1 October, 2020

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Festering Wounds Of Sri Lanka’s War

By Amarnath Amarasingam

Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam

Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam

“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.

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.”

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. Version of this article appeared in AlJazeera on February 24,  2014. Follow him on Twitter: @AmarAmarasingam.

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  • 4
    9

    Thanks.

    Please sign this petition.

    From: Sri Lanka Campaign Newsletter
    Date: Mon, Feb 24, 2014 at 2:02 PM
    Subject: Now is the time: Sri Lanka needs an international investigation
    To: Sri Lanka Campaign Newsletter
    Dear friends,

    The UN Human Rights Council will meet next week and confer for a month. They need to use this opportunity to pass a resolution that will include a commitment to an Independent International investigation in Sri Lanka the form of a Commission of Inquiry. Only this will help to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation.

    Please click here to sign the petition

    We know we have made this request many times before; but now, with a report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights due to be discussed, and the Human Rights Council set to consider a resolution on Sri Lanka, there is a better chance than there has ever been to secure an investigation.

    We remain as convinced as ever that only an independent international investigation of current and past atrocities will end this culture of impunity and give Sri Lanka a chance to climb out of its cycle of violence towards a lasting peace.

    Please click here to sign the petition

    The British specifically promised to pursue such an investigation in November. We have designed a specific version of the petition above to demand that the British Prime Minister keep his promise.

    If you are in the UK please click here to sign the UK specific version

    Our petition last year got 15,000 signatures; let’s make sure that the Human Rights Council knows that we still care about Sri Lanka’s victims.

    Many thanks for your continued support,

    The Sri Lanka Campaign

    P.S. Sadly running this kind of campaign isn’t free. Please consider making a donation to help us cover the costs.

    The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice
    http://srilankacampaign.org/

    • 7
      4

      Anpu,
      You talk about “justice and reconciliation” being the goal. Good, but with whom is the reconciliation to be had with and justice for whom? For sure innocent Tamil civilians had nothing to do with terrorism. So, are you looking for reconciliation with the LTTE terrorist? Can you find them to reconcile with? And you want justice for whom? Is it for the LTTE that suicide murdered 100,000 Tamils and Sinhalese over a period of 30 years? Answer my questions I will sign your petition.
      Another requirement for signing is that the international investigation should include the time period from 1948 to date. Many writers here state that atrocities against Tamils began since SL got independence.

      • 3
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        Anpu go home and sleep pls. for many Sri lankans this is real peace after 30 years of carnage. For you living in UK it must be another job that brings in $$ to keep this conflict alive.
        – sure there shld be justice for innocents killed for all communities not only tamil…but what justice for the LTTE that used innocent civilians with such disregard innocent lives just for their own selfish ends.

    • 3
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      Hahaha you think that another e-petition will finally be taken seriously? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

  • 8
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    eventually nullify the argument that the North is a “Tamil homeland” with a unique culture and tradition

    Where does this “North” begin and where does it end? Where are its borders and where is the evidence that it was exclusively populated by Tamils in every nook and corner in the past. What is the point in lamenting that Tamils are not being given their due in their homeland without acknowledging the problems that it causes for “other” people in the country. Does one have to be a post-doc to that? This “North” seem to extend far into the South more than Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone extends into the Indian ocean.

    • 8
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      Navin, it begins wherever there are Tamils in Sri lanka and ends there too. So give this minority 66% of your coastline and 33% of your land mass. Let them take Badulla and the up-country too where they predominate. Also let them live in peace in Colombo and Kandy. Give them everything they want OR stand firm.

      • 2
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        Paul

        “So give this minority 66% of your coastline and 33% of your land mass.”

        Let us have 100% of our coastline and 100% of our land mass.

        Both Tamil speaking Tamils and their brethren Sinhala speaking Tamils can have rest of the land and coastline.

        Its a good deal you should not only take it but sell it to Navin.

