Sri Lanka strives to recover after end of civil war

Updated - November 17, 2021 07:04 am IST

Published - December 11, 2009 03:30 pm IST - Colombo, Dec 11

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, center, gestures after unveiling a monument for fallen Sri Lankan soldiers in the town of Puthukudiyiruppu, Sri Lanka, on Dec. 9, 2009. Photo: AP

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, center, gestures after unveiling a monument for fallen Sri Lankan soldiers in the town of Puthukudiyiruppu, Sri Lanka, on Dec. 9, 2009. Photo: AP

Months after ending a 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka, fresh hopes have been raised about building ethnic unity, although scars remain.

Government forces inched their way into the rebel-held territories in the northern part of the country in the final phase of the offensive in January this year. They eventually killed all the senior rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) including their leader commander Velupillai Prabakaran on May 18 to end the war.

Minefields are being cleared, large hauls of weapons, ammunition and explosives continue to be unearthed from the former war zone as some 10,000 suspected Tamil rebels remain in custody pending either prosecution or rehabilitation.

An estimated 130,000 people out of 300,000 displaced by the war still languish in refugee camps while the government goes ahead with ad-hoc resettlement plans including allowing some to go with friends and relations in other areas, but not to their original villages.

From Dec. 1, the heavily guarded refugee camps were declared “open camps,” enabling the free movement of inmates who were previously prevented from leaving.

The move was seen as a political ploy to appease Tamils ahead of a presidential election, which President Mahinda Rajapaksa - who spearheaded the war - has called for January, two years ahead of schedule.

“At the previous elections the people living in the north were not able to vote properly. Therefore, I have decided to seek a fresh mandate from the entire country,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

Tamil rebels prevented members of their minority from voting in the north and east for the 2005 presidential election. That move favoured Mr. Rajapaksa against opposition candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, the architect of a Norwegian-backed ceasefire and peace talks.

The Tamil rebel chief Prabakaran was widely believed to have underestimated Mr. Rajapaksa and launched unprovoked attacks on military convoys less than three weeks after the president took office. The government’s military push came after a wait of six months.

But military victory has sparked off differences over Mr. Rajapaksa and General Sarath Foneska, the army commander who led the offensive after he survived a suicide attack by the LTTE. Less than two weeks after the war ended, he was appointed defence chief of staff, a largely ceremonial position.

Gen (retd.) Fonseka, who retired prematurely from service in November, has decided to enter politics and run against Mr. Rajapaksa.

“It is clear that the president’s popularity is dropping which has forced him to go for fresh elections before his six-year term has ended,” said Mr. Wickremesinghe, who leads the opposition United National Party that is supporting Gen (retd.) Foneska.

Tamils have so far seen only the military end to the conflict, with the government failing to come out with proposals to resolve long-standing grievances of unemployment, under-development and administrative issues.

But the surface benefits of the war’s end are evident.

A key highway linking the north and south which was closed during the war, except for a brief period of the Norwegian backed cease-fire during from 2003-05, has been re-opened to civilian traffic, enabling better interaction between the communities.

A railway line linking the country that was blown up in 1985 by Tamil rebels is being rebuilt. Fish and agricultural products from the former war-torn areas are flowing into markets of the south.

In the south, tourism is improving with freedom of movement after the removal of security restrictions, and in the capital city there were no longer fears of suicide attacks and bomb explosions.

As the government moves to win the hearts and minds of Tamils ahead of the election, the scars of the war remain. International pressure to probe war allegations of crimes continues.

“It is true that terrorism has ended, but our families have suffered a lot and lost many of our members due to the war,” said Thangamani Thiruchelvam, 42, a mother of two who lost her husband in the war.

An estimated 7,000 civilians perished in the final three months of the war, according to United Nations estimates.

During the war an estimated 23,000 soldiers were killed and 30,000 others injured, some of them disabled for life.

The bitter war ended with a military solution, but a political solution to the ethnic conflict is needed to prevent the nation from slipping backwards.

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