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SRI LANKA: What’s Next For the Tamil Community?

IPS Correspondents

COLOMBO, May 21 2009 (IPS) - Nearly three decades of war ended in Sri Lanka last week and a victorious President Mahinda Rajapaksa has extended a fresh hand of friendship to the minority Tamils, but most members of this community feel it will take a long time for the wounds to heal after years of mistrust and alienation.

Mano Ganeshan, Tamil parliamentarian and leader of the Western People’s Front (WPF), said that Rajapaksa clearly said in parliament that the war and subsequent victory was against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas and not the Tamil people. “However these pronouncements and declarations should also be reflected on the ground,” he said, adding that in a few areas, Tamils were subjected to intimidation and harassment during widespread victory celebrations.

Thousands of people across Sri Lanka – including in the Tamil-dominated eastern region – have been singing and dancing in the streets after the government declared at the weekend that the Tigers had been defeated and that elusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been killed. The scenes were reminiscent of the fervour that erupted across the country when cricket-crazy Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996 – even the rebels celebrated at that time.

“Our aim was to liberate our Tamil people from the clutches of the LTTE. Protecting the Tamil-speaking people of this country is my responsibility – that is my duty,” Rajapaksa said, speaking in the Tamil language in the opening part of his ‘victory’ speech in Parliament Tuesday. “All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights.” Wednesday was declared a national holiday to mark the end of the war.

But, Tamils say insecurity persists and the government needs to quickly win the confidence of the people, otherwise the same old issues of discrimination and uncertainty would remain. “We are not the Tigers. We don’t even support them. But more than fighting the Tigers, the government has been suppressing ordinary Tamils. We still live in fear,” a veteran academic, who declined to be named, said by telephone from the northern, Tamil-dominated town of Jaffna, once the seat of LTTE militancy.

He said most shops in Jaffna were ‘asked’ to put up the national flag by local authorities. “Shopkeepers did – out of fear and not because of anything else.”

Ganeshan said Tamils need concrete assurances of safety, and clear instructions must be given to the armed forces and the police to maintain law and order. He sees tackling the root cause of the problem as a priority, saying, “Tamil militancy began because of these issues and though the LTTE has been defeated, these issues remain unresolved.”

Government troops – after a sustained, nearly 2-year campaign – crushed the rebels in the north and east, ending the battle at the weekend by freeing several civilians held against their will by the rebels, and by killing Prabhakaran and several of his lieutenants including his son, Charles Anthony who headed the group’s air force.

Thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians have died in the rebel campaign for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, who form over 15 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million. The Tamils say they have been discriminated against for over half a century in education, jobs and other services by governments controlled by the majority Sinhalese community.

Several rounds of peace talks, at different times since 1983, between the government and militants, were held but ended with disagreement mostly by the rebels.

Nearly a million Tamils have gone abroad since 1983 to escape the violence and many supported the Tigers through financial and other means. In the past few weeks as the war neared its end, Tiger supporters abroad launched huge demonstrations outside the British Parliament and White House in the U.S.

Demonstrations and protests were also held in cities around the world by Sri Lankan expats – both Tamil and Singhalese together – against alleged human rights violations by both sides in the final days of the war. A few Sri Lankan overseas missions were also vandalised.

Colombo has seen a flurry of world leaders in recent weeks, all trying to persuade Rajapaksa to stop the war as innocent civilians were being harmed. But Colombo wasn’t swayed and all these calls were rejected.

Some 250,000 civilians – who fled the latest fighting – are housed in camps in the northern town of Vavuniya and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is flying to Sri Lanka Friday to visit these camps and assess the situation.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), says the priority is to resolve the problems of people (Internally Displaced Persons-IDPs) living in camps. “There should be a quick screening, registration and separation,” he said.

While the screening is to separate civilians from rebel infiltrators, the government has said at least 80 percent of the IDPs will be returned to their homes by the end of 2009 after reconstruction and rehabilitation gets underway. A government task force was recently appointed to oversee the rebuilding of the north.

“The other aspect is moving towards a speedy political settlement. This is imperative,” Saravanamuttu, also a political columnist, said, adding however that, “the Tamils will want their insecurity taken care of first.”

That’s what worries residents like the Jaffna academic. “We need to be trusted to make our own choices. We shouldn’t be forced. For example, some of my business friends in Colombo have been asked by government agencies to contribute financially to help the IDPs and are paying, with great difficulty, the money,” he said. “They do care but also fear that if they don’t donate, they would be marginalised.”

A grouping of parties called the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) has been meeting for the past few years – since Rajapaksa won presidential elections in November 2005 – to thrash out a political settlement to the ethnic question.

However the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – the largest Tamil group in Parliament which has been supporting the rebels – have boycotted the meetings and most people believe it is unlikely to come up with a viable solution.

Analysts also believe the government will hold local council elections in the north and back anti-LTTE political parties to take control to ward off any attempt by the Tigers or their proxies to secure a foothold. There is also speculation that Rajapaksa may either call early parliamentary or presidential polls this year.

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