AFTER THE WAR WITH THE TIGERS
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: After the announcement of victory, there were fireworks in Colombo, the nation’s capital, and across Sinhalese Sri Lanka. In an address to Parliament on May 19th,” Prime Minister Mahinda “Rajapaksa declared a national holiday. “We have liberated the whole country from L.T.T.E. terrorism,” he said. “Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the L.T.T.E. We all must now live as equals in this free country.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
“Rajapaksa is a veteran politician with a commanding physical presence, a trademark smile, and a folksy charisma, which his admirers liken to that of the late Ronald Reagan. In office since 2005, he seized on the mood of national euphoria that followed his war victory to call an early election last January, in which he was duly reëlected to a new five-year term. Rajapaksa is the son of a well-known politician, but his family comes from a village in the deep south of the country, rather than from Colombo’s Western-educated élite; in Sri Lanka’s highly stratified society, they are considered nouveau-riche upstarts. He has made his rusticity a political asset, however, and he enjoys a huge following among rural Sinhalese. One of his brothers, Gotabaya, is his defense minister; another, Basil, is his chief of staff and minister for economic development; and a third, Chamal, is Speaker of Parliament. His twenty-four-year-old son Namal was recently elected to Parliament, and forty-odd additional brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, and in-laws hold various other government posts.
“After the war, Rajapaksa’s government adopted a posture of triumphalism at home and defensive resentment of the outrage that the carnage had caused abroad. When the U.N. created an “accountability panel,” government-sponsored rioters mobbed its headquarters in Colombo, forcing it to close. Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London complained to me that his country was being unfairly singled out: “Colombia has been contaminating the world for years with its cocaine, and now Somalia is with its piracy. What do we hear about that in the U.N.? Nothing.” The important thing, he said, was that Sri Lanka had ended terrorism, making it the first country in the modern age to have done so. In military circles around the world, the “Sri Lanka option” for counter-insurgency was discussed with admiration. Its basic tenets were: deny access to the media, the United Nations, and human-rights groups; isolate your opponents, and kill them as quickly as possible; and segregate and terrify the survivors — or, ideally, leave no witnesses at all.”
Sri Lanka Grapples with War's Aftermath
Emily Wax wrote in theWashington Post: “Every 15 minutes, Sri Lankan state television halts its normal programming to broadcast patriotic images of women in lush tea fields at sunrise, workers building power lines, and troops standing guard, all accompanied by a soaring anthem in which a young beauty calls for the country's president to be crowned king. [Source: Emily Wax Washington Post, May 24, 2009]
“On the streets of the capital, billboards proclaim, "King Mahinda Rajapaksa: He saved us" beneath a photograph of the president hugging his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's defense minister, and apparently glorying in the military victory that last week ended a quarter-century of war with the Tamil Tiger separatists. "Everyone's heartbeat is just like my song and the billboards," said Saheli Rochana Gamage, 21, whose rendition of the anthem has made her a celebrity in this small Indian Ocean island nation. "He should be our president forever. We are happy with a king who can protect our country. Elections don't matter."
“At a time when insurgencies elsewhere seem to be expanding, notably in Afghanistan, the Rajapaksa brothers were able to do what five Sri Lankan presidents, eight governments, and more than 10 cease-fires could not: win a war against a movement that the FBI has called "the most ruthless and efficient terror organization in the world." Despite the elation, the human cost of their accomplishment is also becoming clear: Power has been consolidated around a ruling family, a humanitarian crisis looms, and civil rights and media freedoms have been rolled back.
“Perhaps the most pressing problem is the situation of more than 280,000 people, mostly Tamils, who have been driven from their homes in recent months, many of them traumatized women and children who were used as human shields or forced to huddle in trenches or the jungle during fighting. They are now living in overcrowded, highly controlled government-run camps, fenced in by barbed wire. Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads, many here say. "Sri Lanka has won the war. But now they have to win the peace, which is a very difficult challenge," said Erik Solheim, Norway's minister for international development, who worked for 10 years with the warring parties and brokered a failed cease-fire in 2002. The government must make all communities feel they are Sri Lankans, he said. "They also have to share local power in the north where many of the Tamils live," Solheim added. "The president will have to rise to the occasion.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Rajapaksa the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies needed immediate and unimpeded access to camps that are housing 290,000 people who escaped rebel-held areas as a military onslaught bore down on the separatists. Human rights groups are concerned about a number of children allegedly abducted from the camps by progovernment Tamil paramilitary groups and questioned about links to the Tamil Tiger rebels, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The fate of many young Tamil Tiger fighters who surrendered is also unknown. The camps are closed to journalists and Tamil political leaders. The United States and Britain, two key members of the International Monetary Fund, have said they will link the release of a $1.9 billion bailout loan to improvements in Sri Lanka's treatment of war-displaced civilians.
After the war ended in May 2009, nearly 300,000 displaced Tamil civilians were held in overcrowded government camps in the north, vulnerable to outbreaks of disease during the rainy season. Meenakshi Ganguly wrote in Foreign Affairs: “The mainly Sinhalese military sprawls on land that once belonged to the Tamil community — it had been held by the LTTE for decades — while displaced villagers barely eke out a living nearby. They are also reminders of the terrifying last months of the war. [Source: Meenakshi Ganguly, Foreign Affairs, February 19, 2016]
“As the Sri Lankan army advanced on the area in 2008, it pushed the LTTE back into an increasingly small space. Government forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, sometimes using heavy artillery. In 2009, as the territory controlled by the LTTE shrank, the government declared several “safe zones,” in which civilians could supposedly seek shelter. But government forces continued attacking these areas, justifying the strategy by claiming that the LTTE had deliberately moved into protected zones. Civilians recall scrambling for shelter and ending up crouched in low trenches on the beach, with just palm fronds for cover. Thousands of Tamil families — some voluntarily, some against their will — thus found themselves stuck with the dwindling LTTE forces on a narrow strip of land on Sri Lanka's northeastern coast. The LTTE used them as human shields, even shooting some of those who tried to flee from the war zone to government-held territory.