  • 4
    4

    This is a well written factual analysis of the situation in Sri Lanka. I say this because this was the same experience I had visiting SL in 2013 and specially talking to several residents in Jaffna and Mullative areas. Jaffna was buzzing with activity and I never saw any one concerned of the occasional army truck or foot soldiers passing by. At the Hotel in Trincomalee a worker indicated that he is happy that he got his hotel employment and feels more secure with his future. He was inquiring how much more he can earn if he finds work abroad! Basically, I feel people of the north east want their life to be better than being concerned about discrimination etc., that are highlighted and discussed extensively in media forums. What these people need are opportunities. More and more younger Tamils seem to move to the south in search of employment. Comparatively, this population is no better or worse than similar populations in the south.
    The only part of this article I have reservation is his quote “The golden opportunity that existed for truth, justice, and perhaps even reconciliation, has largely been squandered by the current government.”. In my view innocent civilians of Jaffna had nothing to do with the terrorism that took hold for 30 years. In fact they were also victims of terrorism. With whom does the author expect the gov. to serve justice, say what “truth”, and reconcile with? The LTTE terror group? For me there appears to be no more LTTE terrorists in Sri Lanka except the ones living outside the country.

    • 2
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      Eusense,
      “I feel people of the north east want their life to be better than being concerned about discrimination etc”
      How many people? 1, 2, 3 or 4.
      How many people voted for TNA? What was in TNA manifesto?

      I do not need to say more.

      • 3
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        Anpu,
        Yes, I spoke only to about 3 people and I am not trying to say this as the mentality of all the people in Jaffna. I was only supporting what the author of this article is saying. Also, I never talked about discrimination etc.. My observation is most people do not consider discrimination etc. as a major problem in their lives. What they want now, is a job for income and to better their life. Discrimination, atrocities, rape etc. which are mostly discussed in these forums are by people who do not live in Sri Lanka. Whatever picture these Tamil diaspora paint are exaggerated and not the reality. Also, most they describe are no different than what is happening elsewhere in the country.
        With regard to “voting for the TNA”; Are you saying that people are voting for Rajapakse because they all approve what he is doing? All these indicate politicians are taking these innocent civilians for a ride for their benefit. I hope the TNA won’t take these people on a similar path like Parayabakeran who destroyed a large part of the Tamil generation.

        • 0
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          You ask a dying man what he wants? You ask an injured man what he wants? You ask a hungry man what he wants? You ask a tired man what he wants? You ask … … ?

          If you go on generalizing the answer of one as the answer of the next, you’d come to the findings you have arrived at!

      • 3
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        Anpu

        “I do not need to say more.”

        I need to say more if you don’t mind.

        Most of all people in this island want their dignity back.

        • 1
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          Did not these innocent civilians lost their dignity because of tiger terrorism? They are the victims of Tamil suicide murdering terrorists.

          • 0
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            nuisance

            “Did not these innocent civilians lost their dignity because of tiger terrorism?”

            No sach, Sarojini, Trishu, chuti,……… people started loosing their dignity since 1948 when the Sinhala/Buddhists racists dis franchised million hard working upcountry workers.

            Tiger terrorism is only an incidental part of the island’s history.

            In 1971 and between 87-90 Sinhala/Buddhist terrorism by both the stae and JVP killed 18,000 and 130,000. Most of them were innocent people.

    • 0
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      hy dont you get [Edited out]

  • 2
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    Eusense
    “For me there appears to be no more LTTE terrorists in Sri Lanka except the ones living outside the country. “

    I agree with you that there is no LTTE terrorism in Sri Lanka. Please tell that to Gota so that he can reduce the army in NE to just cermonial.

    • 2
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      Raja,
      I don’t support reducing the Army in the NE and I have reasons for that:
      1. The primary goal of having a Military is to protect the country and its citizens. Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and the government can place the Military in any location inside the country as it suits.
      2. The country went through terrorism for over 30 years. Over 100,000 citizens were murdered, devastated the economy and took Sri Lanka 30 years backwards related to it’s progress. This should never be repeated. The military should be deployed as required whether it is in the NE or SW.

