The 18th May 2009 marked the end of a horrific civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. In Matara and Colombo the end of the war was marked with victory parade and triumphalist celebrations. During a speech Rajapaksa said, ‘We are not celebrating victory in a war, we are celebrating peace’. Yet, is this an accurate depiction of Sri Lanka? Is Sri Lanka at peace?
Over half a decade has passed and yet Sri Lanka has continuously failed to address the human rights abuses and allegations war crimes.
These crimes include the deliberate shelling of no-fire zones, execution of captured combatants and the sexual abuse and slaughter of civilians. Whilst these crimes are undoubtedly outrageous, what is more alarming is the continuing system of oppression.
This is illustrated by failure to account for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs). The UN Secretary General predicts that there are over 40,000 individuals are unaccounted for. Their families continue to struggle with their loss. The uncertainty of their disappearances weighs upon their family and loved ones as they hold hope that one day they will be reunited.
Beyond the mass of missing people there is a climate of fear is induced within the Tamil community as Sri Lankan officials are accused of sexually abusing Tamils for alleged links to the LTTE.
It documents 75 cases of rape- 31 against men, 41 against women, and 3 against boys under the age of 18. One of the most harrowing accounts is of a woman detained at Arunachalam camp after she managed to flee Mullivaikal during the last weeks of the conflict in April 2009. She told Human Rights Watch that army personnel took her to another camp in October 2009:
They questioned me about my links with the LTTE and asked about my activities. I said I was forced to work for LTTE and didn’t know anything. They didn’t believe me. They beat me, pulled my hair, and banged my head on a wall. They beat me with their hands and kicked me with their boots.
One of the soldiers said, “We will teach you a lesson.” I lost consciousness that day and when I came to, I realized I had been raped. Then more soldiers came and raped me. This went on for many days. I can’t remember how many times and how many soldiers raped me.
Her tragic story is just one of many and the refusal to address these claims has created a climate of impunity under which victims are afraid to speak out.
These threats of physical and sexual violence alongside the thousands of missing people form but a small insight into the struggle of the Tamil community. We must also acknowledge the economic struggle. Recent floods have devastated Sri Lanka but particularly the North-East, where almost 100,000 people are affected. These floods have devastated housing and damaged refugee camps in Lonappulam and Valigamam north. This has also had a catastrophic affect upon arable farm land which rural communities depend upon. These floods are yet another disaster which Tamils communities are forced to bear however alone it does not explain the full extent of their economic struggle. Since the end of the war, the North-East has occupied by a heavy military presence which has grown increasingly involved ‘in agriculture and commercial activities [thus posing] further obstacles on the difficult road to economic recovery for northern farmers and businesses’ (International Crisis Group). Within Vanni numerous plots of land have been taken over by the army and used to cultivate different crops rather returning said to the original owners.
The precise numbers of irregular land acquisitions are not known it is estimated by some to run into several hundred acres, possibly thousands. Furthermore, the military has involved itself in a number of commercial activities in the north such as the army-run restaurants and shops, trading posts, hotels and guest houses. Consequently the commercial activity undertaken by the military has undermined Tamil businesses and deterred the local community away from starting their own businesses.
Defenders of the government often turn to development projects which have commissioned the building of roads, bridges and culverts however, as TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran has stated ‘they do not benefit the people’. Tamils within North East struggle with housing shortage, the lack of jobs, dire poverty and food insecurity. In Kilinochi 26 per cent of households live on less than half the official poverty line.
Lastly, it is important to note the symbolic defamation of Tamil culture and identity within Sri Lanka. This cultural suppression takes several forms, yet arguably the most significant is the refusal to allow Tamils to celebrate Maaveerar Naal (Heroes’ Day). This celebration allowed Tamils to mourn their departed and remember their sacrifice yet has viewed by security forces as support for terrorists. Any sympathy shown for the departed is met with swift repression and arrests thus furthering the erosion of Tamil identity.
Whilst it may be easy to turn a blind eye to the struggle of the Tamil people and presume that ‘peace’ has emerged, this is clearly a fallacy. Instead we see a continued methods repression, intimidation and subjugation that are used to erode Tamil identity and assertion of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. It is for that reason that we must #BreakTheSilence