Like many ethnic Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, for the last four years Reverend Father Regno Bernard has been waiting patiently for a sign. Not from his God—from his government. “After the war people expected a lot from the government, that there would be reconciliation, peace. But the people have been deceived,” says Father Regno, director of HUDEC Jaffna, the social arm of the Catholic Church of Jaffna. “There has been no sign of reconciliation.”
For decades the Sri Lankan government was embroiled in a brutal civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent group that fought to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the country’s North and East until it was defeated militarily by government forces in May of 2009.
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Both sides stand accused of a range of human rights violations committed during the war, which claimed the lives of 40,000 civilians in its final days alone, according to the United Nations. Sri Lanka, which is poised to host the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November and serve as CHOGM’s chair for the next two years, is keen to whitewash its rights record and simply relegate past offences to the past.
But international rights monitors and Western governments have repeatedly called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to take steps toward allowing a credible, independent investigation into war crimes alleged to have been committed by the country’s security forces during the final stages of the conflict. Its failure to do so has left a huge rift between Tamils and the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated security forces. This has been exacerbated by the fact that the government continues to push stubbornly forward with a policy aimed at achieving reconciliation in former conflict areas through economic development alone.
Critics contend that Colombo has interpreted the phrase “road to reconciliation” rather too literally in this case, focusing solely on improving infrastructure such as highways while neglecting Tamils’ calls for a degree of autonomy and accountability for war crimes. Driving through the Vanni, the sparsely populated swath of land that formerly served as the stronghold of the LTTE, recent cosmetic upgrades are readily apparent. A proliferation of newly opened banks, military-run shops, and billboards advertising everything from telecoms to fizzy drinks to construction materials now line an ever expanding network of freshly sealed roads. “The development is a façade,” says Father Regno. The government is busy “carpeting the road” when what is needed is a “lasting political solution.” Such feelings of disillusion run deep in the North. Northern Tamils resent that the government has not scaled back its military presence, that Sinhalese are imported from the South for the vast majority of skilled jobs in infrastructure development, that Tamils cannot file complaints at the police station in their own language, that lands seized during the war for security purposes have not been returned, that more has not been done to encourage investment and the creation of jobs, and that harassment and rights violations committed by the security forces continue unchecked. “It’s not only about [having enough] rice and curry,” says Eran Wickramartne, a Sinhalese Member of Parliament with the opposition United National Party. It’s also about “a feeling of ‘I belong’, that ‘I am respected’, that ‘I have dignity’, that ‘my ideas and proposals count’. ‘Respect for my language, respect for my culture’. Reconciliation is about that. There has to be a holistic approach. I think that is where the government has fallen short,” says Wickramartne.
The problem with the government’s approach is that “development is not inclusive” and Tamils are not being consulted in decision making processes, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based research group. “The population still feels it is being treated with suspicion,” he says.
Civilians have to inform the military if they want to hold a school program or sporting event – any kind of gathering that could “arouse suspicion” – and then invite the local commander as guest of honor, says Saravanamuttu. In practice, this means any unsanctioned gathering of more than five people is banned. It is “such an outrageous and unacceptable rule,” says Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council. The omnipresent feeling of being watched by Big Brother pervades almost every aspect of life for Tamils in the North. But the most glaring manifestation of this is that individuals even suspected of having prior links to the LTTE are closely monitored, subjected to frequent questioning, forced to act as informants and—in some cases—subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of the security forces. Amitha (a pseudonym) joined the LTTE in 1995, but returned to civilian life in 2005 when she married. After the war she was ordered to check in with the military twice a week at a civil affairs office in Jaffna. “On these visits I was sexually abused,” she says. “One guy would put me up against a wall and touch me from behind. He tried to kiss me, but I would not allow it. So he would put his hands on my skirt and pull it up and touch me inappropriately.” When she started missing appointments, they came looking for her. “One day when I was alone at my parent’s house a soldier came. He tried to grab me. He said, ‘You have to go inside your room and take off all your clothes. I have permission to examine your scars.” Amitha refused and pointed out that the civil affairs office would have sent a female officer to conduct this kind of examination if it were legitimate. “Finally, he said, ‘If you are not going to do this, I am going to use your thighs’,” she says. Amitha ran away, and has been in hiding ever since.
