Monday, May 16, 2011

Sri Lanka: Peace a battle

By Ben Doherty | The Sydney Morning Herald

An uneasy peace holds in Sri Lanka. The civil war that afflicted the north of the country for more than a quarter of a century ended two years ago this week, but for many, it seems never to have gone away.

Aani Manuelpillai* lives with reminders every day. For a year, the Sri Lankan army fought over her village in the Mannar district as it pursued to extinction the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the separatist rebels known to the world as Tamil Tigers.

Aani fled the shelling of her home and gunfights in her street. Her life became one of being hounded from camp to camp, finding brief sanctuary in no-fire zones that became killing fields, then fleeing again. She has been back in her house for a year, but the anniversary is no cause for celebration. Her roof is a UN-supplied tarpaulin. The walls yawn with holes from government shells. Aani cooks and washes outside. With no money and ''too many family'' - almost all the men - lost in the fighting, she has little hope of rebuilding.

Village life generally is returning to normal. Mothers, babies strapped to their backs with old saris, walk along the red-dirt road between houses and children fill buckets at water pumps. But much has to be done. Barely a building hasn't been bombed and most people are living under canvas.

The Tigers landmined this area heavily. The village is now clear but the fields on which most families rely for a living are still dangerous. ''Life is hard here. We are much poorer now. The fighting is gone, but we don't have our lives back. We cannot work in our fields and many people cannot come back to their lands.''

The land Aani wants back for her people is Sri Lanka's northern mainland, known as the Vanni and regarded as the homeland of the country's Tamil ethnic minority, who make up about 17 per cent of the population. The Sinhalese majority, about three-quarters of Sri Lanka's 20 million, live predominantly in the south.

Many origins are claimed for the Tamil Tigers separatist movement. Some say Tamils came to the island from southern India and it is there their homeland should be; others that after independence, the new ruling Sinhalese began systematically discriminating against the Tamils. The watershed act of violence is generally accepted to have been in 1983, when Tigers killed 13 soldiers, and Sinhalese turned on Tamils in revenge. Up to 3000 Tamils were killed, many hacked and burned to death, and Tamil businesses were torched and looted. Tamils fled to the north-east, many to Tiger training camps. The war, which would cripple the country for a quarter of a century, had begun.

The Vanni isn't pretty country. The land is dry and scrubby and has always been sparsely populated, but in the aftermath of a war in which the UN estimates 40,000 civilians were killed and more than 300,000 displaced - out of a population of about 700,000 - a lack of people is now a very real problem.

Across much of the devastated Sri Lankan north, few people are left to rebuild, or to rebuild for. In some parts, there is progress but how much is hard to know. Sri Lanka's UN representative, Palitha Kohona, told the Security Council this week: ''Sri Lanka has succeeded in returning over 95 per cent of the internally displaced to their villages and towns in a short period of 18 months.'' But much of the Vanni remains in ruins.

Nearly 18,000 people still live in government-run camps for ''internally displaced persons'', as they wait for the land where they once lived to be cleared of mines or released from army control, or for promised houses to be built. The government says 300,000 people have been resettled since the end of the war. ''A lot needs to be done, [but] we believe by the end of 2011, we can complete the process,'' Resettlement Ministry secretary Uthpala Basnayakaye said in February.

More than 4000 suspected Tamil Tiger fighters remain locked up, incommunicado, in army ''rehabilitation'' camps. Their names have not been released. Thousands of parents and wives and children still don't know if their sons and husbands and fathers are alive. This secret detention has been brought back to world attention by a recent UN report into alleged atrocities committed by both sides during the conflict. At war's end, some 11,600 Tamil Tiger cadres who surrendered to the Sri Lanka's army were taken to army-run camps for ''rehabilitation''. More than 6000 have been released, but the government still runs 24 camps, housing 4343 suspected Tigers.

''These youth had gone through a horrific period in their lives and have lost the best days,'' the commissioner-general of rehabilitation, Brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe, said recently. ''It is a great task for us to convert their negative thoughts into positive thinking but we have achieved this through various methods.''

