Sri Lanka under fire for lack of Tamil reconciliation
After defeating the Tamil Tigers this spring, the country has delayed the return of more than 250,000 displaced Tamils, citing concerns about mines and potential terrorists.
When Sri Lanka's government finally defeated the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, even its harshest critics rejoiced. Here, at last, was a chance to bring peace to an island that had suffered 26 years of war, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed.Skip to next paragraph
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The end of the war gave Sri Lanka an opportunity to heal the bitter ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority that had fueled it. But even as the government says it seeks reconciliation, it is drawing fire for actions that appear counterproductive to achieving that goal.
Chief among the complaints is delaying the return of more than 250,000 displaced Tamils. They have been refused permission to return to their homes or, in many cases, unite with spouses and children living in other camps. In addition, aid agencies have been given limited access to the camps and most reporters have been barred.
Last Friday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced he would ensure the return of all refugees by January, after demining operations were completed in the areas around their homes. The government has also said it wants to ensure that it identifies any Tamil militants among the displaced before allowing them to go home.
Mr. Rajapaksa's assurances came during a meeting with UN envoy Lynn Pascoe, who was visiting the country to follow up on a number of issues including the government's expulsion of James Elder, a spokesman for UNICEF – the United Nations' child-welfare agency.
The government said Mr. Elder, who had said recently that the island's monsoon rains would cause chaos in the camps, was "spreading propaganda." During the final, most bloody stage of the war earlier this year, Elder had described the "unimaginable suffering" of children caught in the fighting, including babies he had seen with shrapnel wounds.
In August, heavy showers had caused latrines in the camp to overflow, heightening concerns about the spread of contagious diseases.
Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a nonpartisan advocacy group, says that at least three children died in one camp in August, "which shows the sense of what [Elder] was saying."
Treating every Tamil as a terrorist?
After Sri Lanka gave Elder a Sept. 21 deadline for leaving the country, the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the organization was "working impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka." This included "making public statements when necessary in an effort to save lives and prevent grave humanitarian problems."
Elder reportedly left the country Sept. 18, marking the first expulsion of a UN worker from Sri Lanka. Many see it as yet another example of the government's intolerance of any criticism of its tactics either during or after the war.
But more worryingly, the government's apparent conflation of the defense of the rights of ordinary Tamils with LTTE propaganda suggests an unwillingness to tackle Tamil grievances – without which peace will be difficult, if not impossible.