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An uncomfortable peace in Sri Lanka: The time of triumphalism
Cédric Gouverneu

Mahinda Rajapaksa, strengthened by military victory over the Tamil Tigers, easily won the 2010 Sri Lanka elections. But his government’s authoritarianism is frightening the Sinhalese – and the Tamils are afraid of colonisation by the Sinhalese majority
by Cédric Gouverneur

The last bastions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began falling one by one from March 2008. The Sri Lankan army imprisoned in camps almost 300,000 Tamil civilians who had been living under the guerrillas’ strict authority. The Menic Farm site in Vavuniya district in the north held up to 228,000 people. Ten months after the Tigers’ defeat, 70,000 refugees were still behind barbed wire, waiting for permission to return to their villages. The army let me visit a camp, called a “transitory well-being village”.

At the entrance, dominating the lines of shacks, was a six metre-tall portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his arms raised in a gesture of triumph. The camp commander justified the mass detention of Tamils: “We had to separate the terrorists from the civilian population they had taken hostage. Of course, repatriation takes time. But we can’t send people back to their homes before the area has been properly cleared of landmines.” The few NGOs allowed to operate in the camps put the hardships into perspective: “The army was overwhelmed by the number of civilians living with the Tigers, when they expected to manage 100,000,” said a Western aid worker. “In spite of everything, during coordination meetings between UN agencies, NGOs and non-commissioned officers, it became clear that the military was doing the best it could. I’ve seen more chaotic UN refugee camps.”

Even so, there remains the discriminatory principle of interning civilians en masse because of their ethnic origins. The government in Colombo would never have subjected the Sinhalese to this treatment.

In the company of a major, and two Tamils apparently meant to report our conversations, we walked through the vast camp with a medical centre, schools, stalls, banks and post office meant to alleviate the loss of liberty. At times, detainees are given temporary exit passes. After months of trying to survive under fire, the people we met seemed relieved that the worst was over. They were alive, had food and medical care, and were getting ready to rebuild their lives. Our tour left its guide rails when a group got carried away, despite black looks from our “informers”: “We’ve had enough! How long do we have to stay here? Our homes have been pillaged. Why are we still here when others have been set free? What is the UN doing?” With the general election campaign in full swing, they criticised the lack of democracy in the camps: “Only candidates who support the president have the right to come here.”

There were few young men at Menic Farm. Many were behind bars, suspected of belonging to the LTTE. The government has detained between 11,000 and 13,000 presumed guerrillas. “They are categorised according to their degree of involvement,” said Rajiva Wijesinha, a former secretary of state. “About a thousand will be prosecuted.” While most Tigers surrendered, others were denounced by Tamils disgusted with the fighters’ hardline stance. When defeat was inevitable, said escapees, “they were recruiting up to two children from each family. They even shot at people trying to escape to zones controlled by the army”.

I visited a nearby detention and rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers. Under army guard, and with Tamil teachers from the surrounding area, these boys and girls were learning a trade after years on the front. Shivanesh was 13 when the LTTE forcibly recruited him. Now 17, criss-crossed with scars, he said: “I killed soldiers, and I was wounded. My battalion was almost all children. When the army surrounded us, when our leaders were killed, we all surrendered.” Shivanesh had no regrets about his surrender: “The Tigers stole my life. They cut me off from my family, stopped me going to school, taught me to kill. The army is teaching me a trade and allows my parents to come visit. I’m learning IT. Soon, I’ll go home and rejoin my relatives.”

Need for information
The government’s efforts at rehabilitating them were laudable, but seem only to help a minority of child soldiers. An independent source who was allowed to visit LTTE detainees condemned the lack of information: “The government does not supply any list of names. The families are kept in the dark: nobody knows exactly who is detained, or where, or why. In a country where summary executions are commonplace, this is cause for worry.” The International Red Cross has been refused access to the prisoners.

The Wanni region, further north, was recaptured by the army in 2009, after being under Tiger control for two decades. Since then, it has been in total military lockdown; foreign media have so far been kept away. The A9 road across the area is marked by a bunker every 100 metres and its surroundings have been razed, to prevent ambushes. Here and there, a road sign showing a skull warns of landmines. Armed military are everywhere. The few civilians mostly live in tents, not far from their ruined houses.

