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Sri Lanka Begins Painful Reconciliation

[Wall Street Journal, Friday, 12 June 2009 07:30 No Comment]

NA-AY297_LANKA_D_20090611201812 Sinnathamby Raja, once a cog in this country’s brutal war, is now trying to be part of its shaky peace.

When he was 26 years old and already a 13-year veteran of violence with the Tamil Tiger rebels, Mr. Raja led a hit squad that detonated a bomb inside the office of a political party allied with the government. Then he gunned down those who survived the blast.

Soon after the 2006 attack, which he says killed 10 people, he tossed out his cyanide tablet — which all members of the rebel group were instructed to swallow to avoid capture — and surrendered to government troops. He no longer saw the point of such massacres, he says.

Lately, he has been in a rehabilitation camp outside the capital, Colombo. "Now that there’s a good government, I hope people can live in harmony," says Mr. Raja, who is training to be a plumber.

Such hope is a tall order for Sri Lanka. To defeat the rebels, the governement revved up a war machine to match the ruthlessness of its foe. It is now confronting the fallout from that fight, as it challenges allegations of human-rights abuses and seeks to ease the fears and distrust that remain among ethnic Tamils after a war that has lasted three decades.

The rebels claimed to represent Hindu ethnic Tamils in an island nation dominated by a Sinhalese, mostly Buddhist, majority. United Nations officials estimate about 8,000 civilians died from the beginning of this year sought to finish off separatists who corraled thousands of Tamils to shield their retreat. About 300,000 people displaced by the war are now confined to camps as the government attempts to weed out separatist rebels.

Sri Lankan officials say they have rounded up more than 9,000 Tamil Tiger rebels, most of whom will be freed after periods in rehabilitation camps, where they receive vocational training and are instructed to leave behind any allegiance to the violent separatist movement.

Sri Lanka has been "very effective smashing Tigers and their support network, but they smashed a lot of people who aren’t Tigers," said a Western political analyst.

Some Western governments and international organizations have called for an independent investigation into allegations of human-rights abuses.

"If communities that have been torn apart by decades of violence and impunity are to be reconciled, the Sri Lankan government should initiate internal reforms and seek international assistance to prevent ongoing violations and ensure real accountability," said Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, which released a new report Thursday on what it says were government failures to protect human rights.

Sri Lanka has already shot down proposals at the U.N. for an outside human-rights investigation by rallying support among sympathetic Asian and Latin American countries.

Experts say an internal probe is unlikely. "The idea of a truth-and-reconciliation tribunal has never been popular across the political spectrum. People think it’s much better to forget the past," said Rohan Edrisinha, who oversees legal and constitutional research in Colombo at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think tank.

In a sign of the kind of nationalism that surrounded the final war effort, Mr. Edrisinha’s organization received a list of demands this month, "Notice to the Traitors," from a group called Sri Lankans Affectionate Toward the Motherland. The writers demanded the group shut its offices for a week, donate money for wounded and deceased veterans, and stop programs its critics said were detrimental to national sovereignty. Other groups critical of the government have received similar warnings.

In declaring victory, Sri Lankan leaders have sought to patch up ties with ethnic Tamils. "The war against the terrorists is now over," President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is Sinhalese, said in the Tamil language. "The Tamil-speaking people should be protected. They should be able to live without fear and mistrust."

That has been difficult the past few years, however.

After a cease-fire between the government and the Tigers began to crumble in 2006, Sri Lanka saw a surge in violence. Some 2,000 people have "disappeared" in the past few years, according to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank. The disappearances have been part of a wave of political assassinations, abductions and assaults that have targeted critics of both sides.

One of the conflict’s casualties has been an independent press that could vent Tamil grievances. Sri Lanka’s ranking in a press-freedom index has slid in recent years as prominent journalists have been assaulted, threatened and killed. In a sign the government is likely to keep the pressure on the press, Sri Lankan officials have warned through state media they are investigating links of journalists to Tamil Tigers.

The refugee camps have also become a sore point. Although the government has eased access for aid groups and journalists, some Tamil politicians say they have been blocked from visiting — a stance that has alienated would-be supporters.

Officials say they are needed to screen for terrorists, although that process remains opaque. Officials at camps outside the northern town of Vavuniya declined to explain how Tamil Tigers were identified — other than those who stepped forward on their own. "There’s a list from A to Z," said Amir Ali, a government deputy minister. "Everybody knows who they are."

Some of the youngest cadres have ended up in Ambepussa, a camp for child soldiers nestled in the lush forest northeast of Colombo. During a recent visit, there were about 100 residents, mostly rail-thin teenage Tamils who said they were forced to join the Tigers at gunpoint and blamed the rebels for separating them from their families.

While the rebel group is now defunct and many conscripts have laid down arms, there are no certain prospects for peace.

The barrel-chested Mr. Raja, the former rebel leader, says he hopes to put to use his new plumbing skills to get a job outside the camp. "I no longer want to be part of the violence. I want to be a good citizen," he says. "My mind-set has totally changed."

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