After the war ended, nearly 300,000 Tamils who had been caught up in the fighting were detained in military-guarded camps in the four northern districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna, and Trincomalee. The military sifted through them to identify LTTE combatants. As non-militant families gradually began to return to their villages, many found that their homes had been destroyed or that their farmland was now part of a closed military zone, leaving thousands without shelter. Some sought refuge with relatives. Others were relieved to accept one of the 50,000 “Indian” cottages.
“Many of the Tamils we met openly criticized the LTTE, which dragged them and their children into the war. Former combatants do not appear to be particularly popular. One Tamil woman laughed and said that the senior LTTE cadre used to be bullies with guns, but now that they have been defeated, people like to see them isolated.”
Tamil Territory After the Defeat of the Tigers
In 2011, Krishan Francis of Associated Press wrote: “The roadblocks have been dismantled, the sandbags removed, and Sri Lanka is again a palm-fringed tourist paradise, the government says. But for ethnic Tamils living in the former war zone, it is still a hell of haunted memories, military occupation and missing loved ones.Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, and no effort has been made to reunite families separated” by the war. [Source: Krishan Francis, Associated Press, August 10, 2011]
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “With the Tigers’ defeat at Mullaittivu, all of Sri Lanka’s territory came under government control for the first time in nearly thirty years. In the north and east, the Army occupied the land, pursuing a kind of clear-and-hold strategy, in which it herded the Tamil inhabitants into a series of Army-run “welfare camps” — essentially military prisons — and did not allow them out until they were deemed harmless. The camps initially held three hundred and twenty thousand Tamil civilians; an estimated twelve thousand Tigers were kept in separate facilities. With the north largely emptied out and the sites of the fiercest fighting off limits to all but military personnel, secrecy descended over the former Tiger territory. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
“The military prohibited access to the north to all foreigners without special permits, but a Tamil social worker, whom I will call Siva, agreed to take me through the less guarded back roads of the Vanni. We set out by jeep for Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ former capital. There were Army bivouacs every hundred yards or so, and larger military camps every few miles. The soldiers scrutinized us closely as we drove by, but allowed us through the roadblocks. The Vanni was a wasteland of low bushes and fallow farms and a succession of war-ruined hamlets.
“We stopped in one tiny fishing village: a welter of roofless houses, trash-strewn sand, and scrubby trees — and an Army post. The hundred-odd families there had been released from the detention camps five months earlier, and were now living in lean-tos made out of sheet metal or U.N.-issue blue plastic; some had fenced themselves in with woven palm palisades. No one in the community spoke Sinhala, and the soldiers did not speak Tamil; the community leader told Siva that they wanted someone to be sent to live with them who could talk to the soldiers on their behalf. In the past few nights, someone had tried to break into a number of homes, and the villagers believed it was Sinhalese soldiers. “We don’t know if they are trying to steal or if they are looking for women to rape,” the community leader said.
“It was one of many allegations of rape I heard. Over the years, groups like the Asian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International have documented numerous cases in which Sinhalese soldiers raped Tamil women and girls. In the cell-phone video from Mullaittivu, the soldiers appraise the dead women and make lewd comments that strongly suggest that they have been sexually assaulted.”
Rebuilding in the Tamil Areas
Meenakshi Ganguly wrote in Foreign Affairs: “The causeway that links northern Sri Lanka’s mainland to Mannar Island is lined with vast military barracks. They have a nicely settled air about them, with painted flowerpots out front and T-shirts drying on clotheslines. Between the army camps are red-roofed cottages peeping through coconut groves and forests. There are no paved walkways — just dust, mud, and some scraggly vegetable patches. They are part of a housing project that the Indian government funded to rehabilitate those displaced by Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war, which raged between 1983 to 2009 and saw the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unsuccessfully attempt to forge an independent Tamil nation alongside the Sinhalese majority state. [Source: Meenakshi Ganguly, Foreign Affairs, February 19, 2016]
“ Signs of progress were everywhere. The roads were freshly paved, and bridges had been rebuilt. Banks have opened branches, shopping malls are being planned, and resorts for tourists are in the works...In Ganeshapuram in Mannar district, 71 houses are allocated to families of the injured and the dead. To get to the desolate settlement, we had to drive past an army camp, which included a lovely coconut grove. Life is hard, one woman told us, as she proudly showed her vegetable garden, a patch of green barely taking root in the dust. Like in Sri Lanka today, such signs of hope need nurturing.
United States ambassador, Robert O. Blake told the New York Times: “The concern is that with military success there is a growing Sinhalese chauvinism and certain hard-line Sinhalese elements in government that say the government does not need to devolve any power to the Tamils...Essentially, to the victor go the spoils.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 21, 2009]
Meenakshi Ganguly wrote in Foreign Affairs:“Plenty of the people we talked to also despaired over the Sinhala triumphalism that followed the defeat of the LTTE. Rather than national reconcilation, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government behaved as if it were not the LTTE that was defeated but the entire Tamil population. The army set up numerous checkpoints in Tamil areas and instituted intrusive surveillance. Tamils lived with the constant threat of arbitrary arrest and abuse. They spoke of the ubiquitous white vans, civilian vehicles used by security forces to abduct suspected LTTE supporters, who were then brutally tortured in custody. Memorials to fallen LTTE fighters were reduced to rubble and commemorations were banned. It was awful, a Tamil woman recalled. “They came to celebrate the bravery of their dead, while we couldn’t even mourn for our lost ones.” [Source: Meenakshi Ganguly, Foreign Affairs, February 19, 2016]
“The Sri Lankan government has a historic opportunity to mend a nation broken by war. But it will only succeed if accountability triumphs over old distrust. To be sure, Rajapaksa’s behavior did not cost him popularity with Sri Lanka’s non-Tamil population. And he might have governed for years as the man who ended a 26-year war. It is widely presumed that there were instances of human rights violations and war crimes during the civil war. The Rajapaksa government refused to seriously investigate these claims, and it asserted there were zero civilian casualties. It also accused domestic and international rights monitors of being LTTE supporters.”