We shared the road with dozens of buses full of Sinhalese tourists, encouraged by the government to visit the north, which had for so long been inaccessible. Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ former “capital”, where their “ministries” had been established, was unrecognisable: not a single building still stood. Even the water tower had not survived the fighting; lying on its side, riddled by shell fragments, the imposing construction was now the target of Sinhalese tourists armed with cameras. Buddhist monks and families posed at this scene of desolation, then climbed back into their buses decorated with the Sri Lankan flag and posters glorifying the president and his “army of heroes”. Apart from a monument to the dead, the only new building in Kilinochchi is a Buddhist temple that the army quickly erected, to the great displeasure of the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations.

This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic Farm. In mourning and without news of their loved ones, they survive on international aid: “We went through hell, and they come to taunt us,” Nayan (not his real name) complained. Nayan, who is close to the Tigers, escaped the final offensive around Mullaittivu, where the army subjected the LTTE – and the thousands of civilians they forced ahead of them – to non-stop shelling. “The Tigers fought to the last bullet. And then they bit into the cyanide capsules that they wore around their necks. It was raining shells. My mother died in front of me, and I was wounded myself,” he said, showing scars on his arm and calf. “I appreciate that since the shelling, the army has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds.”

But they did not change Nayan’s convictions. “I lived for years under the Tiger government. I liked it a lot. There was order, work, social services, social justice.” Like many LTTE sympathisers, Nayan refused to believe in the death of their leader, Vellupilai Prabhakaran, though it was confirmed by DNA tests: “On television they showed the body of a man with a moustache who looked like him.” He maintained that the Tigers had “fallen back”. “We had five helicopters, 35 long-range guns. Where are they? The LTTE are hiding them, they’ll reappear.”

Most Sinhalese savoured the victory and were relieved not to live in fear of suicide bombings any more. Many had professional relationships or friendships with their Tamil fellow citizens – despite things unsaid – and summed up the conflict as a “war on terrorism”. They truly believe the media’s line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a criminal organisation. The Tigers’ defeat closed the debate. The island will be able to live in peace and harmony, attracting investors and tourists after a parenthesis of a quarter century. Sri Lanka hopes to welcome 2.5 million tourists in 2016, five times more than today. Hotel groups covet the splendid bay at Trincomalee, a former LTTE fiefdom.

This over-optimistic vision forgets that Tamil irredentism did not start with the LTTE’s bombs but three decades earlier, when Colombo took repressive measures against its minority (1). Barbed wire at Menic Farm strengthens the Tamils’ conviction that they are being treated like second-class citizens. Despite the Tigers’ totalitarianism, acts of violence and child soldiers, many Tamils are still ambivalent. “People say to me, at least with the Tigers we had a voice,” said Shanti Satchithanandam, who heads the Tamil NGO Viluthu and was a victim of the Tigers. “They believed that the LTTE, despite their shortcomings, were fighting in their name. Their defeat has left them shocked and voiceless.”

The LTTE contributed to the current representational vacuum by systematically killing any Tamil politician who might have become a rival. And in addition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), notoriously close to the Tigers, has imploded. Many of its dignitaries had only joined the party to avoid being assassinated by the LTTE. They have since recovered their autonomy and ran in the general elections under various banners – sometimes even supported by the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils. The TNA, unable to admit the new reality, still dreamed in its political manifesto of a “federal structure for the north and east” that the conquering Sinhalese lion is hardly likely to grant. “Our ambitions are modest,” said Mavay Senathiraja, a TNA candidate. “We will negotiate with the government, try to obtain the support of the international community by mobilising the diaspora (2). If our demands are not heard, we will launch a campaign of civil disobedience,” he declared, in a poignant admission of powerlessness.

“The Tamils have lost all hope,” an old militant said. “If I was younger, I’d go into exile. Thirty years of political struggle [from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1980s] have failed. Thirty years of armed struggle have recently failed. Negotiations haven’t got us anywhere, neither has the fighting. We’ll have to resign ourselves to living in a Buddhist Sinhalese country, under military occupation. Because the army is settling in for the long term in the north and east. Look at Jaffna: the town fell over 20 years ago and there are still just as many soldiers patrolling its streets.”

