Sri Lanka: Tamil leader says ethnic conflict has 'deepened'

February 18, 2014
Sri Lankan soldiers patrolling the streets of Jaffna in the Northern Province in 2012.

“Contrary to popular belief, the end of the war has actually deepened the ethnic conflict. This is because the underlying causes for the conflict have not been addressed and in certain ways exacerbated”.

These were the words of C. V. Wigneswaran, chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in Sri Lanka, addressing an academic conference in capital, Colombo, on February 13.

Wigneswaran was referring to the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE had fought for nearly three decades for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. They were finally defeated in 2009.

Wigneswaran became chief minister in September last year, when the Tamil National Alliance won an overwhelming victory in the elections for the NPC.

The Northern Province is mainly inhabited by Tamils. The Sri Lankan government is seeking to change this by establishing settlements of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority in the area.

However, the limited powers of provincial councils under the Sri Lankan constitution are being cut even further. A new law “essentially usurps the devolved powers of the provincial government”, Wigneswaran said.

The Sri Lankan government boasts of building roads and other infrastructure in the Northern Province.

Wigneswaran commented: “The NPC election results were an unequivocal rejection of the ‘Roads First — People Later' approach towards development”. He added that “hardly any locals were employed” when the roads were built.

Wigneswaran said the Sri Lankan government had been taking decisions without consulting the newly elected NPC: “The decision-making process currently in place with regard to socio-economic development is devoid of participation by the people’s representatives.

“This is due to two reasons. One is that the state deems it necessary to keep its vanquisher-saviour status intact for various political reasons.

“The second is the desire to maintain a centralised control over the north”.

There is a heavy military presence in the Northern Province. Government officials have given contradictory figures on how many soldiers are stationed in the north, but Wigneswaran said he believes it is at least 150,000.

He outlined some of the problems caused by the high military presence: “The Army engages in large scale agriculture and commercial activities, including the operation of golf courses and tourist resorts. This presents a barrier for the entry of civilians into those areas and forces out competition from civilians.

“Even the tea kiosks on your way down the A9 [highway] have been opened by Army men or their relatives or proxies. The military presence … has forced women into prostitution.”

The army has been taking over more and more land. For example, he said: “In the north-east of the [Jaffna] Peninsula over 6000 acres of lands have been taken over by the army.

“They have completely destroyed the habitations of the locals and have started constructing palatial buildings, golf courses and swimming pools to install comfortably the leaders of the Government and the Armed Forces when they visit the North …

“More and more lands are being grabbed, especially in the Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Mannar districts with the backing of the Armed Forces.”

The army completely ignores the wishes of the elected provincial government. Wigneswaran said: “Two Hindu temples and a school were razed to the ground the other day by the army. When I went there as the chief minister to see what had happened, I was politely turned back to obtain the permission of the ministry of defence.”

The arbitrary power of the army creates a climate of fear. Wigneswaran said: “The rule of law has been severely eroded. There is a marked absence of human security — defined as the absence of fear.”

This was a very understated reference to the fact that Tamils live in fear of abduction, murder and rape at the hands of the Sri Lankan army and associated paramilitary groups.

Wigneswaran also said that: “A large number of IDPs [internally displaced people] are yet to be resettled in their places of traditional habitation … Similarly, a significant number of detainees under the PTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] remain incarcerated not knowing their future.

“All these have deleterious effects not only on the persons concerned, but their families and the northern society itself.”

Wigneswaran touched on the range of other problems, including restrictions on Tamil fisher people and high rates of disease and suicide. “Complex mental health and psycho-social problems at the individual, family and community levels abound in the post war context.”

Wigneswaran said there is “an immediate and urgent need to set about demilitarising the society at large, including reduction of armed forces, disbanding of paramilitary apparatus, demilitarisation of civilian institutions and curbing militarisation of economic life of people of the north and east …

“Steps must be taken immediately to confine [the] military to barracks and to formulate a plan for a phased withdrawal from the NP [Northern Province].”

Wigneswaran said he is committed to “a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka”.

Some Tamils, who are campaigning for an internationally supervised referendum with the option of independence, have criticised this and other aspects of his speech.

But despite its polite and understated tone (no doubt adapted to his conservative audience), this speech by the elected leader of Tamils in the northern province shows the continuing oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Australian government has been returning asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without even considering their claims for refugee status — on the pretext that the war is now over so there is no reason the flee. Wigneswaran’s speech indicates that this is not the case.

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