The Crisis Group reported: President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s authoritarian and Sinhalese nationalist post-war policies are undermining prospects for reconciling Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, weakening democracy for all Sri Lankans and increasing the risk of a return to violent conflict. Two years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is further from reconciliation than ever. Triumphalist in its successful “war on terror”, the Rajapaksa government has refused to acknowledge, let alone address, the Tamil minority’s legitimate grievances against the state. The regime destroyed the Tigers by rejecting the more conciliatory approach of prior governments and adopting the insurgents’ brutality and intolerance of dissent. Now, contrary to the image it projects, the government has increasingly cut minorities and opponents out of decisions on their economic and political futures rather than work toward reconciliation. As power and wealth is concentrated in the Rajapaksa family, the risks of renewed conflict are growing again. [Source: Crisis Group, 18 July 2011]
“Much has improved with the end of the war in May 2009. The paralysing threat of suicide attacks on civilians in the south has ended with the destruction of the LTTE, while Tamil families no longer fear the Tigers’ forced recruitment of their children and other abuses. Economic and political security is better for some segments of society. But decades of political violence and civil war have polarised Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities and undermined institutions, particularly those involved in law and order. Each of the major ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – has suffered immensely. Conflicts have not just left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or displaced but have also entrenched fears and misunderstandings in each community.”
Resentments Among Tamils
Reporting from Batticaloa, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: “The homeless Tamil refugees camped in shanties here provide a hint of the difficulties and divisions that lie ahead as the Sri Lankan government fights what it says is a final battle to end a 25-year separatist insurgency. Ethnic Tamils who fled an earlier round of fighting three years ago, the refugees still live in uncertainty, surrounded by barbed wire, and their resentment against the majority-Sinhalese government has grown. “If they won’t let us go back to our land, then cancel our citizenship and send us to another country,” said Chitharaval Somasundara, 55, who was once a farmer. “For us Tamils, this is the way it is,” he said. “For Sinhalese this would not happen.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 21, 2009]
“Though it appears to be on the verge of crushing the insurgency on the battlefield, diplomats and other analysts say, the government’s military offensive may only be causing more resentment among the Tamils and sowing the seeds of future unrest. And many say the government, by using fear and violence to quash a free press and civil liberties in what it says is part of its war effort, is undermining democratic freedoms and transforming Sri Lanka into a more repressive and intolerant nation.
“To end the violence and secure a more stable peace, political analysts say, the government must do more than it has to address the long-running grievances and ethnic antagonisms that lie at the heart of the conflict. “Its first challenge is the endgame, they say: a military offensive that spares civilian lives and a resettlement program for tens of thousands of displaced people that will not breed further resentment.
Challenge of Administering the Tamil Areas
Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: The government must fill a power vacuum in the north, the Tamils’ base, with a credible local administration that can keep the peace while overseeing huge reconstruction projects after 25 years of war. And, some say, Sri Lanka must fully put into effect a largely dormant law on regional autonomy that would allow Tamils and others a degree of flexibility in meeting local needs. “It is yet unclear how the government and the Sinhala-dominated military will deal with these issues,” wrote Nadeeka Withana, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, in a commentary last week. “Confidence-building measures will take years to be effective and requires resources and a strong political will.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 21, 2009]
“A largely Sinhalese police force patrols a Tamil population, often unable to communicate in a common language. “The fear is there,” said a woman who owns a guesthouse and insisted that her name not be used. “Even now I am scared to speak.” The fear among many people here is that the government’s “radiation treatment” will become permanent. “It would be against all known norms of human nature to put the gun down when it’s the easiest way to curb dissent or alternate views,” said Lal Wickramatunga, the managing editor of The Sunday Leader, an English-language weekly newspaper.
“In the short term, at least, it appears that the government will keep Sri Lanka on something of a war footing, guarding against possible violence by remnants of the insurgency as well as against opposition by the press and civil society. The Defense Ministry announced this month that no public gatherings could be held without its approval. “Once this terrorism problem, which lasted for 30 years, is completed, we have to enter the next episode of it,” Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said March 12. He is a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “The war is like a cancer,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said. “Even after curing a cancer, there is a period for radiation treatment. It is same with the war on terrorism. After crushing terrorism, we have to embark on the next mission of creating a situation where incidents such as the one that occurred in Akuressa should not happen.” He was referring to a suicide bombing two days earlier in southern Sri Lanka, far from the conflict area, that killed 15 people and wounded at least 40, including a cabinet minister. It seemed to show that even with their fighters under pressure in the north, the Tamil rebels continued to be able to mount terrorist attacks elsewhere.
War Is Over but the Conflict Is Not
Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: Most broadly, the analysts say, the government must find ways to ease divisions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who make up 12 percent of the population of 21 million and have been marginalized by laws on language and religion and by ethnic preferences in education and government jobs. “My hope,” said the United States ambassador, Robert O. Blake, “is that with the end of fighting the president will really reach out to the Tamil and Muslim communities and give his vision of a united Sri Lanka that will include a measure of dignity and respect and a level of autonomy for them in the geographic areas in which they predominate across the country.”
