Ambassador Dr.  Palitha Kohona visits Utah as Guest of the State Government

Ambassador Dr. Palitha Kohona, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations visited Utah State as the guest of the Utah State Government and the Utah Valley University (UVU).

He addressed the UVU international relations class on "Sri Lanka Looks Ahead - Winning the Peace" and fielded a range of questions from a packed auditorium on Sri Lanka's reconstruction and reconciliation process. There was considerable sympathetic interest demonstrated in Sri Lanka’s success in defeating a ruthless terrorist group and its reconstruction and reconciliation efforts. The University conferred a Honorary Professorship on Dr. Kohona. 

On 2 November he called on the Lieutenant Governor, Bell, and Senior Apostle of the Mormon Church, Elder Oaks. Elder Oaks was a Judge of the Supreme Court of Utah previously. Subsequently, Dr. Kohona was hosted to lunch by the President of the Brigham Young University (a large private University named after the leader of the original Mormon settler group in Utah) and the Model United Nations Class.

The following day, Dr.  Kohona was hosted to lunch by the Utah Valley World Trade Centre and the Governor's Office of Economic Development at the New Yorker Restaurant. After a stimulating information exchange with the representatives of the business community present, many participants expressed keen enthusiasm in Sri Lanka as a tourist destination and as a potential investment destination. The World Trade Centre, some of whose members are proactively seeking opportunities to expand in the Asian region, plans to send a fact finding mission to Sri Lanka in 2013. Sri Lanka’s free trade agreement with India aroused much interest.

Salt Lake City (SLC) is home to a large number of cutting edge industries in the fields of IT, medical and aviation technology, genetics, engineering, electronics, etc. Utah also boasts of a booming tourist industry with world class ski resorts (SLC hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics) and natural attractions such as the Arches National Park. The unemployment rate in the state is one of the lowest in the United States, while it escaped the worst effects of the recession. 37 countries maintain honorary consuls in Salt Lake City. Utah is predominantly Mormon and conservative.

Statement by  Ambassador

Utah Valley University
November 1, 2012
Sri Lanka Looks Ahead –  Now, to Win The Peace

Ambassador Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, New York


“Peace will not come from the mere absence of war; Peace will not come while not addressing hunger, deprivation,  marginalisation and inequality.  Peace will not come from testimony provided to truth commissions or by simply punishing the wicked for past misdeeds. Peace will dawn, when forgiveness spreads its gentle embrace to the fearful; When we treat those who harmed us with dignity and ensure an existence of contentment, equality and opportunity; Then peace will breathe freely. This is what we are seeking to achieve in Sri Lanka.”

After 27 years, Sri Lanka’s conflict ended suddenly and comprehensively on 18th May 2009.  The violence ended and, since then, not a single suicide bomb has been exploded or a gun fired in ethnic violence. This is after 236 suicide bombs had claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and maimed many more. A terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers, described by the FBI as the most ruthless and deadly terrorists in the world, was defeated militarily following a carefully managed military campaign by the security forces. Sri Lanka today is a land at peace, perhaps the most peaceful country in South Asia.  Since the end of the conflict, the government has launched a massive reconstruction and reconciliation process with a view to restoring the economy of the country and to heal the wounds of conflict - to consolidate the hard won peace. The unprecedented effort to revive the economy of the whole country – to bring prosperity to all our people, is already beginning to produce results.   Simultaneously, the government has begun a process of re-establishing and consolidating the democratic institutions and processes throughout the country while a comprehensive reconciliation programme has also been launched. It is important to remember that the scars of 27 years will take time to heal,  not just three years. 

