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.
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

Video Getting to Zero AIDS Infections

More than 35 million people around the world are infected with HIV, a disease that is both preventable and treatable

Children, Childhoods Lost in European Refugee Crisis

According to UNICEF, 190,000 children applied for political asylum in Europe in the first 9 months of this year - twice as many as last year

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs