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Military harassment threatens Sri Lanka's oasis of peace

Anger at the military's heavy hand and land seizures rattles a year-old calm in the east, a rare success in a 25-year war.

By Jason MotlaghCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2008

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Batticaloa and Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

The chief minister of Sri Lanka's eastern province nodded with concern as a member of the provincial council described a security problem. It was a typical scene of government proceedings – except that the minister is a former Tamil rebel commander and enemy of the four Army generals seated to his left, taking notes.

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This unlikely scenario is part of a turnaround the central government has hailed as the "dawn of the east," since its forces reclaimed the longtime Tamil Tiger stronghold last year.

Today, as the Sri Lankan government stands on the verge of overpowering the Tamil Tigers' last remaining territory in the north, observers say development of the east is equally crucial if the country is to break out of its 25-year civil war.

"The eastern province is a test case for the rest of Sri Lanka," says Harry Miller, a missionary who has lived in the coastal town of Batticaloa for more than 60 years.

One of two influential rebel leaders who broke away and helped the government win back this province, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, known as Pillayan, was elected chief minister in May. His win underscored the government's pledge to extend greater political powers and economic prospects to the Tamil community in exchange for support.

But challenges persist. Although most of the 200,000 people internally displaced by violence have left makeshift camps, thousands are unable to return to villages and seaside areas now under military control. The resettled often find homes destroyed or looted. Checkpoints and guards are a fixture of daily life. Distrust of the central government persists.

Bombings and gun battles no longer convulse the streets. But military officials maintain that rebel spies prowl the area, making tight security a necessity for now.

Sporadic hit-and-run attacks continue to target government forces in the east. Late last month, a rare Tiger air assault on a Navy base near the eastern port city of Trincomalee wounded four soldiers.

Locals counter that the military's heavy-handed presence has made normal life impossible. Ethnic Tamils, who make up one-third of the province's population, claim they are singled out for harassment and summarily arrested, or worse, on suspicion of having links with the Tigers.

A March report by Human Rights Watch alleged that the government is responsible for hundreds of abductions and "disappearances" in the east. Militia linked to Pillayan's pro-government Tamil party were also implicated in some cases.

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