News / Asia

    Army Occupation Years After End of War Angers Sri Lankan Tamils

    A Sri Lankan police officer guards outside a polling station before the beginning of voting in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.
    A Sri Lankan police officer guards outside a polling station before the beginning of voting in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.
    Reuters
    The threats came by text message, a phone call and a delivery of two cow skulls. The message was clear: stop protesting against the army's occupation of your land or you will be killed.
     
    Four years after Sri Lanka's army crushed the Tamil Tiger guerrilla army and ended a civil war that had lasted nearly three decades, Tamils say they are blatantly repressed in Jaffna, the capital of this Indian Ocean island's northern peninsula.
     
    Newspaper printing machines have been burned, former rebels claim they face extortion and sexual harassment and army spies keep a close eye on political activity. It all makes ethnic Tamils feel like they are still seen as enemies of the state.
     
    As a summit of Commonwealth nations opens in Sri Lanka's capital on Friday, the nation is under intense scrutiny after a chorus of warnings from the United Nations and the West that its failure to resolve old conflicts means it is losing the peace.
     
    President Mahinda Rajapaksa defended his government's human rights record on Thursday, saying Sri Lanka had legal procedures to deal with complaints.
     
    He and his government claim Sri Lanka is on the path to reconciliation, helped by fast economic growth, and bristle at charges of creeping authoritarianism favoring the Sinhalese majority.
     
    However, some observers warn that, in the long term, the repressive climate and slow pace of progress towards Tamils' demand for more autonomy risks making Rajapaksa's fears of a resurgence in violence a self-fulfilling prophecy.
     
    “If it continues to close off avenues of peaceful change, the risks of violent reaction will grow,” the International Crisis Group said this week in a report entitled 'Sri Lanka's Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire'.
     
    For land activist Somasundaram Sugeerthan, a threat appeared on his phone one Sunday night. It read: “Hey dog, do you know what will happen to you if you protest? We'll send your body without the head in front of your home.”
     
    In the morning, he found a cow's skull on the gatepost of his house. Cows are worshipped by ethnic Tamils like Sugeerthan, who are adherents of the Hindu religion. The Sinahlese majority in Sri Lankan are primarily Buddhist.
     
    Sugeerthan believes the threat came from the army, which still occupies 6,400 acres of prime farmland outside Jaffna despite promises to return it to deed holders after the war ended in 2009.
     
    Military spokesman Ruwan Wanigasooriya said the army has released over 25,000 acres since the war, and more than half of the land still occupied is used for an airport and port.
     
    “Even out of that, we are trying to release as much land as possible,” he said, branding claims of threats by military agents as “false allegations simply to serve one or other agenda.”
     
    A Climate of Fear and Suspicion
     
    Sri Lanka’s civil war pitted the army against the ruthless Tamil Tiger separatists, infamous for popularizing the tactic of suicide bombings and striking civilian targets. The bloody stalemate ended after Rajapaksa launched an assault in 2006 that ultimately wiped the rebels out.
     
    The United Nations reported that tens of thousands of civilians died during the assault, mainly due to army shelling but also because many were used by the Tigers as human shields. It has called for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes in the final months of the conflict.
     
    Land is perhaps the most sensitive issue in post-war Sri Lanka. Tamil leaders believe the government has a strategy to give army-occupied land to Sinhalese Buddhist settlers in an attempt to alter the area’s demography.
     
    “The reason is the ethnic percentage range,” Sugeerthan said, barefoot and in a white sarong, among a few dozen protesters symbolically fasting under the watchful eye of police and men with cameras whom he suspected were members of army intelligence. “They want to settle the area with non-Tamil army families.”
     
    The government denies this, but the army presence and the climate of fear and suspicion in Jaffna spreads mistrust and a belief that the Tamil population is still seen as a threat.
     
    “We are not insurgents, we want to make peace, we want a settled life like the people of the south,” said retired teaching assistant B. Murugesu, who was forced off his land in 1990 and has drifted between half a dozen towns ever since.
     
    Peacetime has brought new buildings, smooth roads and gleaming consumer showrooms to Jaffna, a watery peninsula that was cut off from the country and the rest of the world until 2009. Yet it has not changed attitudes towards many Tamils, especially those with links to the former rebels.
     