Others make a less glowing assessment. Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran says the brigadier has ''done very good work'' in helping rehabilitate some fighters but ongoing detention is dangerous and illegal. ''There is no detention order, nothing. Two years on, our request is for basic human decency. Parents must know whether their children are alive or not.'' Sumanthiran believes many of those still in detention were not Tamil Tiger fighters, or were teenagers forced to pick up weapons in the panicked final days of the war. He thinks the secrecy suggests some may have been killed, and the UN report is similarly condemnatory of the government's ''deliberate lack of transparency''.

''The fact that interrogations and investigations as well as 'rehabilitation' activities have been ongoing, without any external scrutiny for almost two years, rendered alleged LTTE cadres highly vulnerable to violations such as rape, torture or disappearance, which could be committed with impunity,'' says the report, prepared by a panel of experts for the UN Security Council. This 200-page report has exposed the deep divisions that still blight the country. There has been a savage backlash against it in the Sinhalese majority south, where it is seen as a Western plot to discredit the army, and the populist and popular President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

''We will present the world with our achievements on bringing normalcy and peace to Sri Lanka, bring to light the factual position about this country and thereby expose the falsity of the controversial … report,'' Rajapaksa said this week.

The report condemns both sides of the conflict, finding ''credible allegations'' of war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers. The army, it says, bombed hospitals, deliberately shelled civilians sheltering in no-fire zones, and attacked the UN and Red Cross. It says the President, his brother and other senior government officials were party to negotiations over the surrender of Tiger cadres and civilians who were later found shot dead.

But the report also recognises that the army was fighting a brutal, ruthless opposition. Fanatical yet disciplined, proscribed as terrorists in most countries, the Tamil Tigers pioneered suicide bombers, and for generations waged a campaign of terror. As their resistance disintegrated in 2009, the report said, Tigers forcibly recruited children, used civilians as human shields and shot anyone who tried to flee. Even as the battle was being inexorably lost, the Tigers launched suicide attacks outside the war zone.

Little is likely to come of the report internationally. A spokesman for the UN Secretary-General urged member states to take it ''seriously and act accordingly'', but China and Russia have indicated they would block any move for an international war-crimes investigation.

The war is over. The Tigers, rumours of tiny cells of still-committed cadres notwithstanding, are finished as a fighting force. But the army remains omnipresent in the north. The Vanni is heavily controlled by the military. Army checkpoints block all traffic. Every 200 or so metres, on almost every road, stands a fortified army post, manned by bored soldiers seemingly uncertain of what threat they are supposed to be guarding against. And every few kilometres stands a massive army cantonment, where those soldiers live. Almost all the building activity since the war has been the army's.

Less than 50 kilometres from Aani's bombed-out home sits a very different village, the City of War Heroes. In Ranajayapura, the government has built 1500 three-roomed homes for soldiers and their families, along with schools, hospitals, gyms and supermarkets. It is a gift, the government says, ''to show our gratitude and appreciation to the brave men and women of our armed forces''. These are the first of 50,000 homes the government has planned for soldiers, and those charged with securing the north will live there permanently.

Tamil leaders say this ''militarisation'' of the Vanni is less about security than it is about a non-violent, if less-than-subtle, overwhelming of the minority Tamils. Sumanthiran says the government plans will irrevocably change the Tamil homeland. ''There are about 100,000 soldiers in the north, and if their families also go with them, it will be close to half a million people. You will have a radical alteration of the demography overnight. We … do not say this is the exclusive domain of the Tamils. But it must happen naturally; it cannot be a state-sponsored program to marginalise the people already here.''

In the Mullaitivu district, in the north-east, the final and fiercest fighting took place. The army pushed the rebels and the civilians they held hostage into an increasingly narrow sliver of coastal land, between a lagoon and the sea, until there was nowhere left to run. The death toll in those final few days will probably never be known.

Huge areas in Mullaitivu are still under army control. Rumours of more mass graves persist. But some villages in the district are being resettled.

Nesamani Sukumar, 73, stands barefoot outside his lean-to shop. He was a farmer before the war. His land is ''gone'' and he is resigned to never getting it back. The plastic toys and bottles of soft drink he offers for sale grow dusty hanging from the shop's awning. Business is slow, for few people have come back, and fewer still have money to spend. His son and daughter were killed in the war he says, tapping his finger on his heart. His neighbours are missing; he doesn't know what happened to them. ''Before the war, I had a lot of money, I had a nice house, I had my family, everything I could need. But I lost everything and everyone too.''

*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

© The Sydney Morning Herald

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