Mahinda Rajapaksa, strengthened by military victory over the Tamil Tigers,
easily won the 2010 Sri Lanka elections. But his government's
authoritarianism is frightening the Sinhalese - and the Tamils are afraid of
colonisation by the Sinhalese majority
The last bastions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began
falling one by one starting from March 2008. The Sri Lankan army imprisoned
in camps almost 300,000 Tamil civilians who had been living under the
guerrillas' strict authority. The Menic Farm site in Vavuniya district in
the north held up to 228,000 people. Ten months after the Tigers' defeat,
70,000 refugees were still behind barbed wire, waiting for permission to
return to their villages. The army let me visit a camp, called a "transitory
At the entrance, dominating the lines of shacks, was a six metre-tall
portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his arms raised in a gesture of
triumph. The camp commander justified the mass detention of Tamils: "We had
to separate the terrorists from the civilian population they had taken
hostage. Of course, repatriation takes time. But we can't send people back
to their homes before the area has been properly cleared of landmines." The
few NGOs allowed to operate in the camps put the hardships into perspective:
"The army was overwhelmed by the number of civilians living with the Tigers,
when they expected to manage 100,000," said a Western aid worker. "In spite
of everything, during coordination meetings between UN agencies, NGOs and
non-commissioned officers, it became clear that the military was doing the
best it could. I've seen more chaotic UN refugee camps."
Even so, there remains the discriminatory principle of interning civilians
en masse because of their ethnic origins. The government in Colombo would
never have subjected the Sinhalese to this treatment.
In the company of a major, and two Tamils apparently meant to report our
conversations, we walked through the vast camp with a medical centre,
schools, stalls, banks and post office meant to alleviate the loss of
liberty. At times, detainees are given temporary exit passes. After months
of trying to survive under fire, the people we met seemed relieved that the
worst was over. They were alive, had food and medical care, and were getting
ready to rebuild their lives. Our tour left its guide rails when a group got
carried away, despite black looks from our "informers": "We've had enough!
How long do we have to stay here? Our homes have been pillaged. Why are we
still here when others have been set free? What is the UN doing?" With the
general election campaign in full swing, they criticised the lack of
democracy in the camps: "Only candidates who support the president have the
right to come here."
There were few young men at Menic Farm. Many were behind bars, suspected of
belonging to the LTTE. The government has detained between 11,000 and 13,000
presumed guerrillas. "They are categorised according to their degree of
involvement," said Rajiva Wijesinha, a former secretary of state. "About a
thousand will be prosecuted." While most Tigers surrendered, others were
denounced by Tamils disgusted with the fighters' hardline stance. When
defeat was inevitable, said escapees, "they were recruiting up to two
children from each family. They even shot at people trying to escape to
zones controlled by the army".
I visited a nearby detention and rehabilitation centre for former child
soldiers. Under army guard, and with Tamil teachers from the surrounding
area, these boys and girls were learning a trade after years on the front.
Shivanesh was 13 when the LTTE forcibly recruited him. Now 17, criss-crossed
with scars, he said: "I killed soldiers, and I was wounded. My battalion was
almost all children. When the army surrounded us, when our leaders were
killed, we all surrendered." Shivanesh had no regrets about his surrender:
"The Tigers stole my life. They cut me off from my family, stopped me going
to school, taught me to kill. The army is teaching me a trade and allows my
parents to come visit. I'm learning IT. Soon, I'll go home and rejoin my
Need for information
The government's efforts at rehabilitating them were laudable, but seem only
to help a minority of child soldiers. An independent source who was allowed
to visit LTTE detainees condemned the lack of information: "The government
does not supply any list of names. The families are kept in the dark: nobody
knows exactly who is detained, or where, or why. In a country where summary
executions are commonplace, this is cause for worry." The International Red
Cross has been refused access to the prisoners.
The Wanni region, further north, was recaptured by the army in 2009, after
being under Tiger control for two decades. Since then, it has been in total
military lockdown; foreign media have so far been kept away. The A9 road
across the area is marked by a bunker every 100 metres and its surroundings
have been razed, to prevent ambushes. Here and there, a road sign showing a
skull warns of landmines. Armed military are everywhere. The few civilians
mostly live in tents, not far from their ruined houses.
We shared the road with dozens of buses full of Sinhalese tourists,
encouraged by the government to visit the north, which had for so long been
inaccessible. Kilinochchi, the Tigers' former "capital", where their
"ministries" had been established, was unrecognisable: not a single building
still stood. Even the water tower had not survived the fighting; lying on
its side, riddled by shell fragments, the imposing construction was now the
target of Sinhalese tourists armed with cameras. Buddhist monks and families
posed at this scene of desolation, then climbed back into their buses
decorated with the Sri Lankan flag and posters glorifying the president and
his "army of heroes". Apart from a monument to the dead, the only new
building in Kilinochchi is a Buddhist temple that the army quickly erected,
to the great displeasure of the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations.
This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic Farm.
In mourning and without news of their loved ones, they survive on
international aid: "We went through hell, and they come to taunt us," Nayan
(not his real name) complained. Nayan, who is close to the Tigers, escaped
the final offensive around Mullaittivu, where the army subjected the LTTE -
and the thousands of civilians they forced ahead of them - to non-stop
shelling. "The Tigers fought to the last bullet. And then they bit into the
cyanide capsules that they wore around their necks. It was raining shells.
My mother died in front of me, and I was wounded myself," he said, showing
scars on his arm and calf. "I appreciate that since the shelling, the army
has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds."
But they did not change Nayan's convictions. "I lived for years under the
Tiger government. I liked it a lot. There was order, work, social services,
social justice." Like many LTTE sympathisers, Nayan refused to believe in
the death of their leader, Vellupilai Prabhakaran, though it was confirmed
by DNA tests: "On television they showed the body of a man with a moustache
who looked like him." He maintained that the Tigers had "fallen back". "We
had five helicopters, 35 long-range guns. Where are they? The LTTE are
hiding them, they'll reappear."
Most Sinhalese savoured the victory and were relieved not to live in fear of
suicide bombings any more. Many had professional relationships or
friendships with their Tamil fellow citizens - despite things unsaid - and
summed up the conflict as a "war on terrorism". They truly believe the
media's line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a
criminal organisation. The Tigers' defeat closed the debate. The island will
be able to live in peace and harmony, attracting investors and tourists
after a parenthesis of a quarter century. Sri Lanka hopes to welcome 2.5
million tourists in 2016, five times more than today. Hotel groups covet the
splendid bay at Trincomalee, a former LTTE fiefdom.
This over-optimistic vision forgets that Tamil irredentism did not start
with the LTTE's bombs but three decades earlier, when Colombo took
repressive measures against its minority (1 <#nb6-1 ). Barbed wire at Menic
Farm strengthens the Tamils' conviction that they are being treated like
second-class citizens. Despite the Tigers' totalitarianism, acts of violence
and child soldiers, many Tamils are still ambivalent. "People say to me, at
least with the Tigers we had a voice," said Shanti Satchithanandam, who
heads the Tamil NGO Viluthu and was a victim of the Tigers. "They believed
that the LTTE, despite their shortcomings, were fighting in their name.
Their defeat has left them shocked and voiceless."
The LTTE contributed to the current representational vacuum by
systematically killing any Tamil politician who might have become a rival.
And in addition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), notoriously close to the
Tigers, has imploded. Many of its dignitaries had only joined the party to
avoid being assassinated by the LTTE. They have since recovered their
autonomy and ran in the general elections under various banners - sometimes
even supported by the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the
Tamils. The TNA, unable to admit the new reality, still dreamed in its
political manifesto of a "federal structure for the north and east" that the
conquering Sinhalese lion is hardly likely to grant. "Our ambitions are
modest," said Mavay Senathiraja, a TNA candidate. "We will negotiate with
the government, try to obtain the support of the international community by
mobilising the diaspora (2 <#nb6-2 ) . If our demands are not heard, we
will launch a campaign of civil disobedience," he declared, in a poignant
admission of powerlessness.
"The Tamils have lost all hope," an old militant said. "If I was younger,
I'd go into exile. Thirty years of political struggle [from the 1950s to the
beginning of the 1980s] have failed. Thirty years of armed struggle have
recently failed. Negotiations haven't got us anywhere, neither has the
fighting. We'll have to resign ourselves to living in a Buddhist Sinhalese
country, under military occupation. Because the army is settling in for the
long term in the north and east. Look at Jaffna: the town fell over 20 years
ago and there are still just as many soldiers patrolling its streets."
