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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Travel, Asia

Unfinished war in Sri Lanka threatens paradise regained

Reuters | Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Sri Lankan Tamils hold pictures of family members who disappeared during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at a protest in Jaffna, about 400 km (250 miles) north of Colombo November 15, 2013.

JAFFNA - In the fishing village of Oori, two mothers await news of their young daughters who were taken to a care home three months ago after their alleged rape by members of the Sri Lankan navy.

In a lawyer's office in the town of Mannar, a middle-aged woman sobs uncontrollably as she recounts her five-year struggle to find her son, one of thousands of cases of young men and women who disappeared after being picked up by soldiers.

While in the city of Jaffna, a fisherman, displaced from his village after the military took his land, remembers the good life he once had as he sits in the ramshackle tenement he now shares with hundreds of others like him.

Sri Lanka is in its sixth year of peace.

Shells and artillery fire no longer pound the Indian Ocean island's north, children are no longer taken by insurgents to fight, and local tourists now flock to the palm-fringed beaches.

But for many minority Tamils here, the end of the almost three-decade-long conflict - with the crushing defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in May 2009 - has brought little peace, despite government efforts to smother the former rebel stronghold with visible economic development.

Behind the gleaming bridges, roads, schools and hospitals lie allegations of violations against Tamils by government forces, ranging from land grabs and intimidation to abduction and rape. Coupled with a culture of impunity, healing the wounds of war has been close to impossible, say Tamil war survivors.

Interviews conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation with analysts, diplomats, victims, lawyers, human rights groups, politicians, former rebels and war survivors suggest the rising disaffection felt by Tamils over continued abuses and a lack of reconciliation could again jeopardize the island's peace.

"The government has done much in terms of physical development - rebuilding roads, bridges and the railway system. But it has not prioritized reconciliation to help win over the hearts and minds of minority Tamils," said one Western diplomat in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

"No accountability on war crimes and no information on the disappeared, the still large military presence and its acquisition of people's land are just some things which have led to a disenfranchised Tamil population, who could, in the medium- to long-term, once again rise up."

It is an argument the military does not refute. To be sure, it says the prospect of renewed violence by members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), is real which is also why it cannot remove troops from the region just yet.

Military officials claim there are thousands of former rebels still at large and being supported by Tamil groups based overseas, citing a EUROPOL report earlier this year which found networks active in countries such as Switzerland.

ICE CREAM PARLORS AND THEATERS

Once the world's most ruthless insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took up arms in the 1980s for a separate homeland for marginalised minority Tamils - funded largely by the smuggling of arms and contraband, extortion and with money from overseas sympathizers.

Since the war ended, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has invested $6 billion into the Northern Province, buoying the region's growth rate to 18 per cent in 2012/13 against the national average of 7 per cent.

Jaffna, once the war-torn administrative capital of the Tamil Tigers, is now bustling, with international banks such as HSBC to ice-cream parlours, cinema halls, and supermarkets.

"If you see Jaffna today, it is totally different from during the war. Everything was in disarray, the agriculture fields, schools," said Northern Province Governor G.A. Chandrasiri, a retired Sinhalese major-general who served as Jaffna commander during the conflict.

"Children were taken out of schools and forced by the LTTE to fight. Now you will see all the children going to school."

Yet despite this development, many complain of a lack of jobs and opportunities.

Young men returning from India where they fled as refugees now work as hotel porters despite having degrees, and fishermen displaced from coastal villages complain of only "odd jobs".

Tamil politicians and religious leaders accuse authorities of giving jobs to the majority Sinhalese population, saying there is a policy of "Sinhalisation" - aimed at changing the predominately Tamil demographic in the north.

Tamil names of places such as Mathngal and Kantharodai in Jaffna, have been changed to the Sinhala names of Jambukolapatuna and Kathurugoda, add residents.

Chandrasiri refutes claims of "Sinhalisation".

"So many Tamils are coming back," he said. "Of course, Sinhalese people are also coming to the north, but these are people whose homes were originally there but were chased out by the LTTE."

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