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “Is it over?” I asked a Sinhalese politician in Colombo. “The war is over, but the conflict is not,” he replied. “The problem goes beyond the existence of the L.T.T.E. The problem is that this country does not accommodate its minorities well.” Several of Sri Lanka’s governments had attempted to make political accommodations to the Tamils, he said, but Sinhalese nationalists had always vetoed them. “This is the perfect time to offer an accommodation to the moderate Tamils who have rejected violence.” But, he said, “I think Rajapaksa will not make conciliatory gestures, because he is himself an ardent Sinhala nationalist.” The politician explained that he needed to speak off the record, because, although he knew Rajapaksa personally, it would be “counterproductive” to voice his criticisms publicly. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
By the second anniversary of the war’s end, the Army’s “welfare camps” had been largely emptied out. But many of the Tamils I encountered felt that the peace was perilously fragile. In an eastern town called Vakarai, a Tamil youth leader who went by the name Prabhakaran told me, “We only hope the international community can bring pressure to bear on the government, because a dignified and honorable solution is necessary for the Tamil people.” Without it, he said, “we cannot say that a second war will not come. It will bring great destruction if and when it happens.”
In Lasantha Wickrematunge’s posthumous editorial, published four months before the Tigers were crushed at Mullaittivu, he wrote, “There is no gainsaying that [the Tigers] must be eradicated.” But, he argued, a “military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self-respect. Do not imagine you can placate them by showering ‘development’ and ‘reconstruction’ on them in the postwar era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will have an even more bitter and hateful diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity.”
Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times a few days after the war endedBatticaloa, a city on Sri Lanka’s eastern shore, was freed from Tamil control two years ago and is an example, in the eyes of the government, of postwar reconstruction. Infrastructure is being rebuilt and central government control has been restored. But it is a cold peace, with police checkpoints in the town center, armed thugs prowling back streets and continuing reports of abductions and disappearances. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 21, 2009]
Meenakshi Ganguly wrote in Foreign Affairs seven years after the war ended :“For now, victims are distraught. Families of the disappeared are still looking for their loved ones, visiting officials to plead their cases, and appearing before commissions. A government-appointed task force on consultations on transitional justice issues has made little headway. These victims need urgent assistance and counseling. The injured need rehabilitation. “There are so many with no legs, no arms, no eyes,” one activist said. With many of the men dead, missing, or detained after the conflict, a large number of households are headed by women. Resettled into housing projects, they are struggling to make ends meet. [Source: Meenakshi Ganguly, Foreign Affairs, February 19, 2016]
“But meeting those immediate needs is not enough. Victims also need justice and accountability. Ananthi Sasitharan, a member of the northern provincial council, told us that her husband, a senior LTTE official, is still missing nearly seven years after he surrendered. “The government still needs to remember the root causes that led to the mass killings. The army is still occupying our land. People are fearful. Justice is what we want. Livelihood is what we need.”
On situation in the north and east in 2011, The Crisis Group reported: Many households are now headed by women, who are extremely vulnerable under military rule. Much of the aid promised has not arrived, and all is strictly controlled by the military. Over two thirds of the nearly 300,000 displaced civilians interned in the north at the end of the war have been sent home, but mostly to areas devoid of the most basic amenities. Another 180,000 of those and others displaced in prior stages of the war are still in camps or other temporary settings. Of the 12,000 or more alleged LTTE cadres detained at the end of the war, 3,000 are still undergoing “rehabilitation”. Hundreds more LTTE suspects, many detained for years without charge, are held separately. There is little transparency about the numbers or identities of post-war detainees, and upon release, many are closely monitored and harassed or pressured to act as informants. Families throughout the north and east are still searching for missing relatives. [Source: Crisis Group, 18 July 2011]
Erasing All Signs of the Tamil Tigers
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “During the war, signs of the Tigers’ presence were ubiquitous in Tamil areas. Throughout the north, hand-painted billboards advertised their sacrifices on behalf of their people. One of them showed two Tamil mothers, both wondering where their daughters were. On the left side of the billboard, one of the daughters, an adolescent girl in pigtails and a pink dress, is depicted in three panels. In the first, she is at home alone, meekly receiving three armed government soldiers. In the second, she looks out through the bars of a jail cell. In the third, her pink skirt and legs protrude from a bush, while the soldiers dig a shallow grave. On the right side, the other daughter, wearing tiger-striped camouflage, looks strong and determined; she wields a weapon during combat in the jungle, and steers a Sea-Tiger launch on the ocean. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
“Now the Army had methodically erased all traces of the Tigers in the north. Kilinochchi’s cemetery had been totally eradicated. Pointing to mounds of broken gravestones and piles of rubble, Siva explained, “The Army has come along and just bulldozed them.” In the center of Kilinochchi, the Army had erected a victory monument: a giant concrete cube with a bullet hole cracking its fascia and a lotus flower rising from the top. Soldiers stood at attention before a marble plinth, whose inscription extolled the Rajapaksas’ leadership during “a humanitarian operation which paved the way to eradicate terrorism entirely from our motherland, restoring her territorial integrity and the noble peace.”
“Though the Rajapaksa government denies plans for the “Sinhalization” of the north and east, it has done little to assuage the Tamils’ fears. These anxieties are fuelled by a sense of communal humiliation. During a stop at a friend’s house in Kilinochchi, Siva complained of “seeing soldiers everywhere, occupying our places. But people are resigned. They feel they can’t fight the Army presence anymore.” His friend added that he had heard a local Tamil vegetable seller calling out in Sinhala. When he asked why, the vender told him, “Tamil has no place now.”
Will the Sinhalese Take Over the Tamil North?
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “President Rajapaksa had described his postwar vision as “one nation, one people” — in which no single ethnic group would lay claim over any part of the land — and called for “economic development and prosperity” as the route to reconciliation. But many Tamils believed that this was simply the first step toward complete Sinhalese domination. Without the Tigers to defend the land, the government would flood the north and east with Sinhalese soldiers and their families; much as China did in Tibet, they would weaken the Tamil claim on the region with unrelenting force and by diluting the population. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
“ We drove north on the main road from Colombo to Jaffna, the historic capital of the Tamils. The road had been reopened to the public for the first time in years; the British-era railway, whose rails and wooden ties had been torn up and used as bunker reinforcements by the Tigers, was also being rebuilt. Cafés and picnic grounds had sprung up by the side of the road, with signs identifying them as “People’s Rests” and “Army Welfare Canteens.” They were occupied by soldiers and busloads of Sinhalese tourists. Siva remarked, “They are increasing, not reducing, their presence. This is permanent.” Entire military cantonments, made out of special materials supplied by the Chinese, were being erected all over the north. We passed many more Army camps along the road.
“The Army had said that it was waiting until mines could be cleared to return Tamils to their homes, but Siva was dubious. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they are looking for gold on the corpses,” he said. “The Tamil people are famous for liking jewelry and gold. I think that’s it; otherwise there is no reason why they shouldn’t allow people to go back to their places. That and evidence of mass graves, war crimes. Maybe they are moving the bodies.”
“Siva’s claims at times had the ring of conspiracy theory. But later Major General Mahinda Hathurusingha, the security commander of Jaffna, confirmed for me that the cantonments were indeed intended to be permanent. From the military’s perspective, the war continued. “The L.T.T.E. inculcation of the youth — this is a big problem for us,” he said. The Army needed to maintain a presence in the north to insure that Tamil radicalism never started again. To gather intelligence, another senior officer told me, it had infiltrated the Tamil population and installed electronic surveillance systems.
Sri Lanka's Half Million Mines Will Take a Decade to Clear
Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) said in 2011 that Sri Lanka needed al least a decade to clear the half million landmines and other ordnance which lie buried under the country’s of agricultural and forest land and near villages in the north of the island. Nita Bhalla of Reuters wrote: “As people who fled the fighting return home to rebuild their lives, they still face the threat of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) like bombs, rockets and hand grenades left behind by the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan army. “Based on our current clearance rates, there are perhaps half a million landmines that need to be cleared,” said Nigel Robinson, country head of FSD, which has cleared 60,000 mines between 2002 and 2011. “So it’ll perhaps take 10 years for Sri Lanka to become fully mine-impact free, assuming the current capacity of de-miners can be maintained,” he told AlertNet in an interview from a clearing in a minefield in the northwest district of Mannar. [Source: Nita Bhalla, Reuters, September 20, 2011]
“The FSD has 750 deminers clearing the mines, aided by other specialist groups. There are no official figures on exactly how many mines and UXOs were used during the war, although some reports suggest more than a million mines were planted during the 25 years. The Land mine and Cluster Munition Monitor (LCMM) says the Sri Lankan government, which is not a signatory of the Land mine Ban Treaty, and the Tigers “made extensive use of landmines.”These included belts of Pakistani-made P4 MK1 mines laid by the army and long defensive lines of mines and booby-traps manufactured by the separatists.
The Tigers also left extensive “nuisance” mines in the north — particularly in areas of intense fighting and often planted as its fighters retreated in the face of the army’s advance. Fortunately, casualties have been low despite the high mine density in parts of the country. The LCMM says there were 38 injuries and deaths in 2009 compared to 78 in 2008. “Casualties in Sri Lanka are relatively low compared to other places in the world, like Afghanistan where you have around 900 casualties per year,” said Robinson, adding that most were due to people doing “high-risk” activities like burning undergrowth to clear their farmland.
Mine risk awareness and the fact that the Tigers’ homemade mines became less effective over time helped keep casualty figures low in the Indian Ocean island, he said. “Now people have come back to their former communities, they’re desperate to get back onto their land — to grow crops and to produce income for their families,” he said. “Landmines are a significant inhibitor to allow that process to happen.”
Rehabilitating Child Soldiers in Sri Lanka
Reporting Ambepussa, Krishan Francis of Associated Press wrote: “Vinojan's boyhood ended when Sri Lanka's civil war reignited. Fifteen at the time, he says he joined the separatist Tamil Tigers to save his older brother from forcible conscription, and became a reluctant fighter as the rebels fought their last, desperate battles for survival. Now, having won the war, Sri Lanka is trying to make patriotic citizens out of child soldiers like Vinojan and others who just months ago were fighting against the nation. Vinojan, who nurses a dark scar on his wrist from a shrapnel wound, is just trying to reclaim what is left of a childhood cut short. "We wanted to be students. All that was shattered," he said. [Source: Krishan Francis, Associated Press, October 24, 2009]
“About 570 children, some as young as 13, are among an estimated 10,000 captured rebels who have been sent to government rehabilitation camps around the island since the war ended. "These are children who were exposed to danger, taken away from their families and deprived of their childhood," said Maj. Gen. Daya Ratnayake, the military official in charge of the camps. "Our hope is to get them back to normal as much as possible."
“The former child soldiers say they want simply to be reunited with their families. But some have lost relatives or are still searching for them. Meanwhile, the government is working to ensure they don't pick up arms again. But it has done little to fulfill its pledge to tackle the Tamils' long-standing grievances by sharing some power with them.
“In Ambepussa, Vinojan, about 80 other children and 32 adults — start their day by hoisting the Sri Lankan flag and singing the national anthem ("Mother Lanka we salute thee! ... Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended..."). They study English and Sinhalese, the language of the country's majority ethnic group, and take classes in plumbing, metalwork, sewing and cooking. They watch TV, listen to music and play cricket, the country's favorite sport. Vinojan once hoped to become a government worker when he grew up. "But under the circumstances, I don't think too far ahead," he said. "It's enough to be an ordinary man."
“Maj. Herman Fernando, who runs the camp, said he is trying to get the children into nearby schools. Most in Ambepussa are expected to go free after a year of rehabilitation and psychiatric evaluation. UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, said the kids in Ambepussa appeared well treated. Spokeswoman Sarah Crowe looked forward to them rejoining their families and communities, saying: "These children have been deprived of their childhood and will need all possible care and protection to start a new life."
In Ambepussa, "I wasn't sure if my parents were alive, and they didn't know where I was," he said. Then UNICEF brought them to the camp for a visit. "When we met we cried," he said, tears in his eyes.
