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.

Every bus traveling north has to stop at the military checkpoint just after Vavuniya. Only men disembark. They know the drill.

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.

“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.”

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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