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A fragile peace – theage

[MISC, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 16:30 No Comment]

Supporters of Sarath Fonseka during the election campaign this year. Photo: AP(MATT WADE) In the dying days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, the army liked to show off the military hardware it had captured from the retreating Tamil Tigers. During carefully managed tours of the front line, foreign journalists were shown long, neat rows of Kalashnikovs, missiles, landmines and artillery cannon seized from the rebels.

A Tamil Tiger battle tank

was the most impressive trophy, the most chilling a small wardrobe of suicide jackets. Photographs found with dead rebels were also on display. Some showed proud young cadres standing with the reclusive Tamil Tiger supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran. One fighter’s album had a printed card commemorating Prabhakaran’s 54th birthday in November 2008, just six months before the end of the war.

The weaponry and personal memorabilia were a testament the formidable military force Prabhakaran had at his disposal. He once controlled a third of Sri Lanka, thanks to his huge arsenal and devoted guerillas.

But exactly one year ago, the battlefield resistance crumbled after nearly 30 years of fighting, and Prabhakaran was shot dead. The images of his body on television sparked spontaneous celebrations and marked the end of an era in Sri Lanka.

"Without Prabhakaran, the Tamil Tigers disappeared like pricking a balloon," says Gordon Weiss, an Australian who recently stepped down as the UN’s spokesman in Sri Lanka.

But a year after the guns fell silent, Sri Lanka’s ethnic divisions remain deep and many questions raised by the war are still unanswered. One of them is what happened in those horrific final months of conflict when almost 300,000 Tamil civilians were sandwiched between the rebels and advancing Government troops. Because the Sri Lankan military didn’t allow independent journalists and most humanitarian workers near the war zone, the claims and counter claims made by both sides during that last phase of fighting could not be verified, especially those concerning civilian casualties.

An investigative report by the International Crisis Group released to coincide with the anniversary of the war’s end says "tens of thousands" of civilians died in the last five months of the war and blames the military’s bombardment for most of the deaths.

The ICG calls for an independent, international war crimes probe and warns that the failure to properly investigate the final stages of the war could threaten the country’s long-term stability.

"Sri Lanka’s peace will remain fragile so long as the many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by senior government and LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] leaders are not subject to impartial investigation," it says.

"The truth of what happened during the course of the war, especially in its last months, must be established if Tamils and Sinhalese are to live as equal citizens."

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly rejected calls for an international investigation. It claims civilians were never deliberately targeted and blames the Tamil Tigers for the casualties.

"Some people desperately keep on scratching that old wound so that it stays open," says Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona.

"Instead of helping us to heal the wounds and move forward, they suffer from a one-size-fits-all approach to international conflict … at this stage what Sri Lanka needs is the space, and the assistance, to develop economically."

Colombo has established its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to recommend ways to ensure there is no "recurrence" of ethnic conflict and to decide if "any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility" for it.

Sri Lanka’s powerful President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is under little domestic pressure to pick over the war’s bloody climax. A wave of support from Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority has made Rajapaksa even more dominant now than when he declared victory over the Tamil Tigers a year ago.

He won a thumping victory in presidential elections in January over his main rival, the former military chief, Sarath Fonseka. Soon after his failed bid to dethrone Rajapaksa, General Fonseka was arrested and remains in detention facing court martial. Rajapaksa subsequently led his governing coalition to victory in parliamentary polls last month.

But the exultant President has not yet answered another fundamental question posed by the war’s end: will he introduce significant reforms to try to deal with the ethnic grievances that fuelled Sri Lanka’s devastating conflict?

Prabhakaran launched the armed struggle for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north-east in 1983, claiming Tamil people were being discriminated against by Sinhalese-dominated governments in Colombo. Tamils make up 15 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese community about 75 per cent.

The bitter ethnic conflict dominated the island nation’s politics and economy for two generations and killed at least 70,000 people. The war effort stunted the economy and drained the government coffers. Indeed, one study found Sri Lanka’s economy would be 30 per cent bigger if not for the war.

Rajapaksa’s postwar political supremacy means he has a historic opportunity to engineer a political "solution" to try to deal with the nation’s ethnic divisions. But there are few signs he is going to take it. Hopes for sweeping political reforms that respond to the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s minorities are fading.

"Rajapaksa shows no inclination to initiate any of the reforms needed to address the underlying causes of Sri Lanka’s 30 years of ethnic conflict and war, or the damage it has done to the country’s liberal and democratic institutions," the International Crisis Group says.

One constitutional change flagged by Rajapaksa is the creation of a "second chamber" of parliament to allow greater representation for Sri Lanka’s minorities. However, it is unclear what powers the chamber would have.

Jehan Perera, from the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, says a political solution for Sri Lanka’s "Tamil question" has slipped off the national agenda.

"Most people in Sri Lanka are not particularly interested in a political solution," he says. "To the great majority of people in Sri Lanka, the end of the LTTE has meant the end of terrorism and the end of what troubled them and the country. The mood in the country now is that the worst is behind us."

The official postwar rhetoric has focused more on economic progress than political reform. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, was recently quoted in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper as saying that he ”sincerely believes priority should be given not to political reforms but to infrastructure development and attending to other basic social needs of the people”.

Sri Lankan officials argue much has been achieved in the past year. "Terrorism has been brought to an end in Sri Lanka, the whole country has breathed a huge sigh of relief and is now ready to take off economically," says Palitha Kohona.

But the government’s handing of postwar rehabilitation has come under fire, especially the decision to detain about 280,000 Tamil war refugees in guarded camps for six months after hostilities had ceased. Human rights groups have also raised concerns about thousands of suspected Tamil Tigers kept in custody without access to the courts.

Government officials admit 12,700 former Tamil Tiger combatants are in military detention, but say 8000 to 9000 are not core rebel cadres and will be released after "rehabilitation". The remainder are likely to eventually face formal prosecution.

More than 50,000 Tamils are still living in temporary refugee camps, unable or unwilling to leave. The tens of thousands that have left the camps are struggling to rebuild homes and livelihoods in war-ravaged villages.

The Rudd government, too, has felt the after effects of the Tigers’ demise as hundreds of disaffected Tamils sailed for Australia. If conditions for Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka – both economic and political – do not show signs of improvement, more may be tempted to take to boats in

the hope of asylum, regardless of Australia’s immigration policy.

Many Tamils are sceptical about the Rajapaksa regime’s commitment to reconciliation and political reform. "I’m afraid the way that things are occurring there is not paving the way for reconciliation," says outspoken Tamil MP Mano Ganesan.

"I don’t see any signs of political reform. The defeat of terrorism should not have transformed into the defeat of the whole Tamil population, but that’s how it’s looking now."

Military celebrations to mark the anniversary of the war’s end have angered Tamils. "The way in which the celebrations are taking place is failing to take note of the sentiment of the Tamil people," Ganesan says.

Another Tamil parliamentarian from northern Sri Lanka, Sivagnanam Sritharan, said in his maiden speech this month that the army’s celebration will "break and destroy" the hearts of Tamils.

"At present, Sinhalese have an attitude that they have conquered the Tamils and the Tamils have an attitude of pain and hate," he said. "A race that subjugates another race cannot live in peace itself. That country too can never achieve liberation."

The size of Sri Lanka’s war machine means a return to violent resistance by Tamils is unlikely in the short term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa revealed recently that the country’s military swelled to 450,000 by the end of the war – about four times the size of the British army for a country with a population similar to Australia’s.

"The Tamils today are a lot weaker than they were 30 years ago when [the war] started," says Jehan Perera. "They could not mount the same challenge to the government that they once did."

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