  • 4
    4

    At the end it is the same old BS.

    Tamils have forgotten how barbaric they were.

    Now, they preach.

    • 2
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      Only those who whitewash Sinhala Only Barbarism with blinkers on have forgotten the capacity to remember the fact that LTTE` barbarism did not involve a majority of Tamils.
      Now they are telling the same BS, about not knowing with whom to reconcile and about the justification to do so.

  • 2
    2

    Links to HC’s report on Sri Lanka and the Governments comments:

    Here are the links for the report

    http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session25/Documents/A-HRC-25-23_AEV.doc

    and for the Comments

    http://ap.ohchr.org/Documents/E/HRC/c_gov/A_HRC_25_G_9_AEV.doc.

  • 3
    1

    The naked stupidity of the Government and many people is allowing foreigners or international bodies to interfere in lankan affairs. If an honest solution or reconciliation is not found soon, no one can stop international intervention. Even India taking some action cannot be ruled out if a BJP Govt. come into power this April. Why are we creating more trouble for our country ? We will become a pawn between the powerful nations playing political games for their own benefits and we will be the losers at the end.
    Don’t bet on China or Russia or any other anti US countries for help. They just don’t care, no body cares about this silly Lanka in any sincere way.
    Unless we solve our problems internally and amicably, UN , UNHRC and foreign intervention cannot be stopped anymore. It’s already too late and any delay tactics or asking 5 more year time to ‘complete’ reconstruction, rehabilitation, reconciliation or the intended and progressive full scale genocide may not be possible under the present situation. The world is slowly but surely has woken up.

    • 1
      0

      If the govt was clever, they could have worked with lanken seniors like senior politicians, senior academics, university dons or various others in the respective areas in finding most appropriate actions concerning keeping international relations as had been before. Mostly we though disagree with DJ,his points are always not wrong. As made clear by him very lately an importance of building a small cabinet of lanken seniors like Dew Gunasekara, Milinda Moragoda, Rajiva Wijesinghe and several others could well shape up the lanken foreign principles to the good. Those who have dealt with foreign countries are unequivocally powerful and the masters in that areas not the ones that sat years long on army forces. Regular discussion rounds could have been held in this regard. But nothing like falling on that line were treated well by MR administration has becoming a huge blunder. Even some diplomats though made mistakes once or several times, their knowledge collected on specific areas should be concerned in finding better solutions for the future of the nation.

    • 0
      0

      China and Russia will have interest in the country so long their aims are met. Chinese is believed to be unpredictable to everyone’s eye but not to naive MR regime.
      As Dr. Harsha Silva pointed out clearly they the Chinese have deceived lanken state not telling the truth of those banks. This Harsha points out today,
      http://www.ft.lk/2014/02/25/harsha-says-there-is-nothing-to-correct-renews-charge-cccc-and-chec-are-banned-by-wb/

    • 0
      1

      Bruz,
      Take it easy.
      Are you advising the gov. what to do? Is this advice to help the gov. or help your motives? If the gov. does not act the way you want, won’t it help you? I hope Navi Pillay and the UNHRC will do the “truth” and “reconciliation” for us and solve all the “problems”. So you should sit back and relax.

  • 1
    1

    ‘Confess your sins to each other…so that you can live together whole and healed.’- James. 5.Holy Bible.

    ‘Festering wounds..’

    Forgiveness..is not possible unless the perpetrator confesses and seeks
    forgiveness from the victims.A genuine Truth Commission could help
    bring reconciliation to Sri Lanka, as in several other countries, but
    if the objective is to suppress or cover up the unwelcome Truth, it
    would be counterproductive.Any healing would then be on the surface;
    underneath, the wound would continue to fester.’ –

    -Rev. Micheal Lapsley, Director of ‘The Institute for the Healing of
    Memories, Cape Town, South Africa.

