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Across the Palk Strait, concern for Sri Lanka’s Tamils is being expressed through competitive aggression: there’s been a furore over the perceived weakness of a US-sponsored UNHRC resolution slamming Sri Lanka for rights violations and failure to rehabilitate its war-battered Tamils; Sri Lankan Buddhist monks visiting Tamil Nadu have been attacked; Lankan cricketers have been banned from IPL matches in Chennai; and last week, the Tamil Nadu assembly adopted a resolution (one sponsored by chief minister J. Jayalalitha) that India press the UN Security Council to seek a referendum in northern Sri Lanka over the creation of a Tamil Eelam. The vocal 9 lakh-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has been at work too: the US-sponsored resolution was backed by their western hosts who had granted them asylum with the vague notion of a faraway ‘freedom struggle’ and allowed money transfers that gave the LTTE claws and teeth.
Colombo, like India over Kashmir, has strongly objected to such external meddling. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister G.L. Peiris speaks of how much has been done in the Tamil-dominated northern and northeastern parts of the island, where over 2 lakh people had been killed in three decades of civil war. “Thousands of Tamils, including 595 LTTE child-soldiers, have been reintegrated. Demining is almost over,” he says. “In which country of former conflict have you seen something comparable within four years of the end of war?” In fact, a trip through the Tamil areas—where, during the conflict, highways lay mine-ridden, houses stood skeletal and palms crownless, and where dazed civilians would stumble about like tear-streaked wraiths, silently holding up pictures of missing children—throws up some surprises.
Yes, the Sri Lankan army is still an overwhelming presence, but, it must be conceded, without a dubious special law like India’s AFSPA. And anyone who has witnessed the conflict—one of Asia’s bloodiest—may well accept that the army cannot yet be withdrawn from an area liberated from terrorists who suicide-bombed with impunity and used child-soldiers as human shields for the leadership.
As visible and present as the army is change. Construction is on everywhere. Houses are being built in large numbers, the railway lines and highways could put the best in India to shame, the tin-roofed war-refugee shelters have almost vanished. Almost every second Tamil in gainful employment is a former Tiger. Killinochchi, once a dismal village of huge graveyards, is now a town bustling with hotels, supermarkets, small and big businesses. Internet connections are speedy. Much of this owes to investment by Sinhalas, but also by well-meaning overseas Tamils. Last week, this former ‘capital’ of the LTTE saw an unusual parade: the graduation of 20 female ex-LTTE cadres who had voluntarily joined the Sri Lankan army. “The UNHRC has been highly selective,” says Peiris, “but we invited its chief, Navanethem Pillay, to see for herself. She promised to come. We are still waiting.”
In Visuwamadu and Mullaithivu, some sombre relics of a bloody conflict still remain: LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran’s air-conditioned bunker; arsenals of weapons; aircraft, submarines, suicide boats and vests. Evidence also stands of wilful destruction wreaked by fleeing LTTE cadres, leaving thousands of Tamils destitute.
Few Tamils in Sri Lanka care for the blood-brotherly breast-beating in Tamil Nadu. “Empty noise,” says former LTTE spokesman Daya Master, speaking from Jaffna. “We want harmony and reconciliation with Sinhalas. Elections are due in September, and we’ll find a solution within Sri Lanka. These bleeding hearts should leave us alone.” Construction workers, shopkeepers, former LTTE cadres—across class and background, they say Chennai’s politicians have done nothing for them. The cacophony is mere political play. Sri Lanka is on the mend: Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora should help the process or leave them alone.
At a hotel in Mannar, Kamal (name changed), a 21-year-old bellhop, asks me fearfully if Prabhakaran is alive in Tamil Nadu. His father had died a Tiger, and he and his brother were forcibly recruited by the LTTE. Videos of “Prabhakaran alive”, supposedly shot in Chennai, have left many young Tamils like him, struggling to begin anew, frightened. He is happy working for a Sinhala proprietor, has “a good room and a good salary” and says “samadhanam (peace) is the best thing”. Over the week, he has made acquaintance with Malinga, a taxi driver who fought as a Sri Lankan soldier. Malinga is on his first trip to the north after the last days of the conflict, in which he saw many of his mates die. At parting, Kamal and Malinga shake hands, slap each other’s backs, and—just a trifle awkwardly—embrace.
(The writer is a senior freelance foreign correspondent.)