This article first appeared in World Politics Review, 7 December 2017, and has been republished with their permission.
For an outsider trying to unravel the complexities of Sri Lanka’s postwar challenges, the country presents countless tangled and unexpected threads. Among the surprises is that the most unlikely of countries, a nation half a world away—one that on the surface has very little in common with Sri Lanka—is playing an important role in guiding Sri Lanka forward.
Colombia, the South American nation that just a year ago signed a peace agreement with rebels to end its own lengthy war, is lending its knowledge and expertise to help Sri Lanka tread a path toward peace and stability.
The relationship is not a formal state-to-state one. But the international organizations advising Sri Lanka’s transitional justice efforts include many Colombians. With experience in their own country’s tortuous road to peace, Colombian nationals are working in Sri Lanka as officials of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international organizations.
The curious turn of events is perhaps the natural consequence of Colombia’s many years of conflict and persistent pursuit of reconciliation, which have turned many of its citizens into experts in the field. But it also underscores another fact that is less evident: The conflicts in Colombia and Sri Lanka, despite having sharply different ideological and political drivers, have a number of uncannily similar characteristics. As a result, the Colombian model can offer important lessons for Sri Lanka.
Colombia and Sri Lanka each endured some of the longest internal wars of modern times, each lasting decades and both coming to an end only recently.
The conflict in Colombia started as a classic 20th-century communist insurrection, pitting primarily the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, against the central government. FARC guerrillas sought to take power and pursue a Cuba-style revolution. In Sri Lanka, the government fought the ethnic separatist Tamil Tigers, who wanted to set up their own country in the north and east of the island.
Although the war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, and Colombia’s concluded only last year, Colombians have worked for decades to sow the seeds of a settlement. Even as the FARC’s insurgency raged, civil society groups were working on reintegrating tens of thousands of former fighters back into society.
Colombia’s war lasted half a century, Sri Lanka’s almost three decades. They both brought terrorism to their countries. They both shed rivers of blood and inflicted much greater suffering and devastation in the countryside than in urban centers.
Interestingly, they both reached turning points under the presidency of hard-line leaders determined to destroy the enemy. And both of those presidents, in Sri Lanka and Colombia, were succeeded by former allies who vowed to heal the country’s wounds, but then saw their predecessors become fierce critics and rivals.
In Colombia, it was President Alvaro Uribe who turned the tide of the war, stepping up the military’s efforts and dealing the FARC decisive defeats. His right-hand man at the time was Juan Manuel Santos, who served as Uribe’s minister of defense during the crucial moments in the war. Santos was a co-founder of the political party that served as Uribe’s vehicle. The Social Party of National Unity, known as Party of the U—which many viewed as shorthand for Party of Uribe—was the party that cracked the lock of Colombia’s traditional political forces and ultimately broke the war’s stalemate.
Santos even helped Uribe change the constitution in 2005 to allow presidential re-election. When Uribe finally stepped away, Santos was his natural successor.
Once he became president, however, Santos pursued a policy of negotiating with FARC leaders to reach a peace agreement. Uribe fulminated against Santos’ concessions to the guerrillas. He became the leading critic of Santos and of a peace deal that was, in fact, rejected by Colombian voters in a referendum, before it was modified and enacted without popular approval.
In Sri Lanka, it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, or SFLP, who broke the back of the Tamil Tigers. His relentless military campaign, which triggered accusations of war crimes, crushed the rebels, bringing an end to the war. One of the members of his Cabinet was Maithrapala Sirisena, an SLFP legislator who served in various positions, as minister of health, agriculture and even acting minister of defense during some of the key final moments of the war.
Sri Lanka’s conflict, unlike Colombia’s, did not end with a peace treaty. The government thoroughly obliterated the Tamil Tigers, putting them out of existence in 2009. The charismatic Rajapaksa—also widely viewed as corrupt—was riding high. But then, to most people’s surprise, the soft-spoken Sirisena turned on Rajapaksa, joining forces with the opposition United National Party in the 2015 presidential election, saying it was time to “end the Rajapaksa family rule.” Even more surprisingly, Sirisena won the election, stunning his former ally.
In sharp contrast to Rajapaksa, Sirisena vowed to seek reconciliation. He asked the international community for support in the process. Although Sirisena and Rajapaksa are both in the SLFP, they are fierce rivals in competing factions of the party.
Many Sri Lankans have told me they generally like Sirisena, but consider him weak compared to Rajapaksa. As in Colombia, the man who won the war is a charismatic figure who has turned into the nemesis of his successor, a former ally with lesser charisma and a focus more on institutions than on personality.
In both cases, the process of post-conflict justice and reparations enjoys more international than domestic support. While Colombians voted down the referendum on the peace accord, the Nobel Committee awarded Santos the Nobel Peace Prize. While Sri Lankans have decidedly mixed feelings about setting up a special tribunal to look back at the war, the international community is relentlessly pressing for one.
The United Nations’ top official on the subject is Colombian Pablo de Greiff, whose unwieldy title is special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. De Greiff’s visits to Sri Lanka are consequential events; his reports are closely watched here.
After his most recent visit, de Greiff chastised Sri Lanka for failing to make sufficient progress. But Colombia’s history shows the process of reconciliation is long and arduous.
One of the Colombians working on the ground in Sri Lanka with a U.N. organization, Felipe Cortes Cleves, says Colombia’s example packs important messages for Sri Lanka. The first, he says, is that the process takes time, perhaps decades. Second, he emphasizes, it’s crucial to listen to the stories of the victims and recognize their suffering. That, he maintains, is a powerful component of national healing. And finally, he says, international cooperation and support are important, but the indispensable element in moving forward successfully is found at home, in the country and in the community’s commitment to seeking reconciliation after decades of fighting. That’s the experience from Colombia, a most unexpected player in Sri Lanka’s quest for a better future.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.