Waging peace

aerial view of
a former battle
front in the
northeast of
Sri Lanka from
the helicopter
carrying the
then UN
General Ban
during his visit
in April 2009.
An aerial view of a former battle front in the northeast of Sri Lanka from the helicopter carrying the then UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon during his visit in April 2009.

Having first reported from Sri Lanka in 2005, Nicola Brennan-Tupara recently revisited to see how it was recovering after years of civil war. In the last of her series of articles from the country, she examines whether peace can really last. 

Kiwi Bob McKerrow has spent his life working in countries either at war or recovering from war, but Sri Lanka holds a special place in his heart.

That is why soon after the civil war ended in 2009, he packed his bags, left Indonesia and headed back to the country he worked in after the 2004 tsunami.

PUSHED OUT: People flee an area held by the Tamil Tigers in northeastern Sri Lanka in 2009.
PUSHED OUT: People flee an area held by the Tamil Tigers in northeastern Sri Lanka in 2009.

He wanted to take part in the rebuilding after almost 30 years of war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country.

As the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) head of delegation Sri Lanka, McKerrow has seen first hand the changes that have occurred in Sri Lanka since the final bomb was dropped.

"I've seen a lot of post-conflict reconstruction, but this is the quickest I've seen." The Sri Lankan Government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the northern province.

Viduranga Aruna Abeygoonesekera,
New Zealand’s honorary consul to Sri Lanka.
Viduranga Aruna Abeygoonesekera, New Zealand’s honorary consul to Sri Lanka.

It has built roads, hospitals and schools - infrastructure to help promote what it calls a "northern spring".

It's this, McKerrow says, that the Government is doing well. "Reconciliation is another matter, but this country, in three years, isn't doing too badly."

The Sri Lankan Government has been strongly criticised by international groups for its reconciliation progress.

International Federation of Red Cross
and Red Crescent Societies head of delegation
Sri Lanka, Bob McKerrow.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies head of delegation Sri Lanka, Bob McKerrow.

A Crisis Group report early this year said the Sri Lankan military's domination of the reconstruction of the north was worsening tensions with the ethnic Tamil majority.

Despite the millions being spent, local people, many left destitute, have seen only slight improvements in their lives.

They say the military is increasing its economic role and establishing itself as a permanent occupying force, leaving many Tamils struggling.

Amnesty International says the Sri Lankan Government continues to stifle dissent through threats and harassment, and has failed to take steps to end enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

It says there's a climate of fear and people hesitate to speak about abuses of power.

The IFRC is doing what it can by providing people with houses and training and McKerrow is confident peace can last.

"People generally tell you the threats are offshore now. The people I talk to as I travel around just want peace. I think that if they can get a house, water, sanitation and a livelihood and the kids are able to go to school unharmed, that's the most important things to them."

Those who could reignite the war are dead.

"[LTTE leader] Prabhakaran was one of those few people who could galvanise people, mainly through fear, but he's not going to come back to life and there's no-one else who could lead them on shore."

All Sri Lanka needs is a few more years of good governance and it will get there, McKerrow says.

Others, such as Nadaraja "Suki" Sukirtharaj, of the Jaffna Social Action Centre, are not so sure.

The centre, based in the country's northern-most city, Jaffna, works mainly with women and children, often in displaced communities, to provide them with vocational training, housing and other assistance.

"[The government] talks about reconciliation, but what does it mean, really?" he says.

"Most people in the north and east have each been through some traumatic experience. They have been victimised.

"Take myself: I've been three times displaced - lost all my belongings, lost friends right in front of me."

There is no proper assistance for people to deal with the trauma and the emotional scars that are left, he says.

"There are NGOs [non-governmental organisations] here that have the capacity to do psychosocial work, but the government is not allowing them to do that work. Is that the way to help a person?"

Mentally, people are lost.

"There are so many steps they need to take, but this is not happening."

Suki fears that without a proper package for reconciliation, the situation will remain tenuous.

"If the government is genuine, then peace will prevail.

"I'm very confident there won't be violence any more, but the people are not happy. This is a negative peace."

Survivors Associated executive director Shanthi Arulumpalam also believes more needs to be done to ensure lasting peace.

Her organisation works with torture survivors to provide psychosocial help.

The end of the war should have been a busy time for her organisation.

"But there's something called the PTF [Presidential Taskforce of Resettlement, Reconciliation and Security in the Northern Province].

"They sit there and say who can get in there [to help] and who can't and for a couple of years, no-one could and that's why a lot of NGOs got chased out of the country."

Survivors Associated struck an agreement with the defence minister about two years ago to provide psychosocial help, but Shanthi says the organisation could be doing so much more.

"Like I said, this PTF thing is crushing everyone. I've told [the government] that. These people need help."

If things don't improve, she is unsure whether true reconciliation can occur.

"The problems started right at the beginning, because the Tamil people felt that they were being discriminated against. We need to prove to them that there is no more discrimination, but we can't do that because this darned PTF thing keeps interfering and stopping people from going in.

"The people are thinking: ‘They don't want to help me because I'm Tamil'. So how can peace come? So we have to eradicate that feeling that the Tamil people have that the government is against it."