Let us make a brief survey of Sri Lanka’s recent past. Over the years, in fact since 1985, successive governments had attempted to seek a peaceful end to the conflict, which some have attributed to ethnic grievances.  Repeated  efforts, once with the assistance of India, to engage the terrorist Tamil Tigers (also referred to as the LTTE) in a dialogue failed, as it repeatedly reneged on peace agreements and reverted to large scale terrorist attacks. In 1987, India actually sent peacekeepers to Sri Lanka following a peace accord (The Indo-Lanka Accord),  and withdrew them after losing over 1200 lives of their soldiers as the LTTE cadres confronted them militarily. The former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President Premadasa, were both blown up by LTTE suicide bombers.  In 2002, following another agreement (The Ceasefire Agreement concluded with the assistance of Norway), five rounds of abortive negotiations were conducted with the LTTE. In 2006, Government delegations met the LTTE three times, again with the assistance of the Norwegians, who were the peace facilitators. I myself led a delegation to Oslo for talks.  The President pledged in public, to meet the LTTE leader anywhere to discuss peace, but was rebuffed. Over confident of its invincibility, a view that was shared by many Western Missions in Colombo and the leader of the Scandinavian peace monitoring mission, and, well funded from overseas, the LTTE continued its campaign of horrendous violence and terrorism all over the country, including in Colombo, exacting a heavy toll on civilian lives, property and the economy. Thousands of civilians were killed or maimed in terrorist violence and the opportunity cost to the country was estimated at over $ 200 billion.  Thousands of children lost their childhood as they were recruited as child combatants by the LTTE.  Over 21,000 according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and over 5700 according to UNICEF. The overseas funds which were critical to the LTTE were collected from the Tamil expatriate community living in the West through voluntary contributions or were exacted through intimidation. This was well documented by HRW. Many fund raisers have been prosecuted and jailed in Western countries for illegal activity, including in the USA.

The need to care for the civilian population was acknowledged, even during the height of the conflict, as successive Governments, setting the tone for  post conflict reconciliation,   ensured a continuous supply of essential goods and services, such as free healthcare and education, to the Tamil civilians in the North and the East under the control of the LTTE.  For over twenty seven years, despite all the economic and logistical difficulties, Sri Lanka sent food and medical supplies to the North. Towards the final stages of the conflict, such food and medical supplies were monitored by the Committee to Coordinate Humanitarian Affairs which had representatives from major embassies and UN Agencies in Colombo.  All the schools,  hospitals and clinics in LTTE controlled areas were funded and staffed by the Government in Colombo. In addition to the various NGOs, and the bilateral aid donors that operated in LTTE controlled territory, the ICRC even had access to the LTTE’s final beachhead almost till the very end of the conflict.  The LTTE had also developed a cozy relationship with bilateral aid donors and the NGOs.

The end of the conflict, which came suddenly,  presented the government with a range of tough challenges.

1. The first and foremost was the need to restore the economy of the former conflict affected areas.  After years of conflict and LTTE control, the economy of the area was in ruins. Economic recovery was going to be fundamental to the reconciliation process.
2. Secondly, but in parallel, the government was determined to re-establish democratic institutions and conduct democratic elections which the rest of the country took for granted. Democracy would provide all Sri Lankans with the opportunity to address their grievances through dialogue.
3. Thirdly, also in parallel, a reconciliation process designed to heal the wounds of a 27 year conflict was required. This would be a difficult goal, but every effort would be made to realise this.