The Jaffna peninsula, at the northernmost point, has been a high security zone (HSZ) since it was taken by the army in 1996. At the entrance to the historical capital of Sri Lankan Tamils, there was a huge billboard in English between two bunkers studded with machine guns: “One country, one nation.” Jaffna has been in ruins since the 1990s, having been taken and retaken by the LTTE, rival Tamil groups, the Indian expeditionary corps (1987-90) and the army. There was not a single work site to indicate that reconstruction might have begun. “The situation is improving,” a UN official said. “The curfew has been lifted, fishermen are once again allowed to go out on the ocean, identity checks are less numerous.” But the peninsula still lives in fear. It is under military surveillance as well as under the thumb of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a Tamil militia that went over to the government in 1987. In the last stages of the conflict, between 2006 and 2009, perhaps several hundred people were assassinated or “disappeared”, according to human rights activists. “It would seem that the EPDP wanted revenge on the LTTE,” a government source told me. The organisation’s leader, Douglas Devananda, has good reason to hate the Tigers, having escaped 13 assassination attempts. Unable to reach him, the LTTE killed his female companion instead.

Questions unanswered
Even though the last murder attributed to pro-government militias dates to the end of 2008, nobody dared answer my questions. Only the Tamil Catholic bishop, Monsignor Thomas Sandernayan, protected by his social status, agreed to bear witness: “In August 2006, Father Jim Brown disappeared with his chauffeur on the island of Kayts, off Jaffna.” Shortly before, an officer had issued death threats against the Tamil priest, accusing him of being in league with the guerrilla fighters. “We demanded an investigation. But the investigators sent by the government don’t speak Tamil. And the army refuses to cooperate.”

Off the island of Kayts, thousands of Sinhalese tourists gathered on the little island of Nainativu. They were on a pilgrimage to the temple of Nagadipa, which Buddha is reported to have visited. Marines helped the pilgrims climb aboard the overloaded boats, and revived those that the heat had exhausted. An officer proudly said, “Yesterday, we received 10,500 people.” An orange-robed monk from the south of the country was delighted. “The Tamil terrorists had destroyed this temple. The army has just rebuilt it. After all these years, Buddhism is finally back on this soil.” Many Sri Lankan monks are politically on the far right and believe the country belongs to the Buddhist Sinhalese alone. Monks running in the general election have posed with soldiers for their campaign posters. In this context, Tamils, Hindu and Christian, interpret the influx of Buddhist pilgrims to Nainativu as a “colonial” activity.

This perception of colonisation was also present in the east, where Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslim minority (7% of Sri Lankans) live side by side and sometimes clash. In Ampara district, thousands of Muslim farmers have had their land confiscated for “archaeological excavations”. According to Myown Mustapha, the former minister of higher education, the seizure of land at the expense of his fellow Muslims has been “orchestrated by Buddhist extremists who have infiltrated the president’s entourage”. Farid, a farmer, said: “Monks planted a stele in my fields, then told me it was a historic site and said I didn’t have the right to touch it any more.” His fields have lain fallow ever since. He knew that the authorities were on the side of the monks. Here, as in the north, the idea of a state governed by the rule of law is an abstraction: the forces of law and order are backed by the strong arms of the “Karuna faction”. Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, known as Karuna, is the former regional chief of the LTTE, who defected in 2004. Like Devananda, he has been given a ministerial post as a reward (3).

In Colombo, there are no Tamil paramilitaries to reduce opponents to silence. Instead, “white vans” without number plates go out at night to seize people. The vans pass police checkpoints without any problem. Prageeth Eknaligoda, a newspaper cartoonist, “disappeared” after leaving his office on 24 January 2010. On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, known for his acerbic editorials, was gunned down in the street. “They killed Lasantha, a cousin of ex-president Kumaratunga, in broad daylight and before witnesses,” I was told. “Now we know that they can kill anyone.” Aid workers, lawyers and journalists receive death threats calling them traitors, and henchmen of the Tigers. “Journalists are free to practise their profession here,” said Thana Balasingam, director of the Tamil daily newspaper Thinakkural (Daily Voice). “But killers of journalists are also free to practise.”

Since being re-elected on 26 January, Rajapaksa has tightened his hold on his opponents and the independent media. His unfortunate rival for the presidency, the former chief of staff Sarath Fonseka, has been in prison since February awaiting court-martial. This ruthlessness has shocked people, although they had few illusions about Fonseka’s democratic convictions. “The president accused Fonseka of preparing a coup,” said a human rights activist who has received death threats. “But he carried out the coup.” Soldiers were omnipresent and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the much-dreaded defence minister and brother of the president, seemed omnipotent.

