By Nita Bhalla and Shihar Aneez
JAFFNA Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – 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.
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 jeopardise 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 prioritised 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 PARLOURS AND THEATRES
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 marginalized minority Tamils – funded largely by the smuggling of arms and contraband, extortion and with money from overseas sympathisers.
Since the war ended, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has invested $6 billion into the Northern Province, buoying the region’s growth rate to 18 percent in 2012/13 against the national average of 7 percent.
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.”
What dampens much of Tamil confidence in a genuine reconciliation is the looming security presence in the north with countless high-walled military camps, packed security trucks and patrols, and soldiers running small shops and hotels.
The army presence has also led to allegations of land grabs, a charge the military denies.
In the coastal region of Palali, an area stretching along the Jaffna Peninsula, where the military has set up a high security zone, more than 2,800 fishermen’s families are fighting a legal battle to get their land back.
“The government wants to move us to another place, but all we want is our own land back. We are fishermen, not labourers,” said Rajan Rajakantha, 42, who fled Palali 18 years ago.
The biggest worry for Tamils in districts such as Mannar and Jaffna districts, as well as in the Eastern Province’s Trincomalee district, is intimidation.
Security forces visit their homes and make phone calls, especially to parents searching for missing children and displaced families fighting for their land.
Many sources interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation insisted on meeting in secret locations and on the condition of anonymity.
During one interview with a displaced fisherman fighting for his land, he received a call from the security forces. Later, the army visited him to ask about the interview.
“It’s like an open jail. Twenty four hours a day, they are checking up on people or going to their houses asking for the identity cards,” said Primus Siraiva, a lawyer and provincial councillor of the main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a former rebel proxy political party which has a majority number of seats in the Northern Provincial Council.
RAPE AND IMPUNITY
Rajapaksa’s government is already facing a U.N. investigation over allegations of war crimes, particularly in the final months of the conflict when the rebels held more than 300,000 civilians as human shields as the military closed in.
As many as 40,000 civilians were killed by both parties, but mostly by state forces, a U.N. panel said in 2011. The Sri Lankan government says 7,000 people died.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris says those moves in the United Nations are politically motivated.
“It has nothing to do with the well-being of Sri Lanka, but it has a lot to do with the well-being of politicians in those countries and the influence the Tamil diaspora has in terms of its voting strength and funding,” Peiris said.
The focus on events towards the close of the war appears to undermine widespread allegations of abductions, torture and rape by security forces in post-war Sri Lanka.
A March report by Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights activist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid, documented 40 cases of torture and sexual violence on men and women by the military in detention centres.
In the fishing village of Oori on the Jaffna Peninsula, two mothers say they their two daughters were taken away in early July, after the girls, aged 9 and 11, alleged they had been molested and raped by two sailors from a nearby navy base.
A lawyer representing the victims said the navy is denying the charges, and the girls have been taken to a care home.
“I spoke to her in the hospital. She told me it was the navy men who tied her hands and blindfolded her,” said the mother of the 9-year-old victim.
“NOT CHILD’S PLAY”
The island’s military spokesman, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, admits there has been a rise in sexual crimes in the former war zone, but says only a few are related to the security forces that number around 160,000 in the region.
“In cases of involvement of the army, we have taken action against them so there is no impunity,” he said.
In view of “a very real threat” of the LTTE’s revival, the government has set no time frame to withdraw troops.
There are up to 4,000 suspected militants still at large in the country, said Wanigasooriya, who are still being financially supported by members of the Tamil diaspora.
But some Tamil groups based in countries such as the United States say they may want a separate state but not more violence.
“We believe only in an independent Tamil Eelam can Tamils live with peace, dignity and above all with physical security,” Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran, Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from New York.
For many war survivors, however, the politics mean little. Most just want to know what happened to their loved ones who went missing in the war that killed tens of thousands.
“They wants us to forget everything and move on. But it doesn’t work like that. I want my son back. I want to know where he is,” said Manuel Udaya Chandra, whose son was taken away by four men dressed in army fatigues in a white van in 2009.
“There is fire in our hearts and while we do not want another war, there could be one if Rajapaksa continues his policies. It will lead to resurgence.”
(Additional reporting by N. Parameswaran in Jaffna; Alex Whiting in London; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)