    “It is an occupational army... everything is being done to repress the rights of the people, take over their lands, take over economic activities,” said C.V. Wigneswaran, the newly elected chief minister of the northern province.
     
    The airy offices of Uthayan, a leading newspaper in Jaffna, are decorated with gruesome photos of six journalists slain in armed attacks since 2006. The walls are riddled with bullet holes. In April, a group of unknown armed men poured gasoline over the central printing press and set it alight.
     
    “There is no chance at all for reconciliation; the government is not inclined to seek a solution,” said E. Saravanapavan, the owner of the newspaper, which represents the views of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the former political proxy for the Tigers that won the September election.
     
    Although the TNA won with a landslide, the new chief minister finds his decisions blocked by the governor, a retired general appointed by Rajapaksa.
     
    Former Fighters Vulnerable    
     
    Former rebel fighters are especially vulnerable. Viewed with suspicion by the army, even after a government rehabilitation program, many struggle to find work and are ostracized partly because other Tamils fear harassment for associating with them.
     
    They are frequently picked up by intelligence agents and taken into custody. Oftentimes, money changes hands before the threats stop.
     
    Human Rights Watch and advocacy group Freedom From Torture have recorded dozens of cases of former fighters now living in Britain who claim they were tortured in custody after the war.
     
    Ananthi Sasitharan, the wife of a rebel leader who has been missing since he surrendered at the climax of the war, said women whose husbands disappeared or were killed at that time are sometimes coerced into having sex with army officers.
     
    One ex-rebel glanced nervously out a window as he recounted how he had been ordered to visit a local military base several times in the last year, and was forced each time to pay bribes.
     
    Soldiers in civilian dress he recognizes from the base also regularly visit his corner store to demand small payments. He said he had paid a total of $35,000 to soldiers since being released from jail in 2011.
     
    Wigneswaran, the new chief minister, says that today, so long after the war, there is no need for a robust military presence and worries about where it will lead.
     
    “If you allow this to happen it will definitely lead to some form of violence in the future,” he warned.

    You May Like

    Hope Remains for Rio Olympic Games, Despite Woes

    Facing a host of problems, Rio prepares for holding the games but experts say some risks, like Zika, may not be as grave as initially thought

    IS Use of Social Media to Recruit, Radicalize Still a Top Threat to US

    Despite military gains against IS in Iraq and Syria, their internet propaganda still commands an audience; US officials see 'the most complex challenge that the federal government and industry face'

    ‘Time Is Now’ to Save Africa’s Animals From Poachers, Activist Says

    During Zimbabwe visit, African Wildlife Foundation President Kaddu Sebunya says poaching hurts Africa as slave trade once did

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolatei
    X
    July 29, 2016 4:02 PM
    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolate

    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Tesla Opens Battery-Producing Gigafactory

    Two years after starting to produce electric cars, U.S. car maker Tesla Motors has opened the first part of its huge battery manufacturing plant, which will eventually cover more than a square kilometer. Situated close to Reno, Nevada, the so-called Gigafactory will eventually produce more lithium-ion batteries than were made worldwide in 2013. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Polio-affected Afghan Student Fulfilling Her Dreams in America

    Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world where children still get infected by polio. The other is Pakistan. Mahbooba Akhtarzada who is from Afghanistan, was disabled by polio, but has managed to overcome the obstacles caused by this crippling disease. VOA's Zheela Nasari caught up with Akhtarzada and brings us this report narrated by Bronwyn Benito.
    Video

    Video Hillary Clinton Promises to Build a 'Better Tomorrow'

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged voters Thursday not to give in to the politics of fear. She vowed to unite the country and move it forward if elected in November. Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party's nomination at its national convention in Philadelphia. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more.
    Video

    Video Trump Tones Down Praise for Russia

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is toning down his compliments for Russia and Vladimir Putin as such rhetoric got him in trouble recently. After calling on Russia to find 30.000 missing emails from rival Hillary Clinton, Trump told reporters he doesn't know Putin and never called him a great leader, just one who's better than President Barack Obama. Putin has welcomed Trump's overtures, but, as Zlatica Hoke reports, ordinary Russians say they are not putting much faith in Trump.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora