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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.

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“The fear,” remarks one journalist careful not to report anything that could seem too critical of government policies, “is you will be abducted in a white van.”

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Human rights groups report that between October 2011 and March 2012, 56 people — mostly Tami l— were abducted by security forces. Some abductees’ bodies have surfaced. And according to local newspapers, two Tamil inmates accused of being LTTE were beaten to death by police in June.

A Tamil MP, N. Sivasakthy Ananthan, is collecting names of people still missing from military arrests at the end of the war. His survey amassed 400 names just in July; the final tally could be thousands.

Adhi (not her real name) has a husband on that list. In 2009, the Army arrested him at a military checkpoint. Earlier this year, police asked Adhi to sign his death certificate, although they admitted the Army might still have him — alive. Wiping tears from her eyes, Adhi says she craves information. “I can’t even tell my son if he still has a father.”

'Fabricated stories’

In response to this host of allegations, the military’s spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya maintains that “these are all fabricated stories. Because of the remnants of separatism, they want to spit out stories and tarnish the image of the country.”

And most civilians simply express relief the separatist war has ended. The LTTE were no saints. And some say that the Army is making good efforts to reform.

“The LTTE started abducting children on their way to school,” says one Tamil Kilinochchi resident who lived through the Tigers’ reign. “The soldiers solved the problem. Some are even learning Tamil.”

The Army is also active in demining and helps to rebuild roads and bridges.

‘A lot of explaining to do’

But the military still controls some private land, ruffling feathers.

Fishermen complain about hundreds of Sinhalese-owned fishing trawlers the Army has permitted from the south. The Army also promotes Sinhala nationalism; Sinhalese tourists traveling north to view old battlegrounds are welcomed with a colossal victory statue, not to mention dozens of Army-erected Sinhalese Buddhist statues lining the roads. Most Tamils are Hindu or Christian. “People resent that,” says Bishop Emmanuel Thomas Saundrayanagam.

While Mr. Wanigasooriya, the military spokesperson, insists “the separatist threat is still there,” many disagree, at least for now.

“Right now the population is defeated both in numbers and in energy,” says a local academic who studies Sri Lanka’s post-conflict politics, and says he is also worried about his safety. “But the oppression and tactics used by the government remind people of the environment that led to war. Unless the situation is carefully managed, that feeling is going to rise.”

Two weeks ago, in response to a March 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution and a November 2011 report issued by the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, the government released a national action plan for reconciliation, resettlement, and the investigation of war atrocities.

If the plan is followed, the Army has explaining to do. During the last stages of the war, it bombed schools and hospitals, and photos have appeared of soldiers executing bound prisoners and stripping dead female bodies.

Implementing the action plan could be a start to gaining the population’s trust. “But at the moment, I don’t see any sharp break with the past in terms of a change of attitude,” says Jehan Perera, the director of the National Peace Council.

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