A bitter peace: The roots of Sri Lanka’s conflict are in the ethnocentric nation-building project at work since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, says Sam Thampapillai

by Sam Thampapillai

The end of May marks the first anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka's long running and seemingly intractable civil war. This time last year, current President Mahinda Rajapakse announced victory for the government over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the death of its elusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran who had waged an armed rebellion for an independent Tamil state for over 26 years.

Such a juncture after decades of persistent violence was heralded as the dawn of a new era that offered the war-ravaged island a chance at peace.

Yet one year on, greater clarity has emerged about the war's true cost in terms of human suffering. An investigative report released last week by the International Crisis Group (ICG), says tens of thousands of Tamils were killed in the war's last throes with government forces shelling designated safe zones with apparent impunity.

The report – based on witness testimony, satellite images and other documentary evidence claims that in the final months the Sri Lankan armed forces intentionally and repeatedly shelled civilians, hospitals and humanitarian operations with the full knowledge of senior government and military officials.

Furthermore a senior Sri Lankan military commander and front-line solider now in hiding, in an interview with Britain's Channel 4, indicated that civilians and the surrendering families of LTTE combatants were summarily executed with orders to 'kill everyone' coming 'right from the top'.

At the time the war was sold to the world using the nomenclature of the war on terror with restrictions on foreign media creating the constructive ambiguity to prosecute such a narrative. However the confirmation of what ICG head and former UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbor called the "sheer magnitude of civilian death and suffering" and its dealing of "the most serious of body blows to international humanitarian law" pose new questions about the post-war trajectory of the island state.

Least not because the suffering of Tamils has not abated with the war's official end. Rather it has merely taken new forms.

Amnesty International reports that over 80,000 Tamil civilians remain detained in military run internment camps. A further 11,000 suspected LTTE combatants including over 500 children, are held by the state in Orwellian titled rehabilitation centres.

For Tamils outside the camps the post-war landscape is not much better. Whilst open war may have ended, the physical insecurity remains, with a 2010 US State Department Report revealing that the overwhelming victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka – such as extrajudicial killings and disappearances – are young male Tamils.

The militarisation of society has continued with an extended state of emergency and expanded army cantonments throughout the country's North and East. This virtual garrisoning has been accompanied by a wholesale programme of colonisation with Sinhala settlements and Buddhist shrines sprouting across the territory recognised as traditional Tamil homelands.

It is in this context that the stream of Tamil asylum seekers to Australia continues, marking Sri Lanka as an epicentre of instability in the Asia-Pacific region rather than on a contained if slow trajectory towards normalisation.

But this was not meant to happen. In the conventional understanding of many policymakers, Sri Lanka after the military defeat of the LTTE, should be in a post-conflict phase where the path to peace is defined by reconstruction, development and reconciliation.

Such an understanding however equates the civil conflict in Sri Lanka to the mere clash of arms. Rather the roots of the conflict are in the ethnocentric nation-building project at work since the country's independence from Britain in 1948.

Read more at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2905354.htm

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