Special presidential adviser on rehabilitation and MP Rajiva Wijesinha says the country is heading in the right direction.

"A lot of things a lot of people anticipated wouldn't get done have actually been accomplished - quite successfully.

"There were suggestions that the government wouldn't want to resettle and rehabilitate quickly.

"I think we have done it more quickly than any other country has. Almost all the displaced have been resettled and almost all the former combatants have been released."

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president's brother, recently said that Sri Lanka was now "one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world", an accomplishment worthy of study.

But Wijesinha says the Government suffers from a lack of communication with its citizens.

"It's a weakness which is endemic, but is not deliberate."

He says the reason the north isn't developing as fast as the east, which the Government took control of in 2007, is because the north is more cut off and lost more services during the war than the east.

"We haven't done enough consistently up there, but it's not deliberate."

He doesn't think violence will reignite in the north.

"People in the north and east felt that they had no recourse but to turn to arms. I don't think that will be repeated because we now know what the penalty of neglecting people is. So even if we don't provide it as well as we should, we will not ignore the problem."

But he doesn't think the Government should be providing houses for displaced people returning home.

"People say, Can we get a house? I say: No. The Government is not here to give you houses, it is here to give you the vehicle to live and employment so that you can start working. We cannot continue with a culture of handouts."

Back in New Zealand, many Sri Lankans who fled here during the war think true peace can only come when those who committed war crimes, particularly during the final months of the war, are held to account.

Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the north during the final battle, with allegations, on both sides, of attacks on civilians, executions of combatants and prisoners, enforced disappearances by the Sri Lankan military, and the LTTE using civilians as human shields.

In March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution urging Sri Lanka to investigate these alleged abuses.

The Sri Lankan Government commissioned its own investigation into the war last year, with its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), clearing the military of deliberately attacking civilians.

But the UN said the LLRC did "not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law".

One former LTTE member living in Auckland is fighting hard to make sure those who allegedly perpetrated such crimes are held to account - at an international court, he hopes.

"Tamil people need to see some justice, some sort of solution."

Horrible things happened during the war, but New Zealand's honorary consul to Sri Lanka, Viduranga Aruna Abeygoonesekera, says it's time to move on.

"There are people on both sides of the extreme, unfortunately, for whom the war - and I hate to use the word - has been an industry. They have cashed in on this.

"It's like the end of World War II. Someone had to do it, rightly or wrongly.

"You can argue and litigate and relitigate what's happened, but the fact is there is peace now. People need to get behind it because we don't want to go back to the old things again."

He is confident Sri Lanka is a stable country that New Zealand should look to establish further links with.

"I think the countries are very close, a lot closer than people know."

Information provided to the Times under the Official Information Act shows New Zealand exports to Sri Lanka have increased from $164 million in 2002 to $356m in 2012.

Imports from Sri Lanka have doubled from $20m to $402m in the same period.

"It's been three years since the end of the war and I'm interested in promoting trade between the countries."

Abeygoonesekera has set up a Sri Lanka Business Council to do just that.

"There're always things [New Zealanders] can do to get involved in the rebuilding process [in Sri Lanka].

"I know we are not a big country here and we can only contribute so much, but it's important for New Zealand to be seen as a country that's partnering Sri Lanka in the rebuilding process."

Since the end of the war, he has been inundated with inquiries from people who want to travel to Sri Lanka for work and leisure.

Abeygoonesekera is aware of the criticism of the military presence in the north still, but doesn't see it as a long-term measure.

"I don't think it's anyone's intention to intimidate people in any way. I think, when [the Government] eventually feels comfortable, it will scale things down as it has done in the rest of the country.

"There are spots where trouble might still break out, that's why it is doing it."

But those living in these areas see it differently.

"We're too tired to fight. We just want the military to leave and let us get on with our lives," a resident of the former LTTE stronghold, Kilinochchi, said.

"Even now, they continue to spy on us.

"If there's a gathering of people, they come to your home and question you later. Sometimes people just go missing."

So while the bombs have stopped falling and the guns stopped firing, it could be decades before trust is re-established and true peace and reconciliation achieved.


The War

Lying off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka has been scarred by a long and bitter civil war arising out of ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast.

Beginning in 1983, the LTTE waged intermittent insurgency attacks against the government for 26 years in a fight for an independent state.

More than 70,000 people died.

Tension between the groups was sparked by the island's colonial past when the country was called Ceylon. The majority Buddhist Sinhalese thought the British favoured Hindu Tamils, so after independence from Britain in 1948, Singhala nationalism grew. It caused further ethnic division and sparked the war.

While most of the fighting took place in the north, the LTTE often travelled to the capital of Colombo to carry out suicide bombings.

After two decades of fighting and four failed tries at peace talks, a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002.

However, hostilities renewed in late 2005 and the conflict began to escalate.

The government launched a number of major military offensives against the LTTE beginning in July 2006, driving them out of the eastern provinces.

They then moved their attentions to the north, and in January 2008 formally announced their withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement.

In May 2009, the government proclaimed victory over the LTTE after killing its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and taking control of Mullaitivu.

Waikato Times