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Sri Lanka’s Wounds of War


The new Sri Lankan government must make reconciliation a top priority in order to move the country past a brutal, decades-long civil war.

By Shashank Iyer.

“Now we are thinking in a different way,” Kopalapillai Amirthalingam, a senior lecturer at the University of Colombo, declares. “The government is trying to correct things.” The cautioned optimism Amirthalingam exudes is shared by many corners of Sri Lankan society. The January presidential elections, resulting in the unanticipated victory of Maithripala Sirisena over former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has greatly altered the mood of the country and has led to, at least temporarily, the reversal of the Rajapaksa government’s numerous authoritarian tendencies, including the strengthening of executive power, undermining of the judiciary, and persecution of government critics. Also altered is the government’s stance towards the minority Sri Lankan Tamil community and the brutal decades-long civil war that culminated in the May 2009 defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE, the former separatist militant group that fought for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island nation. While the challenge of defeating the Rajapaksa clan in the ballots has for now been achieved, Sri Lanka today confronts the equally difficult task of forging a way forward towards reconciliation between the Sinhala majority community, the Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Muslim population, the latter two found primarily in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

Indeed, the idea of reconciliation itself remains tenuous in a country that has been marred by three decades of war that tore the country apart. While the fault lines around religious and ethnic identities remain sharp, the impact of the war and the consequent displacement, relocation, and resettlement had varying effects in different parts of the North and East. As Danesh Jayatilaka, researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies puts it, “If you talk to people in Jaffna, they might want to move on and move away from the past. But it might be different in Mullaittivu or some areas in Kilinochchi where some of the very nasty things happened, where the memories and experiences are different.”

The deaths and destruction caused by the war, especially in the final four months of fighting in the North, has been well documented. Equally devastating has been the impact of the war on the social structures, livelihoods, and health and education systems that accompanied the displacement and resettlement of hundreds of thousands. Indeed, Amirthalingam cites the government’s decision to legalize discrimination in education and employment, from the early 1970s, as the root cause of Tamil anger and eventual armed struggle against the majority Sinhalese establishment. From the various Tamil groups that were demanding equal rights in the 1970s and 1980s, the LTTE emerged as the most dominant voice in the Tamil uprising. Their unabashed use of suicide bombers, recruitment of child soldiers and suppression of other Tamil dissidents solidified their place as the government’s chief nemesis. The ethnic riots in 1983 targeting Tamils highlighted the failures of parliamentary politics and entrenched ethnic politics in the north and east of the country. As the violence escalated in the late 1980s, especially with the influx of funding from the Tamil diaspora and foreign donors, the government accelerated its campaign against the LTTE. During the final years of the war, the broadening range of artillery fire resulted in unprecedented numbers of people fleeing from their homes. The loss of property and livestock greatly destabilized social structures such as matrilineal wealth inheritance which, coupled with the high levels of widow-hood caused by the war, placed tremendous challenges upon women. Furthermore, the ballooning of displaced populations during the war led to enormous pressures on psycho-social health, especially of children who witnessed the death of family members and grew up with the stigma of being labeled as a “refugee boy or girl.”

The end of the war in 2009 has led to the gradual return to normalcy for the North and the East. The number of displaced has been slowly dwindling as the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have returned to their areas of origin. According to the government’s Ministry of Resettlement, more than 35,000 displaced people remain. Though populations are being resettled, land reallocation remains a hugely contested issue. Displacement due to conflict saw the transfer and rapid sale of land, which led to uneven land distribution as the original land owners left the area; coupled with the LTTE’s land redistribution programs, the status of vast swathes of land in the North remains disputed as many of the formerly displaced return to their areas of origin. In many areas, this has led to the establishment of mobile legal clinics, grassroots based systems that involve all the major stakeholders to adjudicate land disputes at the community level. The loss of land for so many of the displaced has transformed their status from land laborers, working on soil they own, to wage laborers, working for a salary in their host communities or for other landowners. Until the remaining IDPs have been resettled and provided with land through the various housing schemes instituted by the government in collaboration with foreign donors, the situation remains one where formerly self-sufficient local economies have been replaced by economies based on large amounts of indebtedness.

Of the more than 35,000 IDPs remaining in the country, the vast majority are near Jaffna in the North. The only populations still displaced in the East are from Sampur, a small town just south of the Trincomalee harbor. The case of Sampur is another example of the complex history of forced migration and the massive challenges to resettlement that still remain. Due to the strategic importance of the Trincomalee harbor, the LTTE used Sampur as a base to launch attacks on the harbor. The government’s counter offensive, culminating in the capture of the entire Trincomalee area, led to the forced displacement of entire towns and villages, including Sampur. The government, in labeling Sampur as a high-security zone, restricted the return of individuals there. During the government control of this region, development projects such as the establishment of the Sampur Special Economic Zone meant that industries and factories from other parts of the country and abroad were given land in Sampur and encouraged to establish industries there. Thus, the Sampur case remains especially tricky for the government, and the original inhabitants of Sampur who were displaced due to conflict have been unable to return due to development.

But the shift in the government’s stance has been palpable. The former Rajapaksa government spearheaded many of the industrial initiatives in Tamil majority areas, including the Sampur Special Economic Zone. It played an active role in defending the economic interests of many of the businesses that were assigned the land in Sampur. The Sirisena government has reversed this trend, defending the right of the displaced to return to Sampur. Indeed, the situation remains in a standstill, and after the recent Supreme Court decision to suspend the return of IDPs to their original lands, the June hearings of the cases filed by the displaced will determine the next chapter of this story. Furthermore, as the security situation in the North improves, the government has continued to release more and more land from its direct control; the hope remains that this continues. From almost all quarters, there is a strong sense that this administration is committed to reconciliation and acts in good faith. The Sirisena government’s cooperative stance with Sri Lanka’s civil society is another dramatic shift from the previous regime’s hostility towards civil society, including journalists.

Reconciliation between Sri Lanka’s various diverse groups must start at the top. For the Tamils, the war was entirely devastating. Except for marginal radical elements, the vast majority of Tamils will never accept militarization again. Indeed, their support for Sirisena was as much a vote against Rajapaksa as it was a vote to turn a new page in their relationship with the state. As for the government, the war has been over officially for six years in the North and almost eight years in the East. The thirty years of conflict has created a lot of fatigue, with the entire civil service drained from the war. In many ways, the goal is to forge a way forward. But this government is made up of various interests pulling Sirisena in different directions. As the parliamentary elections seems imminent, it remains too early to say for now how far Sri Lanka will be able to go in mending its strained past.

Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images


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