Years After the War Sinhalese Occupy Tamil Homes
In northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan army occupies what the government calls “high security zones” A report by the Oakland Institute estimates that in 2014, there were at least 160,000 almost entirely Sinhalese soldiers stationed in the north, where about 1 million Tamils live. One woman, whose husband was arrested by the army in 1990 and has not been seen since, told the report that she and her family had been forced from their home by the army the same year and were still unable to return. “Today, my home is still occupied by the army, which pays LKR 300 [$2.25; £1.60] a month for the land,” she said. “I went to the human rights commission … and to the district officer to protest the continued occupation of my home. The army says, ‘If the government asks us to move, we will vacate the lands.’ But there is no legal procedure to obtain my land back.” [Source: Sam Jones, The Guardian, May 28, 2015]
In 2011, Krishan Francis of Associated Press wrote: “The roadblocks have been dismantled, the sandbags removed, and Sri Lanka is again a palm-fringed tourist paradise, the government says...It's even ordered an army headquarters to be converted into a luxury beachside hotel... But for ethnic Tamils living in the former war zone, it is still a hell of haunted memories, military occupation and missing loved ones. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, and no effort has been made to reunite families separated” by the war. [Source: Krishan Francis, Associated Press, August 10, 2011]
“From the school where he sleeps at night, principal Asirvatham Soosainathar watches the troops who are still living in his house in the village of MuriKandy. On weekends, he visits his family in the home they have rented 80 kilometers away. More than 100 families in the village were displaced by troops and the government has promised to soon return their homes. But in two years, Soosainathar said he's seen no evidence of it. "I have 106 coconut trees on my land, but nowadays I have to pay for my coconut," Soosainathar, 44, said in a telephone interview. "The army has been telling me for two years that it will leave my house, but they are still cultivating my land."
“Visvalingam Komathy has also been ousted by the army from her home in the former rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, where she lived off the chicken and cattle she raised. She has pawned her jewelry for living expenses and legal fees in trying to free her son detained on charges of helping the rebels. "We only want the house that is rightfully ours," said Komathy, 52.
“Many Tamils fear that the soldiers in their homes are the vanguard of a government plan to send majority Sinhalese settlers into their area to dilute Tamil power and prevent any new push for a separate homeland for the minority. Tamil lawmakers say the military is seizing land that was in private hands before the war. "The army is doing everything to be there permanently," said lawmaker Suresh Premachandran, of the Tamil National Alliance. "They are putting up permanent camps, cantonments and of course they are very much part of the entire administrative system in the northern province."
“Electricity has been restored and roads repaired. Supermarkets, banks and Internet cafes have opened outlets in areas closed to business during the war. But many people whose homes were destroyed continue to live under tents or in small huts covered only by tin sheets. Many families who lost their belongings and breadwinners remain in extreme poverty. On the other hand, military camps have mushroomed and grand monuments have been erected to honor the fallen soldiers. The army also runs roadside restaurants catering to Sinhalese tourists who have flocked to see areas recaptured from the rebels.
Ten Years after War, Tamils May Never Get Back Land
Tamils may never get land back that was taken from them by the Sri Lankan government during a decades-long civil war. Many of those who fled or were forced from their homes in the north and east had their properties seized, according to human rights groups. Government authorities said about 80 percent of confiscated land had been handed back. The remainder, mostly held by the military, may never be returned, said Dhammika Herath, a post-conflict expert at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. “It is unrealistic to expect that these lands would ever be released because the government would continue to maintain permanent military bases,” he said. “A more pragmatic approach would be the payment of replacement costs to the owners at current market prices. People are dependent on agriculture, and the lack of access to land has translated into lack of employment and poverty.” [Source: Rina Chandran, Reuters, May 17, 2019]
According to the Oakland Institute: “The army has expanded non-military activities and is engaged in large-scale property development, construction projects, and business ventures such as travel agencies, farming, holiday resorts, restaurants, and innumerable cafes that dot the highways in the northern and eastern provinces,” it says. “The army officially runs luxury resorts and golf courses that have been erected on land seized from now–internally displaced peoples.” It says tourists can book holidays at luxury beach resorts by calling numbers at the ministry of defence, adding: “These resorts and businesses are located on lands that were previously home to the local Tamil population, who were displaced by the war. They see no sign of return, despite numerous demands and petitions.” [Source: The Long Shadow of War: the Struggle for Justice in Postwar Sri Lanka” by the Oakland Institute]
Rina Chandran of Reuters wrote: “Land access, use and ownership are central concerns for post-conflict peacebuilding, especially in agriculture-dependent areas, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR). With people returning after long absences - as in Sri Lanka - there can be difficulties with proving ownership, military control, occupation by others, and re-zoning, said Menique Amarasinghe, head of UNHCR’s Sri Lanka office. “Access to land remains a problem for many,” she said. “If the military cannot release all of the land, then there is a need to clearly identify which lands will not be released, and provide just compensation.”
“Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena had vowed to return all land held in the northern and eastern provinces by December 31, 2018 but that deadline was not met, according to human rights groups. Nearly 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) of private land were still being held as of March 31, according to government officials. Sumith Atapattu, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan army, said the land is being retained for “security purposes”. “We are open to seeing if compensation or some alternate arrangement can be made,” he said.
“New security fears after bombings last month, which killed more than 250 people and triggered violent clashes, may further delay the process, said Ravindra De Silva of youth rights group, the Association for Friendship and Love. “This is not a priority now. The army can say they need to hold on to the high security zones for some more time,” he said. “People lost their homes, their livelihoods, and have not received compensation or reparations. This will prolong their suffering,” he told Reuters
Some have taken matters into their own hands. Earlier this year, more than 100 Sri Lankan Tamil families in the northeastern town of Mullaitivu said they would occupy their former homes forcefully if their land was not returned, following the lead of others who did so last year.