Her story, while not uncommon, is one of the more blatant examples of how the government is failing to win Tamil hearts and minds. Indeed, the government’s policy has been to categorically deny there is a prevailing culture of silence and impunity for sexual violence in the North. Such reports of torture and gender-based violence are “based on hearsay,” says military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya.
Many independent observers agree that a lasting political solution can only be achieved once a measure of autonomy is granted to the Tamil-dominated areas in the North and East. To this end, the Sri Lankan government has faced significant international pressure to hold Northern Council elections, which have been slated for September 21. “The fact that the government has decided to go along with the Northern Council election is a positive step forward,” says Wickramartne. “It is long overdue.” But questions have arisen about just how much power Colombo is actually willing to share. Most discussions on this topic tend to gravitate toward the 13th amendment, which in theory grants police and land powers to the provincial councils. But the government has threatened to dilute these powers, while some observers claim that in practice the 13th amendment already lacks teeth. The notion that the amendment would guarantee the Northern Council some level of autonomy is flawed because “everything has to be approved by the central government,” says Thevanayagam Premanand, executive editor of the Jaffna-based Tamil language newspaper Udthayan
. “Without the approval of the governor, [the council] cannot pass any law.”
“The 13th amendment, as it is today, is not being implemented as it should be,” says Wickramartne. The central government needs to come to terms with the idea of “sharing power with the periphery,” he says. The issue of which body controls state land is the key to the discussion, says Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a lecturer in the Department of Law at the University of Jaffna. Sri Lanka’s military appears to have been given carte blanche in terms of seizing land, and in the aftermath of the civil war has used lands originally acquired for security purposes to set up hotels, plantations, tour operations and more. This, of course, has aroused the ire of local Tamils. “How do these amount to public security?” says Guruparan. In the most high profile land-grabbing case, over 1,000 complaints have been filed by property owners demanding compensation or the return of their lands in an approximately 2,430-hectare area, which the government has announced it will retain possession of on the Jaffna peninsula. This area includes the large Palay military cantonment as well as the military-operated Thalsevana Holiday Resort. “Those lands cannot be released due to development plans for [an] airport and harbor,” says Wanigasooriya, adding that military bases such as Palay are “essential” for national security. The central government, which is primarily concerned with maintaining stability in the former conflict areas as well as pandering to its Sinhalese voting base, is unlikely to budge on the issue of control over state land.
“There is a belief that if you give the north land and police powers they will run away with it,” says Saravanamuttu. The primary fear, he says, is that Tamils will once again try to set up an independent state, using land powers acquired through the 13th amendment as a legal means to unify provinces in the North and East. These fears are largely exaggerated, says Saravanamuttu, but the current government is willing to do “whatever necessary to hold the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency.” When asked about these fears, the government is quick to point the finger at the Tamil diaspora. “There are many groups based in other countries propagating the ideology of separatism,” says Wanigasooriya. “We cannot afford to let our guard down, not yet.”
The decision to host CHOGM in Sri Lanka is a huge feather in the cap for the Rajapaksa government, despite the fact that the upcoming summit has served as a talking point for critics to refocus attention on Sri Lanka’s reluctance to be held accountable for rights abuses. “Certainly Sri Lanka has to make good on its human rights record,” says Wickramartne. “By our own standards we have fallen short.” “We are hopeful [that] it is possible for all communities to live together,” says Wanigasooriya.
But for people like Amitha, who is desperately trying to secure asylum in a European country, the notion of reconciliation is a hard sell. “I can never go back home because I know what happens to female ex-cadres,” she says. “I would rather commit suicide.” Father Regno, too, is not optimistic. Over a cup of milky sweet tea he offers one last musing. “Without a political solution, we have no future.”