The Jaffna peninsula, at the northernmost point, has been a high security
zone (HSZ) since it was taken by the army in 1996. At the entrance to the
historical capital of Sri Lankan Tamils, there was a huge billboard in
English between two bunkers studded with machine guns: "One country, one
nation." Jaffna has been in ruins since the 1990s, having been taken and
retaken by the LTTE, rival Tamil groups, the Indian expeditionary corps
(1987-90) and the army. There was not a single work site to indicate that
reconstruction might have begun. "The situation is improving," a UN official
said. "The curfew has been lifted, fishermen are once again allowed to go
out on the ocean, identity checks are less numerous." But the peninsula
still lives in fear. It is under military surveillance as well as under the
thumb of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a Tamil militia that
went over to the government in 1987. In the last stages of the conflict,
between 2006 and 2009, perhaps several hundred people were assassinated or
"disappeared", according to human rights activists. "It would seem that the
EPDP wanted revenge on the LTTE," a government source told me. The
organisation's leader, Douglas Devananda, has good reason to hate the
Tigers, having escaped 13 assassination attempts. Unable to reach him, the
LTTE killed his female companion instead.
Even though the last murder attributed to pro-government militias dates to
the end of 2008, nobody dared answer my questions. Only the Tamil Catholic
bishop, Monsignor Thomas Sandernayan, protected by his social status, agreed
to bear witness: "In August 2006, Father Jim Brown disappeared with his
chauffeur on the island of Kayts, off Jaffna." Shortly before, an officer
had issued death threats against the Tamil priest, accusing him of being in
league with the guerrilla fighters. "We demanded an investigation. But the
investigators sent by the government don't speak Tamil. And the army refuses
Off the island of Kayts, thousands of Sinhalese tourists gathered on the
little island of Nainativu. They were on a pilgrimage to the temple of
Nagadipa, which Buddha is reported to have visited. Marines helped the
pilgrims climb aboard the overloaded boats, and revived those that the heat
had exhausted. An officer proudly said, "Yesterday, we received 10,500
people." An orange-robed monk from the south of the country was delighted.
"The Tamil terrorists had destroyed this temple. The army has just rebuilt
it. After all these years, Buddhism is finally back on this soil." Many Sri
Lankan monks are politically on the far right and believe the country
belongs to the Buddhist Sinhalese alone. Monks running in the general
election have posed with soldiers for their campaign posters. In this
context, Tamils, Hindu and Christian, interpret the influx of Buddhist
pilgrims to Nainativu as a "colonial" activity.
This perception of colonisation was also present in the east, where
Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslim minority (7% of Sri Lankans) live side by
side and sometimes clash. In Ampara district, thousands of Muslim farmers
have had their land confiscated for "archaeological excavations". According
to Myown Mustapha, the former minister of higher education, the seizure of
land at the expense of his fellow Muslims has been "orchestrated by Buddhist
extremists who have infiltrated the president's entourage". Farid, a farmer,
said: "Monks planted a stele in my fields, then told me it was a historic
site and said I didn't have the right to touch it any more." His fields have
lain fallow ever since. He knew that the authorities were on the side of the
monks. Here, as in the north, the idea of a state governed by the rule of
law is an abstraction: the forces of law and order are backed by the strong
arms of the "Karuna faction". Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, known as Karuna,
is the for mer regional chief of the LTTE, who defected in 2004. Like
Devananda, he has been given a ministerial post as a reward (3 <#nb6-3 ).
In Colombo, there are no Tamil paramilitaries to reduce opponents to
silence. Instead, "white vans" without number plates go out at night to
seize people. The vans pass police checkpoints without any problem. Prageeth
Eknaligoda, a newspaper cartoonist, "disappeared" after leaving his office
on 24 January 2010. On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge, the
editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, known for his acerbic editorials, was
gunned down in the street. "They killed Lasantha, a cousin of ex-president
Kumaratunga, in broad daylight and before witnesses," I was told. "Now we
know that they can kill anyone." Aid workers, lawyers and journalists
receive death threats calling them traitors, and henchmen of the Tigers.
"Journalists are free to practise their profession here," said Thana
Balasingam, director of the Tamil daily newspaper Thinakkural (Daily Voice).
"But killers of journalists are also free to practise."