    • 2
      1

      Sandy,
      It is great to read Rev. Lapsley’s statement. But does it really apply to Sri Lanka?
      “Forgiveness..is not possible unless the perpetrator confesses and seeks forgiveness from the victims”
      In Sri Lanka the “perpetrator” was the murderous terror group the LTTE. Shouldn’t the remnants of LTTE “confesses and seeks forgiveness from the victims” (100,000 citizens murdered by suicide bombings) ??

      OK, For a moment lets say the DFSL was the “perpetrator”. What did they do? they annihilated the terror group LTTE. Now, from whom you want the DFSL to “seek forgiveness”? Are, you saying the LTTE?????

  • 13
    1

    Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam

    What kind of a researcher are you? Where is your objectivity and neutrality? You mention repeatedly the government has squandered the post-war opportunity for reconciliation. But you don’t mention at all TNA’s return to confrontational politics and its deliberately provoking statements and actions. The people in the north and east want reconciliation. But TNA and NPC are squandering away the chances by their negativity and non-cooperation just like the government.

    You don’t mention the fact that right from the resumption of the war in 2006 the Tigers dragged the Tamil people along with them as the battlefield kept moving and used them as human shield. You don’t mention that the Tigers took cover in the No Fire Zones dressed as civilians and launched attacks from hospitals in those zones and from other civilian areas in order to invite reprisal attacks on those civilian targets.

    Your analysis is not much different from that of the LTTE rump propaganda except for your acknowledgement of the “aggressive policy of forced recruitment.”

    • 1
      8

      Point Man
      Can you please give examples of the confrontational politics and provocative statements of the TNA.When where and what were they?
      What your definition of provocation,notwithstanding the fact,that the TNA exists is itself is a grave provocation to the likes of yourself?

  • 1
    2

    A very candid account of the events preceding and during the war and an objective analysis of what happened within relatively a short period. Quite moving too. Bensen

  • 1
    0

    No one can straighten a dogs tail and so are with the ruling ‘elites’ who wouldn’t take honest advice or listen to anyone. These mavericks, hell bent on looting and destroying the nation in broad day light without any fear or decency. What has happened to our educated Doctorates and Professors of all kind ? Oh well, what else can do and get white vanned or made to disappear ?
    They assumed power using undemocratic stunts, playing all tricks, robbing victory from the real winners. These thugs and co are doing all the worst things one can imagine and still riding on the back of the brain washed populace, using Sinhala Buddhism card, LTTE terror card, victory card, UNHRC card, electric chair story and making fool of every idiot in the country. There is no shortage for that kind of stupid people who could be swayed, made to believe everything what these scums say in Lanka. Plenty of them, dime a dozen, always available handy and they will never ever allow Lanka to emerge prosperous, righteous, constructive or even real Buddhist. They think that destroying Mosques, vandalising Churches, robbing Hindu temples are Buddhist or Sinhala culture, then these guys are bringing disrepute to Lanka and Buddhism. These perverts ate anti Buddhists in white national dress and faking off as patriots. It’s okay , if the doom is the destiny for our nation and people, no one can help.
    Either wait for the resolution from UNHRC in Geneva or wait until April for Indian elections. The choice is yours. No more delay tactics or plain stupid games. It’s time to quit or be unceremoniously removed. Go for NIRVANA, now is the time Mr Maradana Raja. Leave the country with all your loot immediately and ask your crazy Goo-Thug-Paya to run away with his killer shark pets and hide in USA gas station or seven-eleven. TGTE will handle him in USA with Bruce Fein. End of the story ! Lankans can live in real peace and prosperity.

  • 1
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    Eusense.

    Yes, the statement does apply to S.L.
    But if you wish to continue in denial that’s up to you.

    • 1
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      Sandy,
      Please enlighten me as to how “the statement does apply to S.L”.
      I am not in denial of any thing and am open to learning.

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