Sri Lanka booming, but pain of war lives on

Despite the economic boom, Colombo’s hopes of buying off the Tamil ‘separatist struggle’ through development efforts may prove to be short-sighted

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka

Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - Page 9

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.

Instead, he is banking on economic growth and development to convince Tamils to stop “playing the ethnic card” — to quote an UPFA politician in Jaffna.

Few doubt there has been an economic boom. More than twice as many new vehicles were registered in the north in 2011, the last year for which statistics have been released, than were on the roads in 2009. There are also at least twice as many cattle and thousands of hectares of agricultural land, which fell into disuse during the conflict, have been cleared. Many, including the two brothers building their home in Kilinochchi, work as laborers on construction sites.

Conditions for the hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting have improved, albeit from a very low base. A survey earlier this year by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees revealed 63 percent of recently resettled families had access to a toilet and only one in 25 had to walk more than 500m to find water. More than 160 schools closed during the war are now open.

However, progress is patchy — up to half of respondents in some areas said they had insufficient food — and by some measures, things are worse than before. If rates of infant or maternal mortality in parts of the north have improved, in others, they have risen.

And much of the growth has been spurred by loans, or foreign aid.

“Debt has soared and there are many who can’t pay back,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, an economic analyst in Jaffna.

One debtor is Sanmugam Sivalingam, who borrowed 465,000 rupees (US$3,510) to buy a rickshaw 18 months ago. Waiting at the train station in Kilinochchi, he said he made only 700 rupees on a good day and, with monthly repayments of US$160, he often goes hungry.

The government is also banking on war weariness among the northern Tamils to buy time for its strategy to buy off separatist sentiment with development to work. Though few in the north admit it, there was deep disaffection with Tigers at the end of the conflict. Forced conscription of one man — or often woman — per household disillusioned even the most loyal. Witnesses describe how thousands of Tiger cadres threw away their weapons and joined civilians.

However, there is now a growing nostalgia for the Tigers, a veteran Tamil rights activist in Jaffna said.

“The war should have ended six months before it did, with thousands of lives saved. There was nothing heroic about the final days, but that is the legend now being spread. It is an insult to all those who died,” he said, on condition of anonymity.

Rhetoric during the campaign for last month’s poll recalled an earlier era, observers say, with talk of the “martyrs” and praise for Velupillai Prabhakaran, the dead leader of the LTTE, who was responsible for the many murders of Tamils as well as Sinhalese, as “a resistance leader.”

For people like Ananthi Sasitharan, the war may have been lost, but the struggle, as the newly elected provincial councilor calls it, is far from over.

Her husband was a Tamil Tiger leader and among the hundreds, possibly thousands, who went missing after surrendering at the end of the war in May 2009 and who, campaigners say, were summarily executed by soldiers.

She entered politics to find out what happened to him.

“I am not alone. We are many who are searching for our husbands. We do not want another armed struggle, but during the LTTE time [in power] we had a very happy life. So the political struggle must go on,” Sasitharan said.

Tamil politicians admit their position is weak. The newly elected provincial council has few powers and the government has shown little sensitivity toward Tamil demands that their cultural identity should be respected.

The military presence is heavy and the large war memorials trumpeting the victory of “hero soldiers” over the “terrorists” make few concessions to local sentiment. Much land remains under military control.

In Kilinochchi, a water tower felled by the Tamil Tigers as they fled the town has been turned into a neat tourist site, with a souvenir shop, postcards, orange ice lollipops and a plaque commemorating its opening by Sri Lankan Minister for Youth Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s 27-year-old son. Sinhalese tourists take photographs and pose with an army patrol. Many still see the Tamils as a threat.

“Terrorism is very bad. At any time it could come back again,” said a government worker from Kandy, 280km to the south.

Waiting for the train at Kilinochchi station, Nirosha Inderavasan, 39, a Sinhalese bank manager married to a Tamil, stressed how grateful she is to Rajapaksa for ending the conflict, though she “would not like to comment” on exactly what happened in its final days.

Jaffna was developing fast and the hospitality made up for the lack of nightlife, Inderavasan said.

However, Sasitharan said the sight of the tourists made her very angry.

“They destroyed our beautiful country. They eliminated our society and erected victory monuments and now they are coming to enjoy our destruction,” she said. “We are a people changed by war. There is no healing.”