SRI LANKA: What’s Next For the Tamil Community?

By IPS Correspondents

COLOMBO, May 21 (IPS) – Nearly three decades of war ended in Sri Lanka last week and a victorious
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has extended a fresh hand of friendship to the
minority Tamils, but most members of this community feel it will take a long
time for the wounds to heal after years of mistrust and alienation.

Mano Ganeshan, Tamil parliamentarian and leader of the Western People’s
Front (WPF), said that Rajapaksa clearly said in parliament that the war and
subsequent victory was against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
guerrillas and not the Tamil people. ”However these pronouncements and
declarations should also be reflected on the ground,” he said, adding that in
a few areas, Tamils were subjected to intimidation and harassment during
widespread victory celebrations.

Thousands of people across Sri Lanka – including in the Tamil-dominated
eastern region – have been singing and dancing in the streets after the
government declared at the weekend that the Tigers had been defeated and
that elusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been killed. The scenes
were reminiscent of the fervour that erupted across the country when
cricket-crazy Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996 – even the rebels
celebrated at that time.

”Our aim was to liberate our Tamil people from the clutches of the LTTE.
Protecting the Tamil-speaking people of this country is my responsibility –
that is my duty,” Rajapaksa said, speaking in the Tamil language in the
opening part of his ‘victory’ speech in Parliament Tuesday. ”All the people of
this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live
with equal rights.” Wednesday was declared a national holiday to mark the
end of the war.

But, Tamils say insecurity persists and the government needs to quickly win
the confidence of the people, otherwise the same old issues of discrimination
and uncertainty would remain. ”We are not the Tigers. We don’t even support
them. But more than fighting the Tigers, the government has been
suppressing ordinary Tamils. We still live in fear,” a veteran academic, who
declined to be named, said by telephone from the northern, Tamil-dominated
town of Jaffna, once the seat of LTTE militancy.

He said most shops in Jaffna were ‘asked’ to put up the national flag by local
authorities. ”Shopkeepers did – out of fear and not because of anything else.”

Ganeshan said Tamils need concrete assurances of safety, and clear
instructions must be given to the armed forces and the police to maintain law
and order. He sees tackling the root cause of the problem as a priority,
saying, ”Tamil militancy began because of these issues and though the LTTE
has been defeated, these issues remain unresolved.”

Government troops – after a sustained, nearly 2-year campaign – crushed the
rebels in the north and east, ending the battle at the weekend by freeing
several civilians held against their will by the rebels, and by killing
Prabhakaran and several of his lieutenants including his son, Charles Anthony
who headed the group’s air force.

Thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians have died in the rebel campaign
for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, who form over 15 percent of Sri
Lanka’s population of 20 million. The Tamils say they have been
discriminated against for over half a century in education, jobs and other
services by governments controlled by the majority Sinhalese community.

Several rounds of peace talks, at different times since 1983, between the
government and militants, were held but ended with disagreement mostly by
the rebels.

Nearly a million Tamils have gone abroad since 1983 to escape the violence
and many supported the Tigers through financial and other means. In the
past few weeks as the war neared its end, Tiger supporters abroad launched
huge demonstrations outside the British Parliament and White House in the
U.S.

Demonstrations and protests were also held in cities around the world by Sri
Lankan expats – both Tamil and Singhalese together – against alleged human
rights violations by both sides in the final days of the war. A few Sri Lankan
overseas missions were also vandalised.

Colombo has seen a flurry of world leaders in recent weeks, all trying to
persuade Rajapaksa to stop the war as innocent civilians were being harmed.
But Colombo wasn’t swayed and all these calls were rejected.

Some 250,000 civilians – who fled the latest fighting – are housed in camps
in the northern town of Vavuniya and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is
flying to Sri Lanka Friday to visit these camps and assess the situation.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy
Alternatives (CPA), says the priority is to resolve the problems of people
(Internally Displaced Persons-IDPs) living in camps. ”There should be a quick
screening, registration and separation,” he said.

While the screening is to separate civilians from rebel infiltrators, the
government has said at least 80 percent of the IDPs will be returned to their
homes by the end of 2009 after reconstruction and rehabilitation gets
underway. A government task force was recently appointed to oversee the
rebuilding of the north.

”The other aspect is moving towards a speedy political settlement. This is
imperative,” Saravanamuttu, also a political columnist, said, adding however
that, ”the Tamils will want their insecurity taken care of first.”

That’s what worries residents like the Jaffna academic. ”We need to be
trusted to make our own choices. We shouldn’t be forced. For example, some
of my business friends in Colombo have been asked by government agencies
to contribute financially to help the IDPs and are paying, with great difficulty,
the money,” he said. ”They do care but also fear that if they don’t donate,
they would be marginalised.”

A grouping of parties called the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC)
has been meeting for the past few years – since Rajapaksa won presidential
elections in November 2005 – to thrash out a political settlement to the
ethnic question.

However the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil
National Alliance (TNA) – the largest Tamil group in Parliament which has
been supporting the rebels – have boycotted the meetings and most people
believe it is unlikely to come up with a viable solution.

Analysts also believe the government will hold local council elections in the
north and back anti-LTTE political parties to take control to ward off any
attempt by the Tigers or their proxies to secure a foothold. There is also
speculation that Rajapaksa may either call early parliamentary or presidential
polls this year.

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