Yale University

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Russell Sunshine '64 on Sri Lanka

Russell Sunshine '64 is the Project Manager for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Invest-in-Peace Project, whose goal is to stimulate private investment in Sri Lanka. A consultant in international development with 35 years of professional experience in 30 countries, mostly in Asia, he renders policy advice to host governments and international organizations. His subject-matter expertise includes host-country management of foreign investment, know-how transfer, technical assistance, international public procurement, democratic transition, institutional development, and human-resource development.

He wrote the following piece for publication in the directory of our 40th reunion.

Two years into a ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE rebel army, we're steadily learning that successful peace-building requires reculturation as much as reconstruction.

Sri Lanka's need for rehabilitation and upgrading of physical infrastructure — roads and rails, sea and airports, power and telecomms grids — is chronic and pressing. Ambitious repair programs are already primed or launched, with generous funding by donor agencies.

But while less visible and quantifiable, other recovery constraints — what we might label damage to "mental infrastructure" — are proving equally pervasive. Polarized attitudes and harsh survival skills honed by 20 years of civil war are now inhibiting Sri Lankan capacities to seize post-conflict opportunities.

At the pinnacle of national politics, the two opposing parties and their respective leaders, the Prime Minister and President, are bogged down in acrimonious squabbles over short-term, partisan, even personal issues, seemingly unable to find common interest in resuming suspended peace talks with the LTTE. The upper echelons of Sri Lanka's once proudly non-partisan civil service have been thoroughly politicized, skewing administrative decisions, impeding procurement, and inviting corruption.

The LTTE's successful guerrilla leadership seems unsure how to evolve from military authoritarianism to civil governance. Having set peace deliberations in motion by accepting the Government's bedrock principle of a single sovereign state, the rebel warriors appear demonstrably less confident about how to cooperate in pluralistic forums to achieve their goal of substantial regional autonomy within that federal envelope.

Other players are equally ill-prepared to collaborate imaginatively on national rebuilding. In Sri Lanka's private sector, wartime coping has produced national business leaders who are risk-averse, subsidy-demanding, protectionist custodians of the status quo, the antithesis of innovative entrepreneurs. The mass media, while refreshingly outspoken, are glaringly polarized. Sensationalistic reports of sporadic ceasefire violations sell more papers than measured analyses of protracted peace negotiations. Virtually all primary and secondary schools are now segregated by ethnic community, religion, and language. So today's young people, unlike their parents, have never learned to cohabit in classrooms and on cricket pitches.

Focusing on the private-sector dimension of peace-building, our UNDP Invest-in-Peace Project works to integrate and vitalize Sri Lankan business communities: sponsoring regular meetings among regional Chambers of Commerce from both sides of the post-conflict line; bringing local business leaders into candid dialogue with Colombo-based policy makers and shapers; boosting those leaders' confidence and competence through workshops in presentation and lobbying skills; organizing an Osaka Forum where regional Sri Lankan business leaders can confer face-to-face with Japanese counterparts on trade and investment opportunities.

Changing attitudes through changing behavior will be a long slog. But cross-cultural cooperation and private-sector pragmatism can be powerful engines to help pull Sri Lanka out of its polarized, dispirited swamp.