Rage in India a spotlight on Sri Lanka’s war victims

September 6, 2012

Almost four years since Sri Lanka’s war ended, rage over the lack of rehabilitation for thousands of survivors of the bloody 25-year-long civil conflict has surfaced – not on the war-torn Indian Ocean island itself, but in neighbouring India.

India’s Tamil Nadu state — where the majority Tamil ethnic group have a close association with Tamils living across the Palk Straits in Sri Lanka – have long felt their brothers have been discriminated against by the Sinhalese-ruled government.

The war, pitting separatist Tamil Tigers against President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan Armed Forces, saw tens of thousands of mainly Tamil civilians in the north and east of the island killed or injured, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

But even with the defeat of the Tigers and the end of the war in May 2009, disaffection over the treatment of Tamil survivors and their lack of rehabilitation remains a highly emotive issue amongst Indian Tamils, an issue which turned into violence this week.

Around 180 Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting Tamil Nadu were attacked by a mob of angry Indian Tamils on Monday, and were forced to hide inside a church until police could rescue them.

Understandably, the group – which included women and children – decided to cut their trip short, and fly home, following an advisory from the Sri Lankan government warning its citizens not to travel to Tamil Nadu.

But the following day, special buses laid on to take them to the airport were pelted with stones by protestors, angry about the treatment of their Tamil brothers in post war Sri Lanka.

RELIEF AND RECOVERY

Since the end of the war, much has been done in the north and east to help Tamil survivors recover and bring development to the war-ravaged area. Roads, railways, ports are being constructed, tourism is getting underway and businesses are springing up.

But the U.N. says there are still “significant” needs among internally displaced communities, who may have returned home, but have little opportunity to help rebuild their lives after decades of violence and trauma.

“There remain significant unmet humanitarian needs among communities in the north,” said U.N. Humanitarian Resident Coordinator Subinay Nandy last month.

“These range from basic assistance such as clean water, shelter and food security in resettled areas to more sophisticated issues such as sustainable assistance to obtain livelihoods, rights and return to more normal life as part of durable solutions on par with international standards.”

This is what is upsetting India’s Tamils and politicians such as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa have in recent months upped the rhetoric on the issue (for political purposes or not) by sending home Sri Lankan football teams who were playing a friendly match in the state and protesting over India providing military training to Sri Lankan defence forces.

Many blame Jayalalithaa and other pro-Tiger groups for inciting the attacks, saying that they were irresponsible and not helping to heal wounds between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka as well as increasing tensions between Sri Lanka and India.

Sri Lankan officials have played down the attacks, saying there is no diplomatic tension and add that India’s Tamil politicians should come to the former war zone and witness efforts to rehabilitate survivors.

“Visit Sri Lanka and see the situation, see how the northern province has grown,” said Prasad Kariyavasam, Sri Lanka’s envoy in New Delhi.

“In fact today the northern province growth is 22 percent and all those were displaced and all those 300,000 people whom we rescued from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) custody they are now being re-settled, except for just few thousand.”

RECONCILIATION AND WAR CRIMES

But there are widespread concerns, which many – not just India, but western nations and groups such as the United States and Europe over the post-war situation in Sri Lanka – have voiced.

Progress towards reconciliation between the major ethnic groups in backdrop of decades of violence and mistrust was always going to be difficult, say analysts, but it has been made much more so by the post-war policies of President Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers who occupy key political and military positions.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group last year, anti-terrorism laws remain in place, authorities continue to violently repress the media and political opponents, while manipulating elections and silencing civil society.

“Constitutional reforms strong-armed through parliament have removed presidential term limits and solidified the president’s power over the attorney general, judiciary and various “independent” commissions,” it said.

“Northern areas once ruled by the LTTE are now dominated by the military, which has taken over civil administration and controls all aspects of daily life – undermining what little remains of local capacity.”

More importantly, Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, has also been widely criticised for not bringing to book those from who committed atrocities against civilians fleeing the violence in the final phases of the war – both government forces and Tamil Tigers.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in March passed a resolution, backed by the United States, pressing Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes.

But nothing has yet been done.

Many analysts say gaining justice for the deaths of their loved ones is key step in helping victims find closure and allowing Sri Lanka to move on from its bloody past.

And perhaps only then, will the politicians and angry mob wherever they may be, fall silent.

Picture credit Members from the Sri Lankan Tamil community shout slogans against the Tamil Nadu attack on Sri Lankan pilgrims, in Colombo September 6, 2012. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

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