Elections in the Tamil Areas of Northern Sri Lanka
In elections held in August 2009, about three months after the war ended, Associated Press reported: “Sri Lanka hailed elections near an area once dominated by the Tamil Tiger rebels as the first seeds of democracy sprouting along the former battlefields of its recently ended civil war, but voters largely stayed away from the polls in the violence-scarred region. Opposition parties accused the ruling coalition of restricting their campaigns, the government barred most media from the region, and voters appeared apathetic in the first elections in the northern cities of Jaffna and Vavuniya since 1998. Voter turnout was less than 25 per cent in Jaffna and about 40 per cent in Vavuniya, according to election monitors. Six political parties and independent groups fielded 174 candidates in Jaffna, while 135 politicians from nine parties contested seats in Vavuniya. Out of these 34 were elected to the municipal councils in the two cities. [Source: Associated Press, August 8, 2009]
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is the former political proxy of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Not everyone was endeared with its presence nor the existence of a Muslim party. In March 2013, AFP reported: The TNA said their meeting in the town of Kilinochchi was disrupted by a stone-throwing mob which had also attacked their vehicles and damaged a building while police looked on. “Although there were police officers at that place... they took no effort to quell this attack,” the TNA said in a statement. TNA legislators have been provided with policemen as their bodyguards. [Source: AFP, March 31 2013]
“The latest violence came two days after a mob targeted a Muslim-owned clothing store and warehouse just outside Colombo, raising religious tensions in a country emerging from nearly four decades of ethnic war. Military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya denied security forces were involved in Saturday’s attack against the TNA and said police “successfully dispersed the crowd within about an hour, thus preventing the situation from escalating”. The attack at Kilinochchi, 330 kilometers (206 miles) north of Colombo, came despite increased security after Thursday’s violence. The main Muslim party in the ruling coalition said the unprovoked attack was a “sequel” to an ongoing hate campaign against minority Muslims and other religious minorities. Military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya denied security forces were involved in Saturday’s attack against the TNA and said police “successfully dispersed the crowd within about an hour, thus preventing the situation from escalating”.
Tamil Tigers Proxy Party Sweeps Local Elections
In July 2011, The Tamil National Alliance — a proxy of the defunct Tamil Tigers — won 20 local councils out of the 25 it contested in the ethnic Tamil-majority north and east. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition won five councils. The results in Tamil areas were a sharp contrast to elections in ethnic Sinhalese-majority regions also held Saturday, with the United People’s Freedom Alliance sweeping all 40 councils. [Source: Krishan Francis, Associated Press, July 23, 2011]
Krishan Francis of Associated Press wrote: “The election assumed unprecedented national significance, with the main two rivals both seeing it as a confidence vote. The resounding victory consolidates the Tamil National Alliance’s status as an authentic representative of ethnic Tamils in negotiations with Rajapaksa’s ethnic majority Sinhalese-controlled government in sharing political power and postwar rehabilitation. The party had appealed to voters to give it a mandate to demand self-rule in the Tamil-majority areas.
“Rajapaksa’s ruling party, for its part, had hoped a victory for its allies would blunt calls for an international war crimes investigation. It also could have allowed Rajapaksa to offer a less generous power-sharing deal, which his Tamil allies would most likely have accepted. Rajapaksa already has rejected a demand by the Tamil National Alliance to allow Tamil control over local police and land.
““It clearly shows the Tamil people’s stand on political and development matters,” TNA lawmaker Suresh Premachandran said of the election result. He said the Tamils had given his party a mandate for a “dignified political settlement” and urged the government to respect the verdict.
“Election monitoring group Campaign for Free and Fair Elections said in a statement Saturday that uniformed men suspected to be members of the military, which still has a large presence in the former war zone, were forcibly collecting voting cards, apparently to rig the vote. It reported that such incidents took place in 20 villages. People who refused to give away their cards “were beaten up and threatened to cut their throats out,” the group said. It also observed men in uniform distributing food to people and asking them to vote for the ruling party. In some areas, residents were paid 5 or 10 dollars in exchange for voting cards, it said.”
“Top Sri Lankan officials, including Rajapaksa and Cabinet ministers, had campaigned for minority Tamil votes. They cut ribbons on projects for sports complexes, played cricket with local youths and promised to rebuild Tamil homes. It was a rare effort for such a relatively minor ballot, but the governing coalition insists it is committed to ethnic reconciliation - though none of its touted programs toward healing has begun. Jehan Perera, an analyst with local think tank National Peace Council, said the election result shows that the Tamils have chosen “rights above economic benefit.”“
Tamil Tiger Proxy Party Wins Landslide Victory in Regional Election
Tamil National Alliance took 30 out of 38 seats in northern elections in September 2013. Jason Burke wrote in The Guardian: Sri Lanka's main Tamil party has won a landslide victory in a provincial poll that has threatened to reignite tension between the government of the island nation and the biggest ethnic minority, four years after the bloody end to its decades-long civil war. The election was the first provincial council poll in the north of Sri Lanka in 25 years and was held following international pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make greater efforts towards reconciliation between communities in the country in the aftermath of the conflict. [Source: Jason Burke, The Guardian, September 22, 2013]
“The winners, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 30 out of 38 seats, officials said, and the party's leaders claimed a clear mandate from voters. The ruling coalition won seven seats, while a Muslim party won one. Many in the north appear unwilling to give up longstanding claims to greater autonomy despite economic development and significant investment in infrastructure in the north since the end of the war. "This win today is a message to the government that bridges, buildings and trains are not the main issue but that we have to live freely," said Thayaparan Sundarmoothy, a local councillor in Kilinochchi, once the administrative headquarters of the LTTE.
“M A Sumanthiran, a TNA national parliamentarian, said: " [The result was] a great vindication of the political stand we've taken and our people have stood up without bowing down to violence and intimidation." The government has accused the TNA of renewing calls for a separate state through its push for the devolution of powers to the weak provincial council.
