Sri Lanka celebrates end of war, blocks commemorations

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa looks on as he rides in a vehicle during a Victory Day parade in southern town of Matara. (AFP) President Mahinda Rajapaksa led celebrations at a major victory parade Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war, as commemorations for its victims were blocked.

As most top envoys of Western nations stayed away from the parade, a defiant Rajapakse insisted he would not bow to pressure from foreign critics who are pushing him to investigate claims that tens of thousands of people died in the final stages of the conflict.

"Some governments are blind, deaf and dumb. They are opposed to our celebrating this victory," Rajapakse said in a televised speech from Matara, his birthplace in the Sinhalese heartland of the island’s south.

"We are not celebrating victory in a war, we are celebrating peace. Irrespective of who opposes this, or who stays away, we will always commemorate this day," he added.

The 37-year conflict effectively ended on May 18, 2009, when troops killed the Tamil Tiger rebels’ supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in a brutal assault on the northern town of Mullaittivu.

The UN has estimated that at least 100,000 people died in the entire conflict, about 40,000 of them in the final months of fighting.

Rajapaksa however has denied any civilians were killed in the finale and is resisting calls for an international inquiry into claims that troops killed thousands of civilians who had been herded into no-fire zones.

His administration has also ordered a ban on all commemorations this weekend for victims of the conflict, which was one of the bloodiest in Asia’s post-colonial history.

Police on Sunday blocked Tamils from going to a temple in the town of Keerimalai, in the battle-scarred Jaffna peninsula, and the main state-run blood bank refused donations fearing it was linked to remembrance of war victims, a Tamil politician said.

Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, a Tamil lawmaker who also runs a newspaper in Jaffna, said that while he managed to enter the temple, civilians were prevented by police from attending a service to bless the dead.

"The temple had prepared alms for 1,000 people but there were only five, including myself because of the security blockade," Saravanapavan said by telephone.

He said police and troops obstructed him at many places.

"Within our newspaper office we had a remembrance for those who died in the conflict," Saravanapavan said, adding that the blood bank had refused to accept donations from his staff Sunday. Many people donate blood as a sign of invoking merit for deceased loved ones.

Police on Friday also broke up a remembrance service that was being held in council offices in Jaffna.

Around 7,500 troops took part in Sunday’s parade which featured tanks, gunboats and military aircraft.

Canada, a strong critic of Sri Lanka’s war record, had announced its top envoy in Colombo would boycott Sunday’s parade while the top diplomats from other Western powers, including the United States and former colonial power Britain, were conspicuous by their absence.

Canadian High Commissioner (ambassador) Shelley Whiting said in a statement to a local newspaper Friday that the parade was inappropriate because the government should be concentrating on reconciliation.

"Five years after the end of the conflict, the time has arrived for Sri Lanka to move past wartime discourse and to start working seriously towards reconciliation," she said.

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