Economic Revival

Under the first heading the immediate priority was to deal with over 296,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). As the conflict reached a conclusion, thousands of men, women and children had been rounded up as a human shield and as a bargaining chip by the LTTE. They were forced to abandon their homes, fields and businesses. These IDPs began pouring into government controlled areas as the conflict came to an end.  Housing them, feeding them, providing healthcare and providing schooling for the children was an immediate priority. Resettling them in their own villages and towns was the next challenge. The government had the foresight to prepare orderly camps in advance to accommodate the IDPs.  A number much higher than anticipated poured into them. Many in the international community and NGos which had mysteriously demanded a ceasefire as the Tamil Tigers were falling on their knees, now raised absurd concerns of permanent concentration camps, hunger, disease and epidemics.
Despite all the reservations expressed at the time, especially by the NGO community, and the UNHCR, there was no starvation, no disease and no permanency to the camps. By June 2009, just a little more than a month after the conflict ended, the crude mortality rate in the camps was the same as elsewhere in Sri Lanka. The government established kitchens, medical facilities, proper toilets and bathing facilities in these camps.  One even had banking and postal agencies. The UN gave its stamp of approval to these facilities. The government also worked to a tight deadline to return the IDPs to their own towns and villages as this was the humane thing to do and because it was important to ensure their speedy reincorporation to the economy.  The vast majority of the IDPs were successfully returned to their villages and towns, in less than three years under the supervision of the UNHCR.  The UNHCR was the final authority to approve the conditions of return. An unprecedented achievement by any standard,  and at  enormous cost.  The cost of providing food alone to the IDPs in the camps, was in excess of  US$ 1 million a day.  The UN, the bilateral donors and the NGOs played a helpful role. Today all of the original 296,000 IDPs have returned to their towns and villages. Not necessarily to luxurious houses but to places which they can call home.  Much remains to be done. In any event, for years their villages under LTTE control were deprived of basic necessities as essential supplies were diverted to support the military effort by the LTTE.  India has  agreed to assist with the reconstruction of 43,000 houses.

Returning the IDPs to their own villages required a parallel effort to be undertaken to defuse thousands of mines, indiscriminately laid by the LTTE, and a large quantity of unexploded devices. Over 5000 square kilometers required demining. Today over 1953 of this land around human settlements has been demined, largely as a result of the efforts of the Sri Lankan Army. Demining was an essential prerequisite before the inhabitants could be returned under UNHCR supervision. More land, especially in jungle areas, remain to be demined.

The Government’s effort to return the IDPs to their homes has been comprehensive, and has included the restoration of services.  Over 1000 schools which had been abandoned or damaged during the conflict, and, all the hospitals and clinics have been restored. Now they are fully functional and are run by civilian administrators.   Children are provided with free books, uniforms and mid-day meals. Hundreds of miles of roads have been paved and power lines have been restored. The railway line linking the North to the South, which was destroyed by the LTTE,  is being restored and will be completed in 2013.  Electricity has been connected to certain villages for the first time ever. The economic revival is in full swing in the North.  Agricultural and fisheries production in the former LTTE controlled areas has continued to surge.  Irrigation canals have been restored. Over 200,000 acres of rice, vegetable and fruit, which had previously been neglected have come under the plough. With the removal of all restrictions on fishermen, an additional 87,000 tons of fish from the North and the East are now added to the market monthly, constituting 15% of the national catch. 48,000 persons are employed in fisheries related activity. Produce from the North is finding a ready market in the South. Banks have continued to expand their operations in the North.  The government has committed over $ 2.8 billion to the development of the North.  Bilateral and multilateral donors have committed approximately $ 2.4 billion.  The IMF, confident of Sri Lanka’s recovery, made available a $ 2.6 billion stand-by  loan in 2009. The results are readily visible.  New roads, electricity, water, revived villages and towns and an economically active people. Consequently there has been a surge in the economy of the North by around 27% in 2011 compared to the national average of only around 8%. Thousands of people have begun to travel from the North to the South and vice versa. Today there are no restrictions on travel to any part of the country.  51,400 foreign passport holders, mainly Sri Lankans of Tamil origin, have travelled to the North since July 2011.

In the past, economic marginalization was considered a key factor that contributed to minority disenchantment. There was a tendency among the political class to focus on the capital, Colombo, and its hinterland to the exclusion of the distant parts of the country.  The government is now clearly determined not to let this happen again.

A remarkable level of confidence has returned to the country contributing to the reconstruction effort.  This is particularly evident in the business community and the revival of business confidence has been largely independent of government involvement.  The government for its part, has firmly encouraged these economic trends. The national economy has continued to grow (8.2% in 2011). Exports expanded by 32% between 2008 and 2011 and these included key agricultural products.  The industrial sector grew by 10.3% from 2011 to 2012 and garments occupy a significant share of exports.  Unemployment is at a record low.  Inflation and interest rates could be a problem to watch out for. The record upward movement in the stock market in the first two years after the conflict and the steady inward flow of foreign investments, exceeding $ 1.06 billion, reflect business confidence.  Foreign direct investment is expected to exceed $ 1.75 billion in 2012. Inward tourism has rebounded by over 50% since January 2010 and reached 856,000 in 2012.  The World Bank has reported that in the year ending June 2012, Sri Lanka implemented the most regulatory reforms in South Asia. Bilateral trade with the US stood at around $ 2.4 billion in 2011 with the US taking over 22% of Sri Lanka’s exports. US investors are the largest component in Sri Lanka’s bond market.  Considerable interest has been shown by foreign investors, including large hotel chains. Shangrila has committed to invest over US$ 500 million in new hotels, in Sri Lanka.  

Political Revival

The restoration of the normal political processes and, in particular, democracy and the people’s right to select their new leaders has been central to the government’s efforts to return the country to normalcy.  All the while  that the North and parts of the East were dominated by the LTTE, the rest of the country continued to enjoy democracy.  Elections were held regularly and governments were elected and changed. The North remained under the iron grip of the LTTE and under one leader for almost two decades.  The restoration of democracy in the North and the East has revived political activity and opened up space for pluralistic politics in the areas formerly controlled by the Tamil tigers.    It is hoped that this process will throw up leaders through a democratic process who will represent their communities.  It is to be remembered that the dearth of leaders in the Tamil community is directly attributable to the LTTE which systematically killed all aspiring leaders who posed a challenge to the LTTE.  The Tamil National Alliance won a considerable number of seats in the North at the last local government elections.

For its part, the government has continued to enlarge its support base, winning a series of elections emphatically. The President was re-elected with over 58% of the ballots cast in 2011.  In fact, no government in Sri Lanka has enjoyed so much popular support after seven years in office.  The governing coalition won close to two thirds of the seats in the Parliament at the elections held in April 2010. Now it controls over two thirds of the seats in the Parliament as a result of defections from the opposition. The governing party is not an ethnic monolith. It contains representatives from all ethnic groups in the country, including Muslims and Tamils.  There is very little doubt that the vast majority of the people in the country, from the various ethnic groups,  are solidly behind the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and its policies.  It is a mandate that is difficult to ignore and one which has been achieved on the basis of consistent policies.

Provincial Council elections have been held in 8 provinces.  Three Provincial Council elections were held in September 2012.  Local government elections have been held throughout the country.  The government has won majorities in all the Provincial Council elections.  This was particularly significant in the Eastern Province, where the three ethnic groups are distributed in roughly equal proportion. To secure a majority, it had to count on the minorities as well. The administration of the Eastern Province consists of a coalition between the Governing Party and the Muslim party and a Muslim is the Chief Minister now.  Nobody believes that there is a magic political solution to the concerns of our minorities. There is a demand for the devolution of more powers to the Provinces. External pressure has been exerted on the government to take a more proactive lead in addressing political grievances. Political solutions have to evolve. They must be able to gather the support of all elements of the body politic.  Enforcement of political solutions devised outside, or which respond to external pressures,  may not work in our context. 


The reconciliation process, which is very complex, has been approached from a range of angles. There is no magic wand to wish away the pain and agony of 27 years. One approach used by the government is to adopt an extremely conciliatory attitude towards former combatants.  The former LTTE cadres who surrendered or were captured  (approximately 12,000) were detained at the end of the conflict. 2240 were women. They were initially separated from other IDPs, questioned and sent to rehabilitation centres.  The ICRC was given access to them and continues to be given access to those still in custody. The Government decided to treat the vast majority of these former combatants as victims of circumstances rather than as criminals to be prosecuted despite the fact that some had participated in bombings and gruesome massacres.  Consistent with our culture, forgiveness was the theme. Over 11,000 have been rehabilitated and allowed to return to their homes and communities.  This was in less than three years since the end of the conflict. In many other conflicts around the world it has taken much longer to rehabilitate captured combatants. Their rehabilitation included training in basic life skills, including technical training, farming and fisheries training, etc. A generous financial assistance scheme helps those who wish to set up small businesses. The remainder of the detainees is continuing their rehabilitation. Some of them will be prosecuted for egregious crimes. The conciliatory approach of the government carries its own risks as buried caches of weapons continue to be unearthed. 

