Aftershocks of a civil war

Sri Lanka's presidential election touches off a firestorm of unrest.
Displaced Sri Lankan Tamils gaze past a fence at an internment camp in Vavuniya in November 2009. (Reuters)

Sri Lanka's tortured politics shifted into a new and murky phase after the re-election of the country's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in January.

Rajapaksa soundly defeated retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the battlefield commander who helped destroy the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam last year, ending Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war.

The election was a bitter contest between the two former allies and when Fonseka threatened to challenge the results in court — he said there was widespread vote rigging — the government had him arrested for plotting a coup.

Supporters of former army commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka chant behind a police line during a protest in the Colombo suburb, Maharagama, on February 11, 2010, the second day of street protests. (Andrew Caballer0-Reynolds/Reuters)

The arrest prompted demonstrations by Fonseka's opposition supporters, and the country's top Buddhist monks, who supported the war against the LTTE, urged Rajapaksa to release Fonseka from jail.

Meanwhile, the country's top court has agreed to hear a petition seeking Fonseka's release and the political powers are gearing up for April's general elections, when Rajapaksa hopes to further strengthen his grip on power.

What about the Tamils?

This latest power struggle, which is taking place mostly in the capital, Colombo, is overshadowing the very real problems that linger for Tamils, Muslims and indigenous people who are trying to remake their lives following the civil war that ended in May 2009.

Freed from war, but still living in a fractured war zone, they all face a future filled with uncertain prospects.

The lack of homes, jobs and schools dominate their concerns. But unexploded land mines remain a serious menace as well. 

Less visible but no less important is the trauma from the loss of family and friends during the more than two decades of violence at the hands of the government in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers themselves.

Supporters of jailed army commander Sarath Fonseka and supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa throw rocks at each other during street demonstrations following the general's arrest in February 2010. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

The UN estimates 7,000 civilians were killed in the closing months of the war alone and many Tamils don't know the whereabouts of family members, having been forced to live these last months in wretched government-run camps on very modest rations.

The Rajapaksa government has rejected international accusations that this amounts to human rights abuse.

But the European Union is not convinced and last week brought trade sanctions against Sri Lanka to try to force it to do better.

Turn the page

For his part, President Rajapaksa says it's time to turn the page.

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa won re-election in January by almost two million votes but the opposition is not melting away. (Reuters)

"We will ensure equality and equity among all the ethnicities," he said in Tamil shortly after his re-election, called after a surge of post-war support among the majority Sinhalese.

Economic development and integration of the formerly Tiger-held areas in the North and East, which the Tamils claim as a homeland, are Rajapaksa's priorities. But he indicated there will be no self-rule for Tamils.

By the end of the war, almost 300,000 Tamils were being held in internment camps but about 180,000 were freed in time for the presidential election.

Many drifted to their ancestral homes with government rations of about $250, some dry food and a bunch of tin sheets to build temporary shelters.

Those who arrived home, where much of the recent the fighting was,  found land that is so overgrown they say it may take months to clear it.

More than 100,000 Tamils remain in camps in Vavuniya because land mines need to be cleared near their old homes. Some detainees are allowed to move about only if they have government passes.


Another dark corner involves 12,000 or so suspected members of the rebel Tamil Tigers, one of the world's more violent secessionist groups, who are being held by government soldiers at an isolated camp.

Although some have been released back to their families after a period of re-education, the government has refused to allow independent observers to visit the prison camps or even find out their names.

"Everything is devastated," says Ahilan Kadirgamar, an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, who returned to New York from a visit to the country in January. "Schools, hospitals, everything."

Sri Lanka's losing presidential candidate, former Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the man who defeated the Tamils, says the vote was rigged. He is shown here in early February 2010, just days before his arrest. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

He says resettlement is the most important issue at the moment. "The government has been talking about reconstruction and development but so far, on the ground, there hasn't been enough."

When the government ran out of metal sheets to give returning refugees, the Chinese government stepped in and provided tents.

Kadirgamar says Tamils are freer now to move about and that the A-9, the only highway that connects Colombo to the northernmost Jaffna peninsula, is now completely passable after being part of the front line in the war.

The minister in charge of resettlement, Rizath Bathiyutheen, defends his work, saying no other country could have resettled that many people so quickly.

But while the government has provided some aid, it appears to be working around, rather than with, the Tamils.

And international agencies say there has been little consultation with the displaced civilians, a group that includes an estimated 80,000 Muslims who were expelled from the North by the Tigers and who are experiencing similar problems for their return.

Picking up the pieces

The long civil war had its roots in Tamil grievances that they were systematically discriminated against by the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority.

But it soon evolved into an especially violent conflict with international overtones.

The rebel group Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) is often said to have pioneered the use of child soldiers and suicide vests. It routinely attacked civilian targets and assassinated high-profile politicians, including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

To this, the Sri Lankan government responded in kind to the point that anyone critical of the government risks being harassed or imprisoned.  

The government has used its emergency measures laws to detain thousands of people.

Journalists also accuse the government of complicity in the disappearances and murders of reporters who have been critical of the war or written about government corruption.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the outspoken managing editor of the Sunday Leader,  was murdered in January, 2009,  claiming in an editorial, published after his death:  "When I am finally killed, it will be the government that kills me."

Even after the January election, journalists complained of continuing harassment and intimidation.

"I would imagine if he (Rajapaksa) is going to take legitimate measures to unite the country, he has to repeal draconian pieces of legislation," says Sujith Xavier, a Tamil who studies international law in Toronto.

But Xavier, for one, believes the level of mistrust between Tamils and Sinhalese is too high at this point for much reconciliation.

Still, the crushing of the Tigers opens a path that had been closed, one where civil society and more democratic Tamil leaders may emerge to find common ground.

A vision for how that will work is still unclear.  Tamils are still, literally, picking up the pieces.