Since being re-elected on 26 January, Rajapaksa has tightened his hold on
his opponents and the independent media. His unfortunate rival for the
presidency, the former chief of staff Sarath Fonseka, has been in prison
since February awaiting court-martial. This ruthlessness has shocked people,
although they had few illusions about Fonseka's democratic convictions. "The
president accused Fonseka of preparing a coup," said a human rights activist
who has received death threats. "But he carried out the coup." Soldiers were
omnipresent and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the much-dreaded defence minister and
brother of the president, seemed omnipotent.
The president has succeeded where his predecessors failed: he has eradicated
the LTTE, one of the most formidable guerrilla forces on the planet. This
success is due to the assistance of China, which is anxious to form an
alliance with Sri Lanka - strategically located on its oil supply routes and
facing its great rival India. Worried by this alliance, the US is said to
have supported Fonseka's candidacy in secret.
According to observers, a key feature of the military victory was the lack
of respect for human rights (UN experts were denied entry to investigate in
June). India, convinced that the LTTE would parley only to gain time, ended
up supporting this total war - albeit secretly, because of the large Tamil
population in India (4 <#nb6-4 ).
With Maoist (Naxalite) attacks in India increasing (75 policemen killed in
an ambush in Chhattisgarh on 6 April, 148 civilian casualties aboard a
sabotaged train in West Bengal on 28 May), the Sri Lankan government has
offered its neighbour its counter-insurrection "expertise" (5 <#nb6-5 ).
The Rajapaksa government is pushing triumphalism to extremes. The new
1,000-rupee note shows the president on the front and, on the back, soldiers
planting the nation's flag, like the US marines on Iwo Jima in 1945. This
fervour augurs badly for reconciliation: "The Sinhalese now consider the
north to be conquered territory," said Jehan Perera, a Sinhalese
intellectual. "During the fighting, they were afraid of the Tigers. At the
time of the ceasefire, a relationship between equals had formed between
Sinhalese and Tamils. Now we see a relationship of winner and loser."
No political concession is planned. "The council of the western province
just has a walk-on part," said Somasundram Pushparajah, an independent Tamil
representative, whose life has also been threatened. "If the government gave
the provinces real power, the ethnic problem would be solved." The
presidency reckons that rebuilding the conflict zones will satisfy the
minority. But, as the bishop of Jaffna pointed out, "Tamils will never
accept centralised government-led economic development over which they have
no control." That the man in charge of the reconstruction programme is Basil
Rajapaksa, another brother of the president, only worsens the situation.
The Tigers' defeat "opened the possibility of a pluralist democracy that
respects everyone's rights," said Jehan Perera. "But we are going in the
opposite direction - the Malaysian way - towards an authoritarian regime, a
restricted democracy, where rights will be subordinated to economic growth."
Thirty years of civil war
1815 The British finish colonising Ceylon. They unite the island, previously
divided into three kingdoms - two Sinhalese, one Tamil.
1948 Independence. The Tamil minority (18%), pampered by the colonial power,
finds itself once again under the rule of the Sinhalese majority (74%),
which imposes its language and gives precedence to its religion, Buddhism.
1956 The Tamils, discriminated against, demand autonomy for the north and
22 May 1972 Ceylon becomes the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
July 1983 Anti-Tamil pogroms. Thousands of Tamils join the resistance. The
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), led by Velupillai Prabhakaran,
impose themselves by executing their rivals.
1987-1990 Indo-Sri Lankan accord: the Indian army confronts the LTTE in
Jaffna, the Sri Lankan government puts down an extreme leftwing insurrection
in the south.
1991 LTTE assassinate the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
1996 The army retakes Jaffna.
1997-2001 A series of victories for the LTTE, who control the north and
large areas of the east.
February 2002 Ceasefire agreed under Norwegian mediation.
April 2003 The LTTE withdraw from the peace talks.
March 2004 The Tigers' leader in the east, "Colonel Karuna", defects.
November 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa elected president. He promises to crush the
April 2006 Generalised fighting.
September 2007 The army, having retaken the east with Karuna's help, goes on
the offensive in the north.
2 January 2009 Kilinochchi, the LTTE's former "capital", falls.
20 May 2009 The war officially ends after Prabhakaran is killed and the LTTE
are crushed around Mullaittivu. The final offensive allegedly caused 8,500
to 20,000 casualties. About 300,000 Tamil civilians are detained in camps
controlled by the army.
December 2009 Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of
staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results.
26 January 2010 Rajapaksa is re-elected president, Fonseka court-martialled.
Translated by Tom Genrich
CÚdric Gouverneur is a journalist