Similarly, the reuniting of families separated by the conflict has received much attention, Over 17,000 individuals, separated from their families, have been reunited. Hundreds of children have been returned to their families consistent with the government policy of returning children to their own families, communities and schools. A family tracing and reunification unit has been established.  The ICRC, IOM and UNICEF have contributed to this process. Over 590 child combatants who surrendered were placed in the rehabilitation center in Ambepussa under the Child Protection Authority.  The UNICEF assisted significantly in this challenging task. Ambepussa received high praise from visitors, and is now closed. Its job done. The children were given vocational training, training in English and IT and counseling by professionals. Some have continued with their studies. This is an area which will benefit from more external assistance.   The centre established in Ratmalana trained children for government examinations.  Some children from Ratmalana have even succeeded in entering the universities to pursue higher studies. In recognition of the good work done, Sri Lanka was delisted from the UN Security Council list of countries under observation for the recruitment of child soldiers. This listing was originated in the 90s in response to widespread child recruitment by the LTTE. Some ex-combatants have married each other.

War widows have also been given special attention. Programmes have been launched to assist them to become independent members of the community.  A programme has been launched in the East with the assistance of an Indian NGO especially to encourage self-employment and entrepreneurship. Special measures have been taken to expand women’s and children’s help desks in local Police Stations, especially in the former conflict affected areas. Strict measures have been taken to counter sexual violence. War widows and families led by women will continue to need assistance.
Access is provided to NGOs to work in the former conflict affected areas to assist  the returnees. There are over 1350 NGOs registered in Sri Lanka and they make a useful contribution to our reconstruction efforts. Registration is not mandatory but would assist further facilitation by the Government. New INGOs are required to come with their own funding and their own programmes.  45 local NGOs, INGOs and 11 UN agencies are currently working in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka on rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes in the Northern Province.  They assist with upgrading schools, health services and village level social services.  During most of the conflict NGOs operated in the areas controlled by the terrorists.  The ICRC was present on the ground almost till the last days of the conflict.  In fact, the ICRC assisted with the evacuation of almost 15,000 individuals, which number included over 7000 injured, the sick and the pregnant.

Disarming other armed Tamil groups has been a priority. Many had carried weapons to protect themselves from the LTTE.  All of them have now been disarmed.  There is no reason for them to remain armed.  In fact many have joined the political mainstream.

The extent of the high security zones in the North and the East has been reduced dramatically.  The only remaining restrictions are limited to the Palaly airport and the Kankesanthurei harbor.  The number of troops deployed in the North has been reduced by over 21,000. The emergency regulations that existed for over 30 years, were allowed to lapse in August 2011.

Minorities have continued to prosper in majority Sinhala areas of the country, including Colombo. They have their own schools, businesses  and temples. Around 54% of Tamils live among the majority community.  Tamils constitute over 40% of the population of Colombo. Some of the leading business houses in Colombo are minority owned. Many of the leading professionals in Colombo come from the minority communities and no restrictions exist on their lives, politically, socially or economically.  The minorities are well represented in the Parliament and in the Cabinet of Ministers.

The use of the Tamil language for official purposes has given rise to much concern over the years.  The government is implementing a vigorous trilingual language policy at present. The military and the police have taken the lead in language training.  All government officers are now required to be proficient in both languages and promotions will depend on language competence.  32,000 were given training in 2012.  Similarly, large numbers of bilingual police officers have been recruited.

