Seven years after war’s end, Sri Lanka on cautious path to peace

For seven years, the ethnic Tamil housewife has waited for news of a son who vanished near the frenzied end of Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long civil war. After so much time, she has little faith that the Sinhalese-majority government will help solve such mysteries and heal old wounds. “There is no place I haven’t gone in search of him,” said Shantha, who like many people in this teardrop-shaped tropical island nation goes by one name. She last saw her son in March 2009, when he was 23 years old and injured in the crossfire of fighting. The military promised to take him to safety. She never heard from him again.
“The government just talks about good governance, but no good seems to be coming,” she said, weeping. For the hundreds of thousands of minority ethnic Tamils like Shantha, the government’s repeated promises of post-war reconciliation ring false, even as authorities take tentative steps toward fulfilling some of them. Tamil rebels demanding self-rule fought the government from 1983 to 2009 before being crushed by Sri Lanka’s army.
While the UN counts some 100,000 people killed in the fighting, rights groups believe the number was much higher, including some 40,000 civilians believed to have been killed in the war’s final months. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led the military in crushing the rebellion and continued to rule until last year, when he lost an election to Maithripala Sirisena. Many expected a new era of national healing and atonement, but more than a year later, there has only been slow progress as Sirisena cautiously balances the anguished demands of the Tamils with the persistent fears of the Sinhalese majority. “It’s very difficult. It’s very challenging,” Sirisena said during last month’s ceremony in Colombo honoring soldiers on the seventh anniversary of their victory over separatist rebels. His government has handed back some of the property seized by the army, discontinued the military’s involvement in civil administration and policing, and lifted bans on some Tamil expatriate groups that had previously supported the rebels’ separatist cause, with the aim of opening communications with them.
Sinhalese nationalist groups are already rallying against these moves.
“Building reconciliation aimed at non-recurrence of violence can never be done with bricks, cement, iron, sand or any other material,” Sirisena said. “It’s about bringing people’s minds together; uniting hurting minds; uniting minds full of hatred.”
Changes are not coming fast enough for many Tamils, tens of thousands of whom have been homeless since the military bombed their homes or took their land. Jobs are hard to come by. Families are desperate for news on missing relatives. Many have refused to accept death certificates offered by the previous government and wait for information on what actually happened to them.

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