Sri Lanka

Reconciliation through trade

GIZ is helping to ensure that entrepreneurs from two ethnic groups in Sri Lanka now do business together.

Timot Szent-Ivanyi
Thomas L. Kelly

Wijaya Kumara does not mince his words when asked what he used to think of Tamils: ‘Very dangerous people, criminals the lot of them.’ Wijaya laughs, then looks across to his counterpart, a little nervously because he has spoken so openly. But Shanmugam Gnanachandran is thinking something similar: ‘I could never have imagined sitting down to talk with a Sinhalese,’ he says. 

Shanmugam Gnanachandran (left) and Wijaya Kumara
Shanmugam Gnanachandran (left) and Wijaya Kumara

The two men are standing in a small hut on the outskirts of the northern provincial town of Kilinochchi. With the monsoon rains hammering down on the tin roof, the garden is quickly transformed into a quagmire. The hut is filled with the intense aroma of spices. The men reach into the large sacks standing in the corner. Carefully, they run their fingers through the contents, checking to see that the cinnamon, cardamom pods and chillies are fresh.

Business partners and friends

What the two men were once never able to imagine, after the decades of bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, is today reality: Wijaya, the Sinhalese from the south of the country, and Shanmugam, the Tamil from the north, are not only business partners, they are also friends. The catalyst for this was a programme implemented by GIZ, which cleverly combines two objectives: providing support for small and medium-sized enterprises, while at the same time promoting the reconciliation process between once bitterly opposed ethnic groups. The programme was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

To the outsider, Sri Lanka appears an earthly paradise with its tropical beaches, impenetrable forests sheltering elephants and leopards, mountains lined with endless tea plantations, and vast plains of lush green rice fields. The people are friendly and keen to help. But those travelling the country with a watchful eye will still see the scars of a civil war that tore apart the country formerly known as Ceylon between 1983 and 2009 and claimed the lives of up to 100,000 people – a bombed-out water tower, perhaps, a charred ruin or sign warning of land mines.

Thousands of civilians were killed

For centuries, the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese lived peacefully side by side on this small island. Following the end of British colonial rule, however, the Tamils suffered persistent discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority, and aspirations for autonomy in the north began to grow. The conflict between the armed forces and Tamil separatists representing the organisation that called itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) escalated in 1983. The LTTE took control of the north and northeast, while the Government in Colombo controlled the rest of the country. In 2009, the armed forces successfully defeated the LTTE in a major offensive. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and the entire LTTE command echelon was eradicated.

Although visible traces of the war have been removed, the population’s scars are far from healed. The UN Human Rights Council accuses both sides of having committed very serious human rights violations during the war, but so far, there has been no attempt either to investigate these crimes or to punish the perpetrators. The new Government under President Maithripala Sirisena is committed to reconciliation. It is now permitted, for example, to sing the national anthem in Tamil. But these are tiny steps: there remains an invisible line that separates Sinhalese and Tamils. 

The business partners with two of Shanmugam Gnanachandran's employees
The business partners with two of Shanmugam Gnanachandran's employees

Promoting the reconciliation process is therefore the overarching objective of all GIZ activities in Sri Lanka. ‘The people are hungry for reconciliation,’ says GIZ Country Director Randa Kourieh-Ranarivelo. In all its projects, GIZ aims to bring people from the various ethnic groups together. A few years ago an innovative idea was developed: entrepreneurs from the north and the south of the island were invited to come together for a few days with the aim of fostering new business relationships.

‘Hungry for reconciliation’

Wijaya and Shanmugam first met and befriended one another at one of these workshops. For years, Wijaya sold Palmyra palm syrup, while in the north, Shanmugam traded spices. Together, they hatched a business plan which offered benefits for both parties: using the railway line rebuilt in 2015, the Sinhalese entrepreneur now sends cardamom, cinnamon and other southern spices northwards to be sold by his Tamil partner and ships sesame oil and chilli peppers in the opposite direction. The partners share the profits from sales.

‘By working in this way, we have doubled our incomes,’ the two men explain with visible pride. They now earn 70,000 Sri Lankan rupees per month, equivalent to around EUR 450 – a not inconsiderable sum by Sri Lankan standards. Shanmugam employs six workers to pack the spices into small bags. As he tells his partner, he will soon increase that number to eight. 

 Picture gallery

A few kilometres away there is another good example of  the importance of maintaining a focus on the idea of reconciliation. 23-year-old Kartikka Sountharrajah sits in a classroom mulling over some mathematical exercises. She is a vocational education teacher for information technology at the recently opened Sri Lanka-German Training Institute (SLGTI). Construction of this, the largest TVET facility in the north of Sri Lanka, was financed by KfW Development Bank. GIZ supports the training of teaching staff and operation of the facility on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. SLGTI was modelled on the German Technical Training Institute (known as ‘German Tech’) in Moratuwa, south of Colombo, which was also set up with German support 50 years ago and has become an integral part of life in Sri Lanka. The new school in Kilinochchi currently accommodates almost 300 young students from all over Sri Lanka.

Learning together

In Kartikka’s class, Tamils and Sinhalese sit side by side. For Kartikka, a Tamil, this is particularly exciting. During the war she lived with her family in the northern provincial town of Jaffna. With the region occupied and sealed off by the army, it was virtually impossible for residents to leave the area. ‘The only Sinhalese I saw when I was young were in the army,’ she explains. She didn’t leave the area for the first time until 2009. And how does she get on now with the Sinhalese in her class? ‘They’re really nice,’ she says. And there are things she can learn from them: ‘Sinhalese boys and girls are allowed to do a lot together, even if they’re not married. Parents are much more relaxed in that respect,’ Kartikka explains; ‘I wish it were the same for us.’ Once she completes her training, she is determined to go to the capital Colombo to find work.

For a young woman from the provinces, that may not sound particularly surprising. But Kumudhini Rosa of GIZ puts this step-change in development into its proper context. She explains how in 2012, when the first group of Tamil vocational trainees travelled to Colombo, they were afraid to get off the bus for fear of being beaten to death by Sinhalese. Such fears no longer exist, but the divisions are still evident on occasions. Asked ‘Would you marry a Sinhalese?’, Kartikka looks horrified. Never, she says, not with the best will in the world.

Overcoming the divide

Wijaya and Shanmugam, the successful spice traders, seem to have made greater progress than most of their fellow Sri Lankans. On this occasion, Wijaya has travelled the 450 kilometres from the southern tip of the island to Kilinochchi with his wife and children. The two families wanted to spend a few days together. As they sit drinking tea, they talk about the past. Kilinochchi was at the heart of a combat zone, and Shanmugam and his family were evacuated and forced to spend a long time in a refugee camp. ‘By the end of the war, we had nothing left,’ he recalls. He was even forced to sell his wife’s gold earrings in order to provide for his family and set himself up in the spice trade. ‘It’s fantastic that today we work together,’ he says, putting his arm around the shoulders of the man he now sees as a brother. The two partners sit down to discuss their latest plans: to expand their joint business into the lucrative tea trade.


For trade: German Müller >

For TVET: Kumudhini Rosa >

May 2017

More on