for the first time since 1983. With an estimated 70,000 casualties over the years, it was a bitter and hard-fought victory, one of the few instances in modern history in which a terrorist group had been defeated militarily.
Economic targets included the airport in July 2001, the Colombo World Trade Center in October 1997, and the central bank in January 1996. In January 1998, the LTTE detonated a truck bomb in Kandy, damaging the Temple of the Tooth relic, the holiest Buddhist shrine in the country. After a lull following the 2002 ceasefire, LTTE-perpetrated terrorist bombings directed against politicians and civilian targets became more common in Colombo, Kandy, and elsewhere in the country. LTTE attacks on key political figures included the attempted assassinations of Social Affairs Minister Douglas Devananda in November 2007 and of Secretary of Defense Gothabaya Rajapaksa in December 2006, the assassination of Army General Kulatunga in June 2006, the attempted assassination of Army Commander General Fonseka in April 2006, the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, the killing of the Industrial Development Minister by suicide bombing in June 2000, and the December 1999 attempted assassination of President Kumaratunga. The LTTE was also suspected of being behind the assassinations of two government ministers in early 2008.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sri Lanka is not a post-conflict environment. While the fighting between the Government and the LTTE may have ended, the reasons for the political and social conflict (that also gave rise to youth militancy and armed clash in the 1970s and 1980s) will take time to address. Those root causes must be tackled soon and with a sense of urgency to prevent the country from backsliding. Thirty years of violence have taken a toll on the majority Sinhalese population, giving rise to a siege mentality toward the ethnic Tamil minority.
Serious questions remain about the Sri Lankan Goverment's ability to address pressing reconstruction and development needs for Tamils and Muslims. The Government's prolonged application of emergency laws, lack of transparency in developing a strategy for reconstruction and resettlement, questionable conduct during the war, and clampdown on press freedom have undermined trust and the prospects for greater partnership with international donors. Though the war is over, a culture of fear and paranoia permeates society, especially for journalists, which further erodes Sri Lanka's standing in the international community and hampers its prospects for genuine peace.
The end of Sri Lanka's long-running separatist war opens up enormous opportunities to move the country forward on multiple fronts: political reform, economic renewal, and international re-engagement. For the country to make the transition from a post-war to a post-conflict environment, Sri Lankan leaders must be prepared to take difficult steps to bring the country together and resolve underlying political and socio-economic tensions that led to the conflict.
On May 15, 2010, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the Commission of Inquiry on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and hardly 15 months after the end of the conflict, on August 11, 2010 this independent body commenced hearings. Some international observers criticized the country’s lack of witness protection, the limited scope of the LLRC--which did not have an explicit mandate to investigate alleged war crimes--as well as the impartiality of its Chairman, C.R. de Silva, whom they believe was responsible in part for the failure of a previous commission of inquiry. The government extended the LLRC’s mandate for another six months in November, a move criticized by some international observers as a tactic to delay addressing accountability. The time extension, however, did allow the LLRC additional time to gather testimony from hundreds of civilians, largely ethnic Tamils in the war-torn north and east, to provide the commission with testimony about missing family members and other war-related strife.
The hearings were open to the public. A significant number of witnesses were heard at LLRC sessions in Colombo, including historians, religious leaders, military officials, academics, and political figures. A wide variety of opinions were expressed at these sessions, including discussions on the origins of the conflict, the role of language, devolution, and the successes or failures of past political leadership. The LLRC also held a large number of field sessions in towns and villages throughout the former conflict areas in the north and east, where it accepted oral and written testimony from civilians who were affected by the war. Many of the sessions of the LLRC were observed by Colombo-based diplomats and the media. The LLRC collected evidence from hundreds of witnesses, had sittings in many parts of the country and even invited AI (Amnesty International), HRW (Human Rights Watch) and ICG (International Crisis Group) to present evidence, which they, regretfully declined to do. The Commission submitted its Report on November 20, 2011 and it was subsequently tabled in Parliament. It is now a public document. The Government has categorically stated that it will implement its recommendations.
