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June 17, 2014

Considering the Challenges for Sri Lanka Five Years after the End of the Conflict
–Harumi Ao, former chief representative of the JICA Sri Lanka Office–

PhotoHarumi Ao, former chief representative of the JICA Sri Lanka Office

By Harumi Ao
Former Chief Representative of the JICA Sri Lanka Office

In 2009, conflict came to an end in Sri Lanka. Since then, aid organizations and non-governmental organizations from around the world have provided support to conflict-affected areas, advancing reconstruction a great deal along with reconstruction projects by the government.

In 2013, the Government of Sri Lanka announced that efforts to remove landmines since the end of the conflict had successfully cleared about 95 percent of the country. Areas remaining are concentrated in specific areas such as swamps and coastlines, so that most basic living areas are safe and people are returning to their homes. Also, as there has been no terrorism since the end of the conflict, the number of security checkpoints has been reduced. In September 2013, the elections in Northern Province that were of concern went smoothly without any major disruption. Last November, the Commonwealth[1] Heads of Government Meeting was held in Sri Lanka, and the Government of Sri Lanka seemed confident with the strong economic growth achieved.

Nevertheless, discussions are being held even to this day at the United Nations on accountability of the Government of Sri Lanka for human rights violations at the end of the conflict. In addition, relations with India remain delicate. The Thirteenth Amendment[2] to the Sri Lankan Constitution, of strong interest to India, has delayed a settlement, and fishermen continue to glare over fishing grounds in the strait between the two countries. There are also concerns that tension with neighboring India may affect development in Sri Lanka.

It has now been five years since the conflict ended. With the establishment of peace, domestic tension in Sri Lanka has relaxed, economic growth is steady and the country appears to be reaping other fruits of peace, though in contrast, friction remains between Sri Lanka and the international community. In the rest of this article, I would like to consider whether these five years since the end of conflict have brought development in conflict-affected areas, and what sort of challenges Sri Lanka has going forward.

Have Conflict-Affected Areas Developed?

PhotoA village in Mannar District, Northern Province.

At the end of last year, I went to Jaffna, the main city in the north, and visited two companies, one that makes fishing nets and another that produces and exports canned crab. Running at full operation, the fishing net manufacturer is looking into adding another production line in its plant, and with 100 percent of its products exported to the U.S., the crab canning company cannot keep up with incoming orders. A challenge the crab canning company faces is falling fishing catches due to the general reduction in natural resources, and they have begun efforts to hatch crab eggs and return crabs to the sea. After visiting those companies, I spoke with the head of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce, who told me that since the conflict ended, the economy growth rate in the north has posted record values for Sri Lanka each year and indicated strong confidence for continued growth there. I also had an opportunity to speak with the founder of a company that polishes and sells rice headquartered in Polonnaruwa in North Central Province. The founder told me that business has drastically expanded since the end of conflict, about ten-fold over sales during the conflict. These conversations gave me a very real sense of how steadily business has been growing in the north.

With respect to infrastructure development in the north, the Jaffna region which had depended on power generated from diesel, an independent source of energy, connected to the national power grid last year (in a cofinancing project between JICA and the Asian Development Bank), as part of a shift that is gradually bringing electricity to the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. While it is true that many areas continue to depend on wells for water, additional wells have been bored with emergency assistance, and there are now enough to ensure the minimum level of water required for living. The challenge is to boost this to more than just the minimum (a Kilinochchi water project is currently underway with grant aid).

Thanks to the efforts of aid organizations and non-governmental organizations, the country appears to have made great strides over the past five years. Right after the conflict ended, food aid and shelter were provided primarily in the form of emergency aid, but looking at the trends over the past year, there has been an accelerating focus on improving the standard of living for returnees and boosting education. There is a large gap in living standards among returnees according to when they returned, and incomes differ depending on skill in farming so that a disparity has begun to appear among people living in the same area depending on individual circumstances. Addressing such differences as well may be necessary in the future.

Challenges for Sri Lanka

What are the challenges that Sri Lanka faces as development proceeds in conflict-affected areas as described above?

First is how to stabilize conflict-affected areas. In Northern Province, the population is overwhelmingly made up of Tamils. In addition to a mixture of Tamil and Sinhalese residents, Eastern Province is characterized by a large Muslim population, so the area has the risk of both ethnic and religious antagonism.