The president has succeeded where his predecessors failed: he has eradicated the LTTE, one of the most formidable guerrilla forces on the planet. This success is due to the assistance of China, which is anxious to form an alliance with Sri Lanka – strategically located on its oil supply routes and facing its great rival India. Worried by this alliance, the US is said to have supported Fonseka’s candidacy in secret.

According to observers, a key feature of the military victory was the lack of respect for human rights (UN experts were denied entry to investigate in June). India, convinced that the LTTE would parley only to gain time, ended up supporting this total war – albeit secretly, because of the large Tamil population in India (4).

With Maoist (Naxalite) attacks in India increasing (75 policemen killed in an ambush in Chhattisgarh on 6 April, 148 civilian casualties aboard a sabotaged train in West Bengal on 28 May), the Sri Lankan government has offered its neighbour its counter-insurrection “expertise” (5).

The Rajapaksa government is pushing triumphalism to extremes. The new 1,000-rupee note shows the president on the front and, on the back, soldiers planting the nation’s flag, like the US marines on Iwo Jima in 1945. This fervour augurs badly for reconciliation: “The Sinhalese now consider the north to be conquered territory,” said Jehan Perera, a Sinhalese intellectual. “During the fighting, they were afraid of the Tigers. At the time of the ceasefire, a relationship between equals had formed between Sinhalese and Tamils. Now we see a relationship of winner and loser.”

No political concession is planned. “The council of the western province just has a walk-on part,” said Somasundram Pushparajah, an independent Tamil representative, whose life has also been threatened. “If the government gave the provinces real power, the ethnic problem would be solved.” The presidency reckons that rebuilding the conflict zones will satisfy the minority. But, as the bishop of Jaffna pointed out, “Tamils will never accept centralised government-led economic development over which they have no control.” That the man in charge of the reconstruction programme is Basil Rajapaksa, another brother of the president, only worsens the situation.

The Tigers’ defeat “opened the possibility of a pluralist democracy that respects everyone’s rights,” said Jehan Perera. “But we are going in the opposite direction – the Malaysian way – towards an authoritarian regime, a restricted democracy, where rights will be subordinated to economic growth.”

Thirty years of civil war
1815 The British finish colonising Ceylon. They unite the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil.
1948 Independence. The Tamil minority (18%), pampered by the colonial power, finds itself once again under the rule of the Sinhalese majority (74%), which imposes its language and gives precedence to its religion, Buddhism.
1956 The Tamils, discriminated against, demand autonomy for the north and east.
22 May 1972 Ceylon becomes the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
July 1983 Anti-Tamil pogroms. Thousands of Tamils join the resistance. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, impose themselves by executing their rivals.
1987-1990 Indo-Sri Lankan accord: the Indian army confronts the LTTE in Jaffna, the Sri Lankan government puts down an extreme leftwing insurrection in the south.
1991 LTTE assassinate the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
1996 The army retakes Jaffna.
1997-2001 A series of victories for the LTTE, who control the north and large areas of the east.
February 2002 Ceasefire agreed under Norwegian mediation.
April 2003 The LTTE withdraw from the peace talks.
March 2004 The Tigers’ leader in the east, “Colonel Karuna”, defects.
November 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa elected president. He promises to crush the LTTE.
April 2006 Generalised fighting.
September 2007 The army, having retaken the east with Karuna’s help, goes on the offensive in the north.
2 January 2009 Kilinochchi, the LTTE’s former “capital”, falls.
20 May 2009 The war officially ends after Prabhakaran is killed and the LTTE are crushed around Mullaittivu. The final offensive allegedly caused 8,500 to 20,000 casualties. About 300,000 Tamil civilians are detained in camps controlled by the army.
December 2009 Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results.
26 January 2010 Rajapaksa is re-elected president, Fonseka court-martialled.
Translated by Tom Genrich

Cédric Gouverneur is a journalist

(1) See the series of articles by Padraig Colman in Diplomatic Channels on Le Monde diplomatique’s English website. See also Eric Paul Meyer, “Defeating the Tigers won’t solve the problem”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2009.
(2) More than 1.5 million Tamils live in exile, especially in Northern Europe and Canada. This diaspora ensured the LTTE’s financial autonomy through its contributions, whether voluntary or enforced.
(3) See Anuradha Herath, “The Saga of Colonel Karuna”, The Huffington Post, 8 July 2009.
(4) See “Lessons from the war in Sri Lanka”, Indian Defence Review, September 2009.
(5) See Cédric Gouverneur, “India’s undeclared war”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2007.
© Le Monde diplomatique