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Sri Lanka risks losing the peace – The Australian

[MISC, Friday, 7 May 2010 14:38 No Comment]

The government is not addressing Tamil grievances that led to war in the first place

SOON after they killed him, the Sri Lankan government sent text messages to mobile phones across the country heralding the demise of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam.

In case anyone missed the point — or considered his death an elaborate hoax — footage of Prabhakaran’s lifeless body was aired extensively on television. A bright crimson wound on his forehead marked the spot where Prabhakaran’s life, and the separatist movement he founded, ended.

These days you have to travel a long way to find Tamils who think Prabhakaran is still alive, although it was a fairly common belief in the immediate aftermath of his death.

But they are there. In a village in the country’s north, The Weekend Australian encountered a young Tamil woman who was convinced the corpulent paramilitary leader was not only alive but readying himself for the final stages of the conflict.

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Forced to fight by the Tigers in the closing stage of the war, and hideously wounded for her troubles, the young woman’s eyes danced when the subject turned to Prabhakaran.

"Tamil people are not happy because they still believe the leader is still alive and the fight will start soon in [Batticaloa]," she said.

"The leader wants to get together the community because the Tamils are suffering because Sinhalese are running the country. Mr Prabhakaran wants to change this attitude."

That’s not going to happen. But in the young woman’s misguided optimism there is a concealed truth: the LTTE may be dead but the grievances from which it drew its strength remain alive.

More than 12 months after the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody conflict there is growing concern among analysts that the reconciliation efforts needed to prevent the resurrection of Tamil militancy are being neglected.

For Australia, this is not a neutral question. Roughly 20 per cent of the boatpeople who have so far arrived on our shores have been Sri Lankan, mostly Tamil.

While their passage has been facilitated by the profit-driven smuggling networks that have exploited Australia’s asylum policies, the market has been fed by a widespread sense of disenfranchisement among Tamil Sri Lankans.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa won overwhelmingly both the presidential and parliamentary polls earlier this year. His main domestic rival, general Sarath Fonseka, the man who prosecuted the war against the LTTE, is facing charges of corruption and sedition. As a result, the president’s authority in Sri Lanka is unrivalled. "There is a real opportunity for Rajapaksa to be a statesman," one diplomat told The Weekend Australian.

And yet Rajapaksa has shown little appetite for meaningful reconciliation. The prescription favoured by most, a devolution of power to allow greater autonomy in the Tamil regions — similar to the Indonesia model — has been ruled out. Instead, foreign investment has been concentrated in the country’s south, Rajapaksa’s Sinhalese base.

Shanaka Jayasekara was one of five directors of Sri Lanka’s peace secretariat, the co-ordinating body charged with implementing the Norwegian-brokered 2002 ceasefire.

He says since the war ended in May last year the government has mostly concerned itself with reconstructing the battle-affected areas in the north and northeast of the country.

"That’s definitely required," Jayasekara told The Weekend Australian. "But that was not the reason the LTTE and the Tamil militants went to war. They felt that there was some level of inequality and they were trying to correct that.

"There hasn’t been any initiative to address those issues."

Jayasekara says there is a very strong risk Tamils will turn to militarism once more if their grievances are left unaddressed.

"What the Sri Lankan government has eliminated is the military response to the ethnic issue," he says. "The Rajapaksa administration now has the opportunity to revise or reform the constitution, which would bring in some concessions for the Tamil areas and Tamil community."

One senior Australian source familiar with Sri Lankan politics says the fall of the LTTE and the micro-state it established in the northeast of the country has led to a widespread feeling of despondency among Tamils. "There [is] a feeling that this country is not for us," the source says.

It is that feeling that has been helping to sell boat tickets to Australia.

But now that the Australian government has said it will start rejecting Sri Lankan refugee claims because of the improved humanitarian situation in their country, the question is: is it safe for Tamils in Sri Lanka?

Most agree that it is.

There is a common misconception in Australia, fed in part by the Tamil diaspora, that Tamils are subject to acute, daily persecution in Sri Lanka. They are not.

Tamils number about 12 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people. (Sinhalese comprise 74 per cent). Most Tamils live in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s raffish southern capital. They exist side by side with the Sinhalese majority, studying, working and prospering.

Australia has so far returned about 20 Tamils to Sri Lanka, most to the Colombo region. Australian authorities maintain a discrete watching brief on deported Sri Lankans, although The Weekend Australian understands the Australian government harbours no real concerns about their safety. Jayasekara says there is no direct threat to returning Tamils.

"If they have no LTTE connections, I think it’s relatively safe," he says. "From what I understand the government is not going after people who are just Tamils for the sake of Tamils. But if they have affiliation with the LTTE, then the government would have some concerns."

In the north, the situation is more complicated. There, many Tamils are victims of war and trauma or are displaced. The northern regions of Sri Lanka are battle-scarred and dilapidated.

One senior humanitarian source in the country describes the present situation as fragile.

"Let’s not forget that the conflict ended a year ago," the source says. "Many, many other countries take much, much longer to get to the point where they are at present. The government has done a lot. That’s not enough."

Tamils have long complained they are victims of institutionalised prejudice in Sri Lanka, much in the same way Malay Chinese have been discriminated against by Malays.

During the war they were more likely to be stopped and checked at security checkpoints. There were frequent reports of harassment by the security forces or paramilitary groups. During the final stages of the war, the Sri Lankan government showed precious little restraint in its pursuit of the LTTE, freely shelling civilian areas, although the civilian death toll was greatly augmented thanks to the LTTE’s tactic of using non-combatants as human shields.

Secretary of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations, Victor Rajakulendran, says Sri Lankan Tamils harbour little hope the Rajapaksa government is serious about reconciliation.

He sees the president’s decision to appoint three of his brothers to key government posts, including the defence department, as significant for Tamils.

"[The] message is loud and clear," he told The Australian. "Whatever I give you, you have to accept. That is the message. Already Sinhalisation of the area is happening."

Rajakulendran agrees there is risk new Tamil militant groups will emerge to pick by the standard dropped by Prabhakaran and the LTTE.

[Full Coverage]

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