The Tamil community, scattered around the world, is an important factor in the reconciliation and reconstruction effort. Many of those who have returned to their villages have relatives elsewhere in the world. In fact, thousands of Tamils left for Western countries during the conflict and sought refugee status. Some supported the LTTE with funds while some procured weapons in the black market. Many of these activists have been jailed in Western countries for their illegal activities.  Large numbers have become citizens in the host countries and have begun to use their voting power to support the LTTE cause, even though the LTTE no longer exists in Sri Lanka. The government has continued to reach out to these expatriate communities encouraging them to return home and participate in the reconstruction effort. The number of Tamils returning as visitors has increased significantly.  It may take time before sufficient confidence is generated among them to participate fully in Sri Lanka’s economic revival. Special concessions are provided to those who wish to invest in the former conflict affected areas.

Examining the causes of the conflict is central to ensuring that there will be no repetition.  The Government established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) consisting of a number of eminent persons, including representatives from the minorities, with the goal of ensuring restorative justice and national reconciliation. This Commission was given a wide mandate to look into the factors that gave rise to the conflict and infractions of internationally recognized standards during the conflict, and make recommendations. The LLRC which sat in  various parts of the country, and invited anyone, including critics from abroad, to present evidence before it made over 280 recommendations.  Hundreds of persons from within and outside the country appeared before the Commission.  Over 1000 oral and 5000 written representations were received. It even invited AI, HRW and ICG to present any evidence of infractions of global standards.  These organizations jointly decided to decline this invitation.  A high level task force,  chaired by the Secretary to the President, has been appointed to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan adopted to give effect to these recommendations which number 285. Budgetary allocations have been made to ensure proper implementation. Courts of inquiry have been established into specific allegations of wrongdoing by members of the Army and the Navy.  The Attorney-General is assisting the Police with inquiries relating to any breaches of the criminal law.  A National Action Plan on human rights has been adopted.

The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary disappearances has engaged with successive governments on the question of disappearances.  Many of those who have been reported as  disappeared have migrated to other countries through clandestine means. A centralized database of missing persons has been established.

The political grievances of the minorities also have to be addressed as Sri Lanka seeks reconciliation.  The government has had talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the major Tamil political party.  But the TNA has stayed away from the talks in recent months and has become increasingly intransigent.  Although, it commands considerable support, it has to be remembered that the TNA is not the only political party representing the Tamil minority.  There are many and some command wide support.  In addition, the Tamils are not the only minority.  The Muslims constitute 7.9% of the population.  In the Eastern Province, they are the majority.  In the circumstances, it would be impossible for the reconciliation talks to focus simply on Tamil grievances. A Parliamentary Select Committee has been established to achieve multi-party consensus on any constitutional changes.

The distribution of political power is another area that is focusing the attention of the Government.  Under the constitution the power enjoyed by the Central Government and the Provinces are delineated.  Some powers are exercised concurrently by the Centre and the Provinces.  There is a demand by the TNA that some of these powers, in particular, police powers and powers over land be given to the Provinces. Not all Provinces agree with these demands and it is doubtful whether majority of the population will agree with it.

A vexing issue, as reconciliation is pursued, relates to land. In the early 1990s, the LTTE forcibly evicted thousands of Sinhalese and Muslims from the North and redistributed their properties to “Mahavir” families (families of heroes).  Now that the terrorist LTTE is not there, the original owners of these properties are seeking their return. This has given rise to a series of complex issues. The LLRC has  favoured  establishing  land  courts to   adjudicate   disputes relating to such   land in  an  equitable manner.  But   this will   remain a major  challenge as the government pushes ahead with its reconciliation efforts. 

Sri Lanka is at a critical juncture in its history and has a unique opportunity to bring its people together and make their island home a better place for all.  I am confident that we will deal with the aftermath of our victory over terrorism in a manner that will ensure peace and prosperity to all.

“Peace will not come from the mere absence of war; Peace will not come while not addressing hunger, deprivation,  marginalisation and inequality.   Peace will not come from testimony provided to truth commissions or by simply punishing the wicked for past misdeeds. Peace will dawn, when forgiveness spreads its gentle embrace to the fearful; When we treat those who harmed us with dignity and ensure an existence of contentment, equality and opportunity; Then peace will breathe freely. This is what we are seeking to achieve in Sri Lanka.”


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