Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sri Lanka's Troubles Drift a Long Way

by David Costello, The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Australia, June 15, 2012

There are competing narratives as to what has happened in Sri Lanka since 2009.

According to the Government, the vast majority of the 300,000 people rescued from the Tiger battlefields have been resettled or relocated. High Commissioner Samarasinghe told The Courier-Mail recently that 11,000 former "terrorists" had been rehabilitated, with 97 per cent of captured rebels returning to normal life.

Only 275 militants were being held for possible indictments, he said.

Money was being pumped into former Tiger strongholds such as the Jaffna Peninsula and the economic growth rate in the northeast was now around 22 per cent.

The time is right, Samarasinghe says, for reconciliation between the Sri Lankan groups in Australia, which include Muslims and Burghers (European origin) as well as Sinhalese and Tamils.

Sam Pari , a spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress, has a different point of view.

She says there can be no true reconciliation without accountability and argues that the situation back home is not so rosy.

Pari says rape, disappearances and police arrest are forcing Tamils to flee the island. On the economic front, she says Tamils are losing their livelihoods, with the army taking over shops and the tourism and fishing industries in the northeast.

At the end of the day, she argues, it is not easy for Tamils in Australia to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their kin back home.

It would appear that reality lies somewhere between this narratives.

THE civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 but the fallout continues to wash up on shores.

Refugees drawn from the Tamil ethnic minority are once again cramming into rickety boats and heading for a new life in Australia.

Up until this week, 135 Sri Lankans had made it to the Cocos Islands and another 530 to Christmas Island. Some sources, including Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, say the refugees are being paid by expat groups in Australia.

Others say they the men on the boats are economic refugees looking for work in our booming mines. Either way, their arrival underlines the deep scars inflicted on Sri Lanka by an extraordinary brutal civil war in which government forces drawn from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority eventually crushed the infamous Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which was fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the country.

The new influx of asylum seekers is also hampering efforts by moderates within the Sri Lankan community in Australia to bring about reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils in our major cities.

Some people want to move forward. Others say there can be no real dialogue until the situation within Sri Lanka improves.

When analysing the 1983-2009 conflict, it is quickly obvious that both sides have much blood on their hands. Tamils suffered discrimination in education and employment from the 1950s onwards. In 1983, anti-Tamil riots in Colombo left 3000 people dead and many fled abroad.

Some members of this diaspora helped fund the Tamil Tiger rebels, led by the charismatic commander Velupillai Prabhakaran who had been assassinating police and moderate Tamil politicians since the mid-1970s.

As war intensified after 1983, the Tigers set new benchmarks for ingenuity and brutality, perfecting the use of suicide bombers and creating rudimentary air and naval divisions.

Tiger cadres carried cyanide capsules to facilitate swift suicide in the event of capture.

Various ceasefires and international peace efforts spearheaded by Norway came and went with little effect.

By 2008, the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had decided the crush the Tigers with brute force.

The final battles of January-May 2009 remain shrouded in controversy. LTTE guerrillas had herded more 300,000 civilians onto a narrow strip of land near Mullaitivu in the northeast. The desperate refugees were trapped by the Indian ocean on one side and a series of lagoons on the other.

The United Nations says that the Sri Lankan military shelled no-fire zones in the area and estimates that more than 6000 civilians died. It was also alleged the Tigers used non-combatants as human shields, forced children to take up arms and shot people who tried to escape their last bastion.

By May 19, Prabhakaran was dead and the rebels were utterly crushed.

Joyous crowds took to the streets of Colombo. But there was disquiet in the West over possible war crimes committed by victorious troops. These feelings intensified in June last year with the screening of the Sri Lanka's Killing Fields documentary by British TV station Channel 4.

The graphic and shocking film purported to show the shelling of civilian targets, including hospitals, and the execution of blindfolded prisoners by government troops.

For its part, the Sri Lankan Government has denounced the documentary as a fake and produced its own version of events in a film entitled Lies Agreed Upon. There has been mounting international pressure on President Rajapaksa over the allegations of war crimes.

In March this year, the UN Human Rights Council called on Colombo to allow an independent international investigation. Tamil groups demonstrated against Rajapaksa when he was in London last week for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. British Prime Minister David Cameron again pressed Rajapaksa to make sure that allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka were properly investigated.

There are competing narratives as to what has happened in Sri Lanka since 2009.

According to the Government, the vast majority of the 300,000 people rescued from the Tiger battlefields have been resettled or relocated. High Commissioner Samarasinghe told The Courier-Mail recently that 11,000 former "terrorists" had been rehabilitated, with 97 per cent of captured rebels returning to normal life.

Only 275 militants were being held for possible indictments, he said.

Money was being pumped into former Tiger strongholds such as the Jaffna Peninsula and the economic growth rate in the northeast was now around 22 per cent.

The time is right, Samarasinghe says, for reconciliation between the Sri Lankan groups in Australia, which include Muslims and Burghers (European origin) as well as Sinhalese and Tamils.

Sam Pari , a spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress, has a different point of view.

She says there can be no true reconciliation without accountability and argues that the situation back home is not so rosy.

Pari says rape, disappearances and police arrest are forcing Tamils to flee the island. On the economic front, she says Tamils are losing their livelihoods, with the army taking over shops and the tourism and fishing industries in the northeast.

At the end of the day, she argues, it is not easy for Tamils in Australia to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their kin back home.

It would appear that reality lies somewhere between this narratives.

There is no doubt that thousands of former rebels have undertaken rehab programs, including vocational and life skills training. Most are glad to be finished with the fanatical LTTE.

But they face an uncertain future and job prospects when returning to the northeast which is firmly under control of the military. The Tamil grievances about social inequality and limited opportunities have yet to be addressed.

Despite these ongoing tensions, some Sri Lankans in Australia are trying to bridge the ethnic divide.

The Sydney-based Sri Lankan Reconciliation Forum has staged a number of cultural events involving Tamil, Sinhala and Hindi songs.

In Queensland, Jayantha Weerasekera is a organiser with the Sri Lankan Radio Group at Radio 4EB FM in Brisbane and he has been involved in reconciliation efforts here.

He says local expats are going to form a Federation of Sri Lankan Organisations Queensland and that Tamils will be invited to join. Tamils will also be urged to participate in a Sinhalese cultural festival in September.

Weerasekera says getting young Tamils and Sinhalese together is critically important and a cricket match involving both groups is planned for later this year.

The newsletter of the 4EB Sri Lankan Groups has notices for events organised by the Tamil Association (Qld).

All of these steps are welcome but there are reports that hardliners within the expat community are holding things back.

For his part, Weerasekera says that if that certain actions continue to hold hardline positions, reconciliation will never occur.

It is to be hoped that Sri Lanka's factions can put civil war in the past. With an estimated 80,000-100,000 people killed, it stands as a horrible example of what fanaticism and intolerance can do to a country.

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David Costello is the Foreign Editor of The Courier Mail

costellod@qnp.newsltd.com.au