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

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More