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Now The Bloodshed Is Over Can The Tigers Children Ever Find Peace – Sunday Herald

[MISC, Monday, 29 June 2009 07:12 No Comment]

After 26 years of war and 80,000 dead, defeated Tamils struggle to regroupFrom Tom Farrel in Colombo
AT THE Jeeva Jothy girls’ home in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka, 21-year old Thurka Devi is helping with the younger girls. An enthusiastic cricket player, she has also represented Batticaloa in karate tournaments and says she would like to become a social worker. The Jeeva Jothy charity offers shelter and education for orphaned and indigent girls and young women, but there are also a few ex-child soldiers, girls like Devi.

She was just 13 when she was kidnapped on her way to school one morning by members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers. The once fearsome guerilla group suffered a devastating defeat in May when their leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan military along with most of his deputies.

It remains to be seen if remnants of the LTTE, now almost entirely confined to segments of the international diaspora, can reorganise and carry on the campaign for "Eelam," a homeland for the island’s Tamil Hindu minority.

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But the 26-year war has left a devastating legacy. In addition to at least 80,000 dead, some 300,000 civilians are confined to government-run "welfare villages" across the erstwhile war zone in the northern province. A generation of Tamil children has been scarred by war.

In addition to the notorious Baby Brigades, comprising recruits under 16, the LTTE press-ganged children and adolescents into their ranks in the last weeks of the war. Many of these are now undergoing rehabilitation. When Thurka Devi was abducted, the LTTE still controlled large swathes of the eastern province.

"I was given no education," she says. "I was put in a fighting team of about 300 girls – 100 of us were under 20 years old."

Devi spent 2001-2004 in a training camp in the eastern jungle, learning about guns and landmines. Amnesty International estimated that one-third of the LTTE’s child soldiers were female.

Devi was returned to her home village in April 2004 when a powerful LTTE commander known as Karuna defected from the rebel group, taking several thousand fighters with him.

By then, the LTTE was two years into a ceasefire signed with Norwegian mediation. Karuna had become disenchanted with the northern leadership and a brief factional war erupted in Batticaloa district.

Later that year, the Boxing Day tsunami damaged much of the LTTE’s coastal infrastructure. As a result, when fighting resumed in July 2006, it was considerably weakened.

Karuna, who now goes by the name of Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, is now Minister of National Integration, having joined the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party in March.

"For over 22 years I was with Prabhakaran," he says. "We won several battles but I knew we’d never win our final goal through armed struggle."

The LTTE took up arms in the early 1980s and won support largely because moderate reformist Tamils were seen as ineffectual in the face of the intransigent nationalism of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Moreover, there has been a long tradition in Tamil politics of former militant groups switching allegiance to the government, only to be viewed by the Tamil community as supplicants of the security forces.

After splitting from the LTTE, a number of Karuna’s supporters reorganised themselves into a pro-government party known by its Tamil acronym of TMVP. Although the TMVP publicly handed over their weapons in Batticaloa town in March, allegations persist about their human rights record.

"Still people have doubts," says Nadesapillai Vidyatharan, a Tamil journalist. "There are abductions and other things going on." He fears that the TMVP, with its government links, is involved in paramilitary-style activity.

Vidyatharan himself was abducted in February by three men in police uniform and held in custody for two months on suspicion of LTTE links. According to Amnesty International, at least 14 journalists have died violently in Sri Lanka since 2006, while 20 have fled the country.

Although the LTTE appears to have been largely destroyed within Sri Lanka, parts of its international network remain intact. In the last months of the war, expatriate Tamils organised massive demonstrations in Toronto, Melbourne, London, Oslo and other cities. Many have donated to Tiger front organisations over the years. Jane’s Intelligence Review has estimated that the LTTE could raise $300 million per year through legal and illegal activities.

The LTTE is now believed to be led by Kumaran Pathmanathan, known as KP. who heads the weapons-procurement and fundraising wings of the movement and is thought to reside in Thailand. Under his leadership, it is speculated the Tigers may change direction.

However, the Sri Lankan government reacted dismissively to the LTTE’s announcement last month that it was setting up a "transnational government" to campaign for Tamil rights.

"What KP should do is surrender because there is an Interpol red notice’ relating to him," says Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Dr Palitha Kohona. "He can be arrested wherever he’s hiding."

At a rehabilitation centre in Ambepussa, 17-year-old Ranjendran reflects on his short career as a child soldier. As the LTTE’s defences were collapsing, his family was forced to give him up to help maintain control of their shrinking territory.

"Bhanu a senior LTTE commander told us we must fight to the death," says Ranjendran. He pulls up his sleeve to reveal a scar arching down his forearm. In March he was shot while escaping . "I still have problems. I can’t do any heavy work," he says. "The doctor is very sure I will recover though."

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