The report called for investigations into, and possible prosecutions for, specific instances of reported cases of deliberate attacks on civilians by Sri Lankan Security Forces, reports of enforced disappearances, and reports of mistreatment of LTTE detainees. The LLRC’s recommendations related to demilitarization, freedom of expression, land reforms, and rule of law issues are also particularly significant. If fully implemented, these recommendations could provide the Government of Sri Lanka with an opportunity to promote national reconciliation and assist in revitalizing many of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions. However, the report failed to adequately address allegations that LTTE cadres and Sri Lankan Security Forces violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) during the final months of the conflict.
Accountability for violations committed by both sides of the conflict and justice for the victims are critical features of that reconciliation because it allows communities to affirm a common commitment to principles of justice and to cope with the years of ravages from armed conflict. Any credible accountability effort must be even-handed and hold both parties to account. Truth and accountability for the crimes committed during the last months of the conflict would prevent impunity and undermine those who wish to make the LTTE into future heroes. Sri Lanka’s peaceful future depends on trust—trust between Sri Lankans of all backgrounds, and trust between Sri Lankans and their government. That trust depends on acknowledgment of truth and justice for victims, and responsible, transparent, and systematic efforts to deal with past wrongs and secure protections against their recurrence.
The Sri Lankan military continues to maintain a significant presence in the north. The system of military roadblocks and checkpoints has largely been dismantled except in the vicinity of military installations and assets known as “high security zones” (HSZ). Although the government and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue operations to locate and dispose of landmines in the north, a number of areas are still mined. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are still found in parts of the Northern, Eastern, and North Central Provinces, particularly in Ampara, Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Polonnoruwa, Trincomalee and Vavuniya. As of April 2016, the government’s National Mine Action Center estimated 54 km2 remained to be surveyed and/or cleared in these ten districts.
Demonstrations in Colombo are a regular occurrence. Most demonstrations are peaceful, resulting only in traffic congestion; however, some have ended in violence between the protesters and police or opposition groups. While the majority of demonstrations are related to internal Sri Lankan politics, protests directed toward western embassies and international organizations are not uncommon.
Routine petty crime, especially thefts of personal property and pick-pocketing, is not uncommon if the traveler does not take appropriate safeguards. Street hustlers or “touts” are common around hotels, shopping centers, and tourist sites.
Vehicular traffic in Sri Lanka moves on the left (British style). Traffic in Colombo can be congested. Narrow two-lane highways, overloaded trucks, poorly driven buses, and a variety of conveyances on the road, ranging from ox carts and bicycles to new four-wheel-drive vehicles, make driving dangerous. Unexpected road blocks and one-way streets are common and may not be clearly marked. Chaos on the streets is an inevitable part of life in Sri Lanka. Officially, a thorough highway code does exist within the system, but slack and arbitrary implementation have made “there are no rules” a good rule of thumb.
Roads in Sri Lanka have no lanes, no shoulders and no traffic regulations – at least, none that are respected. Oxcarts, bicycles, wheelchairs, pedestrians, cows and goats enter the traffic at their leisure. So do motor cycles carrying entire families, “trishaws”(three wheeled, motor scooter taxies), buses permanently leaning to port with passengers pouring out of doors and windows, and vans and trucks overflowing with tropical fruits, vegetables, chickens and other wares….
Malaria and dengue fever are just two of the diseases carried by mosquitoes. Mosquito nets can be hung from the big ceiling hook and tucked all around the mattress or pad at bedtime, protecting the sleeper from the pests. Good quality mosquito nets are inexpensive and washable. During the day they are usually twisted and knotted, out of the way, suspended over the bed. Avoid street food, no matter how tempting. Avoid fruits and vegetables that can’t be peeled. Unpeeled produce should be treated for 20 minutes with a solution made of water and couple of grains of potassium permanganate and rinsed carefully with bottled water before consuming. When in restaurants eat only freshly-cooked food that is piping hot. Vegetarian food is much safer than meat-based dishes. IF you have reason to doubt the quality of food, DON’T EAT IT – better to be hungry than sick.
Visitors are advised not to try to do too many things there in one day. It would be frustrating, if not impossible, given the slower pace of life and difficulty travelling from one place to another.
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