For seven years, an ethnic Tamil housewife has waited for news of a son who vanished near the frenzied end of Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long civil war. After so much time, she has little faith in the Sinhalese-majority government helping to solve such mysteries and heal old wounds.
“There is no place I have not gone in search of him,” said Shantha, who, like many people in the teardrop-shaped tropical island nation, goes by one name.
She last saw her son in March 2009, when he was 23 years old and injured in the crossfire of fighting. The military promised to take him to safety. She never heard from him again.
“The government just talks about good governance, but no good seems to be coming,” she said.
For the hundreds of thousands of minority ethnic Tamils like Shantha, the government’s repeated promises of post-war reconciliation ring false, even as authorities take tentative steps toward fulfilling some of them.
Tamil rebels demanding self-rule fought the government from 1983 to 2009 before being crushed by Sri Lanka’s army. While the UN counts about 100,000 people killed in the fighting, rights groups believe the number was much higher, including about 40,000 civilians believed to have been killed in the war’s final months.
Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa led the military in crushing the rebellion and continued to rule until last year, when he lost an election to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. Many expected a new era of national healing and atonement, but more than a year later, there has only been slow progress, as Sirisena cautiously balances the anguished demands of the Tamils with the persistent fears of the Sinhalese majority.
“It is very difficult. It is very challenging,” Sirisena said during last month’s ceremony in Colombo honoring soldiers on the seventh anniversary of their victory over separatist rebels.
His government has handed back some of the property seized by the army, discontinued the military’s involvement in civil administration and policing, and lifted bans on some Tamil expatriate groups that had previously supported the rebels’ separatist cause, with the aim of opening communications with them. Sinhalese nationalist groups are already rallying against these moves.
“Building reconciliation aimed at non-recurrence of violence can never be done with bricks, cement, iron, sand or any other material,” Sirisena said. “It is about bringing people’s minds together; uniting hurting minds; uniting minds full of hatred.”
Changes are not coming fast enough for many Tamils, tens of thousands of whom have been homeless since the military bombed their homes or took their land. Jobs are hard to come by. Families are desperate for news on missing relatives. Many have refused to accept death certificates offered by the previous government and wait for information on what actually happened to them.
Among the Sinhalese, “there is hardly any awareness of the need for special measures for reconciliation,” said Jehan Perera, head of the local peace activist group National Peace Council.
Those measures “will create apprehension in the southern people, which is why the government is progressing slowly,” he added.
In the next UN Human Rights Council sessions, starting on June 13, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein is set to brief on Sri Lanka’s progress toward reconciliation.
Sri Lanka won praise last year for finally promising a war-crimes investigation with international participation. The government also set up a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution likely to grant Tamils more political power, rights and protections against discrimination.
The Sri Lankan Cabinet created an office to find missing people, though rights groups say it is being set up without consulting victims’ families as promised. The government has also promised various reforms intended to prevent a return of hostilities, but several have yet to be implemented.
The delays feed frustrations among Tamils waiting for the return of their land, for justice for war abuses or for knowledge of what happened to missing loved ones.
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