In a stand of scruffy palms a few meters from a dirt track, two brothers are building their third house in less than a decade. They hope it will last longer than the others. They do not want to be identified — for fear of security agencies — but their story is a common one in Kilinochchi, a small town in northern Sri Lanka, once the capital of the de facto state run by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
All over the north of Sri Lanka, men are building. In Kilinochchi, more than four years after the Tamil Tigers were routed by the Sri Lankan army, there are new banks, ATMs, shops, street lighting, an Internet cafe and a station that still smells of fresh paint. Trains run three times a day to Colombo, 320km to the south. A large sports complex is taking shape, alongside the widened road.
However, for the two brothers — a third was a Tamil Tiger fighter killed in the bloody final days of the war — none of this is progress.
“Before, it was safe for women, now it isn’t... Before, we could talk freely, now we can’t,” one said. “OK, so there is some development, but that is not real freedom ... this is not true peace.”
Such sentiments are as widespread as the construction across much of the north, an area dominated by people from the Tamil minority. As British Prime Minister David Cameron and other leaders prepare to travel to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka next month, the question of what a “real peace” might look like and how it might be achieved looms ever larger.
The choice of Sri Lanka as the summit venue has been controversial. The hosts face criticism for failing to investigate alleged war crimes by the military, a force dominated by the Sinhalese majority, at the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers and for what campaigners claim is systematic intimidation aimed at opponents. There are also concerns about the government’s limited efforts to reach a genuine political reconciliation with the Tamils.
British officials have said that Cameron believes a strong message to Colombo is best transmitted personally, but Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is staying away.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an analyst and activist in Colombo, said the summit would consolidate the regime.
“They will be able to say to the world and at home: Look, 50 countries have come ... we are not pariahs,” he said.
However, some say it was international pressure that convinced a reluctant Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his eighth year in power and still hugely popular among the Sinhalese majority, that elections for a provincial council in the north, the first for 25 years, should go ahead late last month.
The results underlined how development since the end of the civil war had done little to weaken demands for greater autonomy. Despite what Commonwealth observers described as intimidation by the army, omnipresent in the north, and the misuse of state resources, the Tamil National Alliance, once a proxy for the LTTE, won 30 out of 38 seats.
Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, blamed voters thinking with “their hearts, not their heads.”
Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) holds power in all other eight provinces. The president has opposed moves to grant greater autonomy anywhere, let alone to the north.