The Government of Sri Lanka needs to seek ways to promote development that take the characteristics of conflict-affected areas into account. Due to dissatisfaction in the south with budget compilation favoring the north where fighting was heaviest, the national budget needs to be allocated in a balanced manner among the regions. The challenge of moving forward with balanced development in a way that also furthers accord between ethnic and religious groups is a priority for the Government of Sri Lanka. Through policies currently carried out such as the three-language policy (aiming to achieve an educational system taught in English, Sinhalese and Tamil) and the Divi Neguma program,[3] providing direct government assistance to small-scale farmers, the government aims to bring ethnicities and religious groups together. Attention is needed to developing support for conflict-affected areas, including execution of a development budget for the region.

JICA continues its cooperation, including infrastructure support, government official training for the northeast region and improving the standard of living. Also, JICA dispatched Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers for the Music Project. The Music Project is a non-governmental organization project in which Sinhalese and Tamil children who live in different regions are taught how to play instruments such as the violin, and then they come together a number of times each year for collaborative performances, providing local venues for adults and children alike to mingle. Post-conflict assistance and ethnic reconciliation cannot be achieved overnight but require continuous effort.

PhotoA view of Colombo.

The second challenge for Sri Lanka is how to develop certain industries. The main traditional industries in Sri Lanka are garments, tea and rubber, but due to stagnating economic growth in Europe and the U.S. in recent years, combined with a labor shortage in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka has faces serious problems. The tourism and construction industries are, however, showing activity. In Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, for example, there is a boom in hotel construction to meet the growing number of tourists. Companies experiencing this new growth may be considered a result of achieving peace. Last year, the rate in wage increase for engineers, including those in the construction industry, greatly exceeded that of other professions, leading to concerns of inadequate human resources.

The Government of Sri Lanka is proactively encouraging new industries, particularly manufacturing, to further growth in the country. Unfortunately, there has been no large scale investment from Japan in the past several years, though investment is being seen in fields where Japanese companies did not invest in the past. As an example, Rohto Pharmaceutical opened a sales office in Sri Lanka last year. They are targeting Sri Lankan consumers with a per capita gross domestic product exceeding 3,000 dollars. Such investments, with an eye also on the market in southern India are showing new possibilities.

I should note, though, that such companies are still few in number. How do Japanese companies view Sri Lanka? While there are problems, it is a safe country with good seaports, roads and other such infrastructure. Sri Lanka is attractive in terms of having a large market (including southern India) and has an abundance of biological resources. I suspect, however, that such aspects of the country are not adequately recognized by Japanese companies.

This year, JICA has dispatched an expert to the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka. If information is the key point when evaluating investment possibilities, it is hoped that the expert will provide investors with the information necessary as needed.

Expectations of Japan, an Old Friend

Some 1,200 years ago, the Japanese Buddhist monk Kukai studied reservoir technology in Sri Lanka, which was then used to restore Manno Ike, a reservoir in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. After the Second World War, Junius Jayewardene, finance minister (and subsequent prime minister), led the way to restoring Japan's place in the international community when he declined to accept reparations from Japan at the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, citing Buddha in saying, "hatred ceases not by hatred but by love." While such events may not be well known, they show that relations between Japan and Sri Lanka are far greater and deeper than generally imagined.

Maintaining the peace that has finally been achieved and using that to effectuate growth in the country through various processes, Sri Lanka will require time to solve the challenges it faces. While working through this process, Sri Lanka holds high expectations for Japan as an old friend. Building on its experiences, Japan is working to provide support for nation building. This year marks the 60th year anniversary since Japan began official development assistance (ODA) as Japan being providing international cooperation in 1954 after joining the Colombo Plan. [4]

Contributing to nation building after a conflict is a problem both old and new. In today's international community, however, the road to restoration is more complex than ever. How to face this complex problem may turn out to be the next great challenge for Japan's international cooperation, now in its sixth decade.

About the Author

Harumi Ao

Currently director general of the JICA Office of Audit, he joined the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund in 1985. After being stationed in the Beijing office, he served as the senior representative of the Jakarta office. He then worked as Public Relations Section manager in Japan, chief representative at the Kuala Lampur office and Personnel Department deputy director general in Japan. Following a post as Executive Advisor to the Director General of the Secretariat of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, he worked as chief representative of the JICA Sri Lanka Office before taking his current post in April 2014. He is from Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.


  • [1] The Commonwealth of Nations is an intergovernmental organization composed of the UK and primarily its former colonies. Including Sri Lanka, there are more than 50 member countries, including Australia, Canada, India, Kenya and Uganda.
  • [2] This constitutional amendment granted entitlements to the provinces. The national government currently still retains police and land entitlements.
  • [3] A government program for providing material assistance to impoverished farmers.
  • [4] The first international organization for providing assistance to developing nations after World War II, the Colombo Plan was formed in 1951.


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