Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sri Lanka's ethnic polarization persists strongly despite peace

By Shihar Aneez | Reuters

Sri Lanka's old war zone has been at peace for two years but the minority Tamils who populate it say they are hungry for jobs, despite the economic revival the government has offered instead of the political powers for which Tamils first took up arms.

In Sri Lanka's north and east, people last week voted for the first time in at least 12 years and as many as 29 to elect local councils, two years after the military wiped out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to end a 25-year war.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) swept 250 councils out of 299, but lost miserably in predominantly Tamil electorates, in areas the Tigers wanted to turn into a Tamil-only nation.

Tamils backed a former Tiger proxy political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with a convincing win.

The elections, analysts said, clearly showed that ethnic polarization between Rajapaksa's Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority remains a fact of Sri Lankan life. Many have warned the tension could spark into conflict again.

"Since the war ended, we feel Tamils are being treated like slaves," Thangarajah Pushparajah, a 60-year old condiment seller in the northern city of Jaffna, told Reuters. "I am not saying the LTTE did better, but we are not comfortable now."

He lost his son, whom he says was forcibly recruited by the LTTE for his swimming skill, in 2000 during a battle with the Sri Lanka navy. He was 17.

Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka's Tamils have suffered various forms of discrimination, violence and killing under successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority, and oppression under the violently authoritarian Tigers.

E. Saravanapavan, a Jaffna district TNA legislator and a newspaper publisher who has been attacked in the past by pro-government elements, said there are about 100,000 unemployed youth in his constituency alone, in the Northern Province.

"The government has failed to create a single job for these Tamils," he said. "This government is creating room for Tamil people to resort to other ways, like an armed struggle or to bring pressure through the international community."


The Northern Province's economy grew 22.9 year-on-year in 2010, but still had the lowest per-capita income in the nation of 21 million, according to central bank figures.

Rajapaksa prioritised economic growth there under a $2 billion plan dubbed "The Northern Spring", mostly focused on infrastructure, but has been slow to give political concessions to Tamils, which could alienate some of his Sinhalese vote base.

However, he is increasingly under pressure as the TNA is backed by India and the United States in its call for an amicable political solution to avert renewed conflict, with calls for a war crimes investigation the leverage.

Many Tamils Reuters spoke to said they were reluctant to vote because they were not confident the government was genuine about reconciliation, in spite of the economic development work.

Others said they opted to vote for the opposition after the government failed to stop elements linked to the military and a militant pro-government Tamil party from carrying out pre-poll violence and intimidation.

But voting for the former Tiger-backed the TNA does not offer much hope for political influence: it has only 14 members in a 225-seat parliament dominated by the president's alliance.

Without the slain LTTE founder Veluplillai Prabhakaran's iron-fisted rule, many of the Tamils Reuters spoke to feel there is still a leadership vacuum.

"I doubt if TNA could win what we want through negotiations with this government," a 32-year old man told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Others were just happy for the end of violence.

"We need freedom to live," 60-year-old Selvam Vallipillai, told Reuters in Killinochchi, the LTTE's former self-declared capital city.

Born in Rajapaksa's native Hambantota in the south of the island, she fled to Kilinochchi in 1958 after ethnic clashes. But the LTTE executed her son publicly on March 18, 2007, accusing him of prostitution and burglary.

"Now at least we have freedom. We don't need the LTTE here after. We all like to live with unity with other communities."

© The Vancouver Sun

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