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Sri Lanka

Former Tamil Tigers still paying price of war

Rehabilitated ex-combatants struggle to make ends meet as jobs, state support, welfare remain elusive

Niranjani Roland, Colombo

Niranjani Roland, Colombo

Published: August 07, 2018 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: August 09, 2018 10:37 AM GMT

Former Tamil Tigers still paying price of war

Sri Lankan Tamils commemorate those who died during the civil war six years after it ended at a ceremony on the outskirts of Jaffna in this May 2015 file photo. Activists say the government is not doing enough to help those who surrendered and underwent rehabilitation programs but still can't find jobs and receive little if any state welfare. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)


Former combatant and ex-political prisoner Anton Thayalan lost a leg from a mortar round during fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the military in 1990, seven years into the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Ongoing attacks during that brutal 26-year civil war killed and wounded hundreds of people each week in the north and east of the country, and many still carry their wounds with them.

Thayan surrendered when the armed conflict came to an end in 2009, after which he was incarcerated.

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Following his release, he landed a job as a supervisor at a home for the elderly and then a similar position at an orphanage but says that at 54 he finds it increasingly hard to walk and work due to his artificial leg.

Like Thayan, many ex-combatants in Sri Lanka face lives of hardship as they receive no support from the government in finding jobs.

"They fish, sell ice-cream on the side of the road or work as drivers, so they look after their families," he said.

As of 2018, some 12,186 former LTTE fighters have undergone a government-run rehabilitation program to integrate them back into society.

Among them, 594 were children, 4,156 were aged 20-29 and 1,084 were female. But nine years after the war ended, most are struggling to scratch a living.

Thayalan's family has been displaced several times. They now reside in Mannar district of Northern province.

"I was kept in various jails as a political prisoner until my release in 2012. A Catholic nun helped my family to get by and gave my children an education," he said.

"I really struggled financially as I couldn't find work but now, thankfully, I have a position at an orphanage."

He said he still fears the state security apparatus and that something bad may happen to his children.

"I have four kids and three are girls. My wife and children are often alone in the house," he said.

Sister Nicola Emmanuel works with the families of former fighters. She said many suffer from disabilities and various ailments.

"I help several families. They don't have it easy. Even those former LTTE fighters who express interest in joining the security forces receive promises of this or that, but in the end they get nothing," she said.

"Many are still under military surveillance, so they can't even meet up in public places without drawing unwanted attention." 


Policies lacking 

According to Sri Lanka's Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, the government has distributed sewing machines, water pumps, boats, zinc sheets, bicycles, fishing nets, saloon equipment, electrical equipment, welding tools and more to those ex-combatants who voluntary laid down their weapons.

Moreover, the state's 2018 budget allocated 25 million rupees (US$156,500) to help ex-combatants and women who suffered during the war develop and nurture their entrepreneurial skills and ambitions.

Ten times this amount was reserved for distribution to private enterprises as an incentive to employ five or more ex-combatants each.

But not everything is rosy. Elam Chequvera, a Tamil rights activist, said the Ministry of Prison Reform, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs offers loans to those in need but they are hard to get.

"Some ex-combatants have to wait over a year but it's such a long process," he said. "It shows the government doesn't have a proper system in place to help them."

Ananthy Sasitharan, another Tamil activist and politician who was sworn in as a member of the Northern Provincial Council in June 2017, said the government has no special policy to help rehabilitated insurgents earn a living.

"About 13,700 people with some handicap or other send in loan applications every year," she said. "But the ministry only allocates 3,000 rupees ($19) each for 3,000 people due to a lack of funding. We find this situation very disheartening."

She is the wife of Velayutham Sasitharan (alias Elilan), a former top LTTE leader who served as its political commissar in the eastern region. He disappeared in the final battle of May 2009 and she is still seeking justice.

"The government won't even give driving licenses to [injured or handicapped] ex-combatants, so they can't even work as motorbike taxi drivers," she said.

Dr. Jeevasuthan Subramaniam has spent years studying the issues faced by ex-combatants, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said the government must offer more programs to help them socialize.

"The lack of better socialization schemes to help them recover from their former lives as soldiers and all the threatening experiences makes it very hard for them to live normal lives," said Subramaniam, a lecturer at Jaffna University.

"Common problems they face include scant job opportunities, a severe inferiority complex, psychological disempowerment and a general lack of motivation. Even those who manage to get loans from state banks are rarely able to make the repayments."

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