Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

'How Can People Say This is Peace?'

by Stephanie Nolen, The Globe and Mail, Canada, January 27, 2009

"The government is eliminating terrorism, offering a political solution, and that is how I have been elected Chief Minister," [Pillayan] began in a recent interview in his office, then added, "I have become a chief minister but I have not received powers from Colombo. For the past six months Colombo says, 'This is not the right time to devolve powers.' ..."

Yet as frightening as the disappearances, and perhaps more likely to cause further conflict over time, is the government's unabashed campaign of "Sinhalization." Historic sites commemorating ancient Tamil kingdoms have, in the months since the government took control of the area, suddenly become memorials to Sinhalese kingdoms. Some Tamils stopped at checkpoints can no longer give the names of their home villages, because those places have new Sinhala names, local and international human-rights monitors say.

Eastern Sri Lanka chafes under the oppressive rule of a government that says it is committed to democracy

TRINCOMALEE, SRI LANKA — In the local office of Sri Lanka's national Human Rights Commission here in this eastern seaside town, they have statistics: Ninety-eight people were abducted in this area last year, snatched off the streets by the infamous white vans with no licence plates that are used by government security agencies. Eighty-five other Tamils simply disappeared. At the commission they have case files and police reports.

But none of the staff will talk about them. "We are helpless," one staff member said apologetically, ushering a visiting journalist out of the office. "We would like to help the people but we have to be afraid for our lives, too."

And who do they fear at this government office?

The government.

Eastern Sri Lanka offers insight into what the north of the country - the area that until weeks ago was held by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - will soon look like. The Tigers have lost all but a tiny portion of their territory to a punishing air and ground assault by government forces, launched by a president determined to end the country's 25-year-old civil war to win elections in April. He promises peace and development for the civilians of the north, where long-time oppression of the minority Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated government helped to create a powerful secessionist movement.

Until 2006, this swath of the east was also held by the LTTE. But infighting within the Tigers, which Canada and many other nations list as a terrorist organization, led to a split and the rebels of the east soon allied themselves with the government.

Today the government holds up Eastern Province as a model of its magnanimity, pointing out that elections were held there shortly after its military control was established, and that a Tamil party headed by ex-rebels won the region.

"The President has shown his commitment to honourable peace in Eastern Province; those people were given the chance to elect their own people. They know they are being represented, not neglected," said Lakshman Hulugalle, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence.

But international observers said the poll was marred by rigging, violence and intimidation, and the provincial government is dominated by ex-fighters from the breakaway Tamil faction who have little support from the population, which resented the rebels' often oppressive rule. Indeed the Chief Minister of the province is Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan, better known by his nom de guerre Pillayan, which he acquired when he joined the Tigers as a 14-year-old fighter. Today he is ostensibly the most powerful man in the province, a claim he rejects with a small, tight smile.

"The government is eliminating terrorism, offering a political solution, and that is how I have been elected Chief Minister," he began in a recent interview in his office, then added, "I have become a chief minister but I have not received powers from Colombo. For the past six months Colombo says, 'This is not the right time to devolve powers.' They say they will give them in time."

Most local and international observers - even Mr. Hulugalle of the Defence Ministry - predict that when the LTTE loses control of all its territory in the north it will launch an underground, Iraq-style insurgency. The Tigers have since the first days of their fight used suicide attacks on civilians, including those at prayer in places of worship, as one of their standard tactics.

"The LTTE will go to the jungle as resistance, and even if there are a few hundred of them, the government has to maintain a military presence in the north; their residual force will require suspicion of all Tamils," said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council. "The situation is likely to be the same or much worse than in the east - the soldiers, the questioning of people, the difficulty of getting private business to invest there."

And the peace of the victors will be a cold one for the Tamils, he predicted. "They say they will be doing infrastructure, building roads and that kind of thing, but it will all be done by the central government, and this conflict grew in the first place from the view the central government is Sinhalese and doesn't take their interest into account," he said.

Thus the streets of Trincomalee, banded every 150 metres or so with checkpoints where Tamils are grilled about who they are and where they are going and whether they can prove they do not support the LTTE, offer a grim vision of what the north will soon be like.

"What democracy do we have today?" asked the president of a respected local development organization, too afraid to be quoted by name. "We cannot meet, we cannot talk, even if someone sees us now, the security will come and ask what we are discussing. Every time you leave your house it's like you are going to court to face charges."

Sure, he said, the government has built a few roads (using Sinhalese-owned contractors and only Sinhalese labourers), and yes, he got to vote, for the first time in decades. But that is cold comfort, he said. "You can put a parrot in a nice cage and feed it nice food like apples but it's still a caged bird."

Pillayan, the Chief Minister, knows people are frustrated, and said that the situation will change. "The central government gave assurance that the 13th amendment [to the constitution, which promises power-sharing with the Tamils and other minorities] and even more will be there," he said. "We still have hope."

Yet as frightening as the disappearances, and perhaps more likely to cause further conflict over time, is the government's unabashed campaign of "Sinhalization." Historic sites commemorating ancient Tamil kingdoms have, in the months since the government took control of the area, suddenly become memorials to Sinhalese kingdoms. Some Tamils stopped at checkpoints can no longer give the names of their home villages, because those places have new Sinhala names, local and international human-rights monitors say.

The government recently announced that the fishermen of Trincomalee were back to catching their prefighting hauls of fish, but neglected to mention that it continues to deny all but a handful of Tamil fishermen the right to put to sea (citing the security risk that they might ferry supplies to the Tigers) and has instead brought in Sinhalese fishermen from the south, to whom it affords much more freedom.

"All the land seized as a 'high security zone' in the 2006 fighting is still in the hands of the military, and you have tens of thousands of people stuck in resettlement camps where they aren't allowed to fish and don't have land to farm and have a miserable existence," said one United Nations employee who was not authorized to discuss the situation on the record.

UN agencies, which are feeding civilians on both sides of the conflict and supporting a host of development projects across the country, as well as other aid agencies, are routinely denounced in the state-controlled Sri Lankan media as overt partisans and backers of the LTTE, a fact that both hinders their work and has the effect of blunting their criticism.

There is an additional layer of tension in the east because the LTTE is still present here, albeit underground - a situation that will be doubly true in the north. The rebels continue to pressure the Tamil population to provide funding and other support for the nationalist cause, and attempt to enforce vote boycotts and other obstacles to peaceful political participation.

In the anxious offices of the Human Rights Commission, investigators are regularly reminded by their government masters that official policy is: All is well in the east. And they despair. "How can people live like this?" a staff member asked. "How can people say this is peace?"

snolen@globeandmail.com