Military lingers in Tamil areas years after Sri Lanka's civil war
The war in Sri Lanka is over, but the military still occupies Tamil areas with a heavy hand. Residents say they still live in fear of security forces, and in fear of speaking out.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Every bus traveling north has to stop at the military checkpoint just after Vavuniya. Only men disembark. They know the drill.Skip to next paragraph
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Without being asked, they form two orderly columns, present their IDs, spread their legs for a pat-down, and open their bags for soldiers to rifle through. Some field questions about why they are headed toward the territory once controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Alternatively heralded as freedom fighters and decried as terrorists, the LTTE fought a 26-year war for Tamil independence against a majority-Sinhalese national government. Three years after the national Army defeated the LTTE in a 2009 offensive that left 40,000 civilians dead, military camps still mark the landscape in the predominantly Tamil north. The Sinhalese-controlled government justifies the militarization by citing national security concerns.
“When you’ve lived under terrorism for 30 years, you’re going to take precautions,” says Malinda Seneviratne, the editor in chief of The Nation, a weekly English newspaper in Sri Lanka.
But many Tamil civilians worry that the increased security is a cover to exert control over the Tamil minority. It’s a claim that, if true, could signal a return to the state-sponsored discrimination that led to war in the first place.
“Given the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka, there is a perception amongst people that the military are there to restrict the rights of the people of the region,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “There is no chance of violence anytime soon. But if people come out in peaceful protest and violence is used against the population, then the likelihood of the population itself becoming more militant is greater.”
The Army tightly controls the region. Civilians have to ask Army permission for everyday activities – from purchasing property to hosting a funeral.
Even nongovernmental organizations must get all projects pre-approved. One man says he can’t go home because the Army is using his family’s land.
“There is no freedom here,” says one Tamil social activist, who asks not to be named for security reasons.
Aid organizations estimate that more than 100,000 are still displaced. And in remote villages where many men are missing or dead, accusations of rape are common.
The military presence also stifles speech. Nobody seems to want to talk to a journalist in public; one man bolts his door before an interview begins, afraid someone will burst in at a sensitive moment. Another man blanches and leaps out of his chair when he sees someone in his front yard twisting to look at his Western guest. The man explains that former LTTE cadres released from government rehabilitation camps are often intimidated into acting as informants.
‘You will be abducted in a white van’
Those who speak out against the Army say they fear reprisal.
Former member of Parliament Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam lists a string of recent assaults and threats against a student leader, two protest organizers, a priest, and the relatives of a dead prisoner.