Festering wounds of Sri Lanka’s war
On the fifth anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka, major challenges remain unresolved.
“The shells fell like rain,” Ajanthan tells me. He laughs now talking about it, but it’s not a laughter that I recognise. It’s a laughter of sheer astonishment that he even survived to tell the tale. Ajanthan joined the Tamil Tigers in 2006 after the rebels instituted a one-person-per-family draft. “My younger brothers were all in school,” he tells me. “My older brother had already been with the Tigers in the 1990s, and was now married. So, I joined.”
He stayed with the Tigers until the end, and reflects with sadness on the number of combatants who died in the final battles. In April 2009, he discarded his guerrilla uniform, threw on some civilian clothes, and walked with his family to the government lines. A few weeks later, the war was over.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, who had engaged in an unwavering fight for an independent state since the 1980s. It was a bloody conflict with a catastrophically bloody conclusion on the beautiful northeastern shores of Mullivaikkal, where waves from the Bay of Bengal continue to crash hauntingly.
This March, at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Sri Lanka will again face a tough resolution encouraging an independent investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law. Pressure from rights organisations has been mounting for some time, but it is unclear what they will do if the government of Sri Lanka continues to stonewall the international community.
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What is clear from research in the country is that critics of the Rajapaksa regime in the South, and many Tamils in the war-affected areas of the North, are growing disillusioned with the slow machinery of the international community. They see no real pause in the regime’s headlong thrust to squander efforts to bring about a just peace.
The final months
Facing imminent defeat, the Tiger leadership grew more desperate and instituted an aggressive policy of forced recruitment. In the final years, as several ex-combatants themselves tell me, the Tigers were waging a war with fighters who were more concerned with escaping with their lives than dying for the cause.
With the fall of several key Tiger strongholds in 2009, the rebels retreated to fortifications around the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu (often abbreviated as PTK), a small town close to where the war ended. From January to April 2009, PTK and its surrounding areas became the main theatre of the conflict.
From January 21 onwards, the government would announce a series of three No Fire Zones (NFZs), designed to protect the civilian population. However, in the months following, rights groups reported deaths resulting from shelling in civilian areas including hospitals in the NFZs.
In the final days, hundreds of patients nursed their wounds under trees, while others bled out from shrapnel wounds.
“We would put up a tarp and start cooking,” Ranjith, another former combatant, explained in a personal interview. “There would be no room to walk. There were thousands of people, the shells would be falling, and bullets would be whizzing by. There were so many people that it was not possible for a shell to fall on something other than on civilians. Twenty or 30 would die instantly.”
Ranjith, who was forcibly recruited during the final months, is quite critical of the Tigers.
“When the LTTE recruiters came, the news would spread quickly in the area. So, people would use all kinds of strategies to evade or lie to the recruiters,” he tells me. “Young men would grow their beards out and pretend to be old men. In the beginning, they weren’t recruiting married people, so young women would wear their mother’s wedding necklace and pretend to be married women. Cousins would pretend to be a married couple. Sometimes the families in the village would get together beat the Tiger recruiters to death.”
He goes on to tell me a heartbreaking story about his little brother, who was snatched from his home during the final weeks.
“My little brother was asked to come with the Tigers for questioning,” he says. His mother demanded that she accompany the boy, and the recruitment squad agreed, loading both of them into the vehicle. “After driving for some time,” he continues, “the truck stopped and my mother was told ‘this is the place’ and asked to get off. After she got out of the truck, they shut the door and drove off, leaving her stranded. My mother walked weeping all the way back to our village.”
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The last 10 days of the conflict were a period of intense shelling, resulting in immense civilian suffering.
“There were just bodies everywhere,” one Tamil man who had lived through the final days recalled. “You had to walk on them and walk over them as you were trying to flee.”
On May 16, as the Sri Lankan army took the last of the key Tiger strongholds, General Sarath Fonseka declared victory.
The post-war phantasmagoria
As I travel on the newly paved highways that snake through the former war zones of the North and East, conversations with people lead invariably to one issue on the minds of many: militarisation. To be sure, militarisation does not mean the mere presence of the military in the North and East. Unlike in the years immediately following the end of the war, soldiers are not always seen wandering the city streets of the North. Rather, militarisation persists in a more sustained and routinised kind of way.
The issue of militarisation, aside from producing anxieties about security, now has an economic dimension as well. As scholars and activists have noted, the military has been involved with a variety of economic initiatives in the country, from conducting whale watching tours to farming. The military is often accused by people I spoke with in the North of flooding the market with their own goods at reduced prices since they have virtually no overhead costs.
This frustration extends to land rights as well. Many I interviewed in the North are distressed by the fact that the military is being given lands in the former war zones. This is being done, as one activist put it, to “purposefully redraw the demographic makeup of the region” and to eventually nullify the argument that the North is a “Tamil homeland” with a unique culture and tradition, which deserves to govern itself with a sense of autonomy.
The war in Sri Lanka was one of the most brutal conflicts in recent memory. The golden opportunity that existed for truth, justice, and perhaps even reconciliation, has largely been squandered by the current government. Minority concerns remain in the foreground and are further complicated by issues of displacement, militarisation, colonisation and Sinhalisation of Tamil areas, as well as a culture of impunity that pervades the island.
Perhaps after this March, after this resolution, after this turn in the international hot seat, the island nation will choose to rewrite its future course.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University and also teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo. His research interests are in diaspora politics, post-war reconstruction, radicalisation and terrorism, and social movements. He is currently working on several books including, Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Activism in Canada.
Follow him on Twitter: @AmarAmarasingam.