“Key grievances for many voters are linked the continued heavy presence of the Sri Lankan military, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority, in the north. The TNA won nearly 80 percent of the vote in Mullaitivu, where thousands of civilians are said to have been killed in May 2009, when government forces moved in to destroy the remnants of the LTTE. The army is accused of indiscriminate shelling of civilian refugees mixed with fleeing fighters. The LTTE has been accused of using non-combatants as human shields.
Sri Lanka's Train to the North to Reopen
In October 2014, the "Queen of Jaffna," a once-popular train linking the Tamil north to the rest of Sri Lanka reopened for the first time in 24 years, with the help of an $800 million loan from India, after it was shut down in the early stages of the civil war, signaling the return of government's authority in a region once controlled by Tamil Tigers. Associated Press reported: “For the old, it is a nostalgic piece of the Indian Ocean island's past. For the young, the train represents something novel and opens opportunities to explore the north. For the central government, the resumption of the "Yarl Devi," as it is known in Tamil, marks a step toward restoring national unity five years after the Tamil separatists were defeated.” [Source: Associated Press, October 11, 2014]
President Mahinda Rajapaksa inaugurated service along the 400-kilometer (250-mile) route between Jaffna and Colombo, the capital, in a ceremony. “Rebuilding the railroad, stretches of which disappeared as rebels and residents used the rails and sleepers to build bunkers and houses, is one of the government's big infrastructure projects to contribute to the economy in the north and win over Tamils, many of whom are still estranged after the war.
“Like the old version, the new "Queen of Jaffna" is not a luxury train, although some of its coaches will have air conditioning, Internet access and televisions. The new track will make for a faster, smoother ride, allowing the trip to take about six hours. The line was shut down in 1990 as militants from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, stepped up attacks in the north to push for their own independent state. The train holds significant symbolic importance. Before the war, it not only was the most convenient way to travel between the two important cities, but also was a symbol of unity between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. At the time, Tamils dominated bureaucratic and state service posts, and many civil servants based in Colombo used it to visit friends and family in the north. "We took the train to Jaffna for weekends and came back by the same on Sunday evenings," said Karuna Navaratnam, a 69-year-old retired teacher, who traveled on the route frequently in the 1970s.
“When the war erupted in 1983, the train was a main artery in Sri Lanka's commerce, transporting fish from the north to the capital, and connecting the islanders regardless of ethnic identity. Since the service stopped, Jaffna has had no trains, meaning many of the city's children have never seen one in real life. "Some younger people here do not know what a train is. I know its value," said 50-year-old R. Thiyagarajah, who hopes the train will help boost Jaffna's economy through tourism and cargo shipments.
“As rebels increased their attacks in the 1980s, the government stationed many soldiers, mostly Sinhalese, in Jaffna who used the train to return home for visits. That made the "Queen of Jaffna" a rebel target. In January 1985, rebels blew up the train, killing 22 soldiers and 11 civilians and wounding 44 others, in the single largest attack on the military at that time. Five years later, the service was scaled back as Tamil Tigers took control of Jaffna peninsula.
“Restoring the link is an important step, physically and symbolically, in rebuilding the country, the government says. "In the past, it was not only a mode of transport, but it was also a cultural bridge between the Sinhalese people here and the Tamils there," presidential spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said. The project was an "incentive to enhance communal harmony and friendship." But the railroad's resumption also clearly shows that the government, dominated by the majority Sinhalese, is stamping its authority on the north. During the war, both sides attached immense strategic and symbolic importance to capturing and holding key access roads to Jaffna, including the railroad and the parallel A9 highway, dubbed "the highway of death" for the many lives lost in battles over its control. That highway has since been restored.
War Tourism in Northern Sri Lanka
After the Sri Lankan Civil War ended in 2009, tourists from southern Sri Lanka began going to the northern Tamil areas on war tourism excursions. From Mullaitivu, IPS reported: The tour guide’s voice echoes around the dark, musty room, three stories underground. Fifty visitors – among them mothers holding infants, youths snapping pictures on mobile phones and grandparents leaning against the walls – are crammed into the narrow stairwell that leads down into the chamber, listening attentively to his every word. [Source: Amantha Perera, IPS, November 24 2012]
“The tourists have travelled hundreds of kilometers to see this underground bunker, once home to the most feared man in Sri Lanka: the leader of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran. Located a short drive south of the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, a former LTTE operations hub in the northern Mullaitivu District, some 330 kilometers from the capital Colombo, the bunker complex is nestled deep within the jungle. The massive compound boasts a firing range, a semi-underground garage, a jogging path, a film hall and a small funeral parlor where the Tiger leader paid his final respects to fallen cadres. “This is out of this world, how did they ever build something like this?” a woman who gave her name as Ranjini asked while walking down the narrow stairs.
Other attractions on the tour of former rebel-held areas include the shipyard where the Tigers experimented with building submersibles, complete with a dry dock and the skeletal remains of the Farah III, a Jordanian cargo vessel that was commandeered by the LTTE. Puthukkudiyiruppu and Mullaitivu, once the central command headquarters of a massive guerilla operation, now play host to thousands of visitors, mostly from the majority-Sinhalese southern regions of the country.
But while these guided tours offer locals a rare glance into the inner workings of the Tigers’ de facto state and the extent of its former military capacity, rights activists fear that many tourists are missing the “bigger picture” – the horrors of the aftermath of the war and the suffering that has become an everyday experience for tens of thousands who were displaced during the last bouts of fighting. “I feel the (tourists) don’t have sense of what really happened here, or they don’t want to know,” Ruki Fernando, a rights activist who formerly headed the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the national rights body, the Law and Society Trust, told IPS. Fernando warned that ‘gawking tourists’ will only reinforce ethnic divides instead of bridging them. “This is still a massive curiosity park for the visitors, they really don’t want to see beyond the (thrills) offered by attractions like the bunker,” said Mahendran Sivakumar, a 61-year-old retired government education official who lived in the war zone throughout the entire conflict.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022