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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs