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Sri Lankan president urges expatriates to help

Flush from a military victory over Tamil separatists, the Sri Lankan president wants expatriates to join in rebuilding effort.

COLOMBO // The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, flush from a stunning military victory over Tamil separatist rebels who had resisted government forces for nearly 30 years, wants Sri Lankan expatriates to keep their faith in the motherland and support its post-conflict development. Mr Rajapaksa has summoned a meeting on November 14 and 15 of Sri Lankan expatriates in Colombo at his official residence to discuss ways in which they could help in post-conflict development, especially in the banking, finance, investment and tourism sectors, his spokesperson said.

Soon after government troops swept past the rebels in a crushing victory in May, Mr Rajapaksa called on the more than two million Sri Lankans domiciled abroad to help in the country's development after years of destruction. But this is the first time the president is putting his words into actions. "We are making all the arrangements and expect between 150 to 200 expatriates for the conference," said Chandrapala Liyanage, the chief organiser of the conference and media director at the president's office. Sri Lankan missions overseas have been promoting the meeting since it was announced about two months ago.

Mr Liyanage, a close aide to the president who recently returned after a stint as minister-counsellor at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Italy, said: "There are many Sri Lankans who would like to help their country. We are planning to set up a network of Sri Lankans prepared to help in the country's development." Analysts said governance and restoring credibility with the international community are prerequisites for an initiative like this to work.

"There is a pressing urgency to restore our credibility with the international community. Expatriates can be used as ambassadors but that would happen only if the democratic institutions are free to operate and there is no media suppression," said a Colombo business leader, who asked not to be named for fear of antagonising the authorities. The media have been under threat for many years while the police and many government departments are seen as appendages of the ruling party.

Relations between Sri Lanka and the West have soured since Mr Rajapaksa refused to bow to calls by the West to avoid civilian casualties in the last stages of the 25-year conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels. The UN estimates that about 7,000 civilians were killed and more than 13,000 were injured during the final months of fighting this year. Sri Lanka's military has said it lost 5,000 men in more than two and a half years of fighting since 2006.

Last week, the US state department issued a report citing several cases of human rights violations and is calling for an independent inquiry. The Sri Lankan government has said it would set up its own inquiry panel. Trade concessions have also entered the picture with the European Community saying Sri Lanka has failed to implement some key UN conventions on human rights and its exporters now risk losing tax-free exports to the EU. A final decision on this is due in December.

Athula Ranasinghe, the head of the economics department at the University of Colombo, believes expatriates can play at least three key roles - invest in the stock market, apply their human capital, knowledge and skills to rebuild Sri Lanka, and function as "peace diplomats". Dayan Jayatilleka, the former Sri Lankan ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, agreed that expatriates could put the knowledge and skills they have picked up in developed countries to good use in Sri Lanka. He also said the community could work as a bridge between Sri Lanka and the international community and try to counter the influential pro-Tamil lobby, especially in the West.

He added that the government needed to improve its image to attract the support of young Sri Lankans abroad, who were mostly multi-ethnic, multicultural and high achieving. A Tamil journalist said Mr Rajapaksa's call for expatriate involvement in Sri Lanka was unlikely to garner much interest among Tamils. "There may be a few who would get involved but the mass of Tamils living abroad would, if ever, get directly involved in Tamil-controlled areas through local bodies and groups," he said.

The journalist recalled an extensive programme for expatriate Tamils to help develop their hometowns during the 2002-04 peace process, when peace talks were held between the government and the rebels. At that time, the now-banned Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation invited dozens of Tamil expatriates to work in projects in northern Sri Lanka, where most of the minority Tamil population lives and steer the development there. Many projects were on the drawing board and expatriates set up a plush office in the town of Kilinochchi, once the headquarters of Tamil rebels. Since then the rebels have lost all their territory, the organisation has been banned both in Sri Lanka and the United States as a rebel front and the government is now in full control of administration and development of Tamil-dominated areas.

The Colombo business leader said expatriates could also play a useful role by exerting pressure on the government to improve the rule of law in Sri Lanka and tackle rampant corruption and nepotism in government and public sector bodies. "This is the best they can do for the land of their birthright now," he said. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae