East offers glimpse of post-war Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — As the Sri Lankan government enters its final battle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the country's north, little attention is being paid to the Eastern Province.

The government won control of this territory nearly two years ago, after a long military battle, and has since touted the region as a political and humanitarian success story.

The East has in fact become the government’s blueprint for future plans in the North. “The people of the Northern Province must have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of democracy and development that the people of the Eastern Province are enjoying today,” Secretary of Foreign Affairs Palitha T.B. Kohona said last month.

During a talk at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, a colonial-era behemoth rising above the Indian Ocean outside of Colombo, the capital, Kohona portrayed the East as a community which has “started to sense and feel the true spirit of freedom, absence of fear and the joy of living that was not theirs during the last three decades.”

Many residents of the Eastern Province would not recognize this description of their homeland. Their daily lives remain wracked with fears of violence, abductions, rape, illegal taxation and ongoing oppression by government security forces and government-supported paramilitary groups, such as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

“This is almost worse than before,” said one resident of Trincomalee, referring to the period until mid-2007 when the East was under the control of the LTTE. “We are not living, we are still surviving. We know anytime, anything can happen to us.”

The East’s rapidly deteriorating security is largely due to the unofficial war between factions of the TMVP, an armed political party that now controls the region. The main players in this ongoing conflict are the chief minister of the Eastern Province, S. Chandrakanthan (alias: Pillayan), and V. Muralitheran (alias: Karuna), now a government minister with Sri Lanka’s ruling party. Both were high-ranking LTTE cadres who broke from the group in 2004.

As Pillayan and Karuna jockey for political and economic power in the East, the ethnic Tamil and Muslim communities sandwiched between them are increasingly victimized. In November 2008, for example, 18 people were murdered in Batticaloa district in one 24-hour period, according to Human Rights Watch.

From November 2008 to January 2009 at least 75 people were abducted in Batticaloa district, according to the Ceylon Human Rights Authority, continuing a long history of disappearances that have plagued the region for decades.

Government security forces are also accused of widespread human rights abuses. In February and March 2008, for instance, some 50 women were sexually assaulted in the town of Akkaraipattu, allegedly by the army’s Special Task Forces (STF), according to the International Crisis Group.

“This is the terror of the people now,” said one government employee, referring to the spate of murders, abductions and rapes. “The government is not in control of law and order here. The LTTE system still operates, whether it’s now TMVP, Karuna, or whatever. The same old guy who collected taxes for the LTTE now collects money for TMVP. We are bleeding to death. The economy is bleeding to death”

“We were complaining in those days that we had to pay taxes but in retrospect it was better than this,” said one man in his 20s who lives in Batticaloa district. “Before when we paid taxes at least we had the satisfaction that it was for our protection [by the LTTE].”

He went on to describe how he is afraid to leave his house without his young son, who provides a deterrent to beatings from the government security forces who control roads in the Eastern Province with hundreds of checkpoints.

“The Sinhalese community is going to dominate the East more and more, and youngsters are going to want to join the [LTTE] freedom fighting,” he said. “If what I am saying now were known to security forces, I would not be living.”

According to a recent report issued by the International Crisis Group, the problems of both the North and East are “ultimately political in nature. They require a careful, democratic and inclusive political response.”

But for the time being, even the political process is a source of terror for citizens in the East. The elections last May in which Pillayan was elected as chief minister led to months of unchecked violence and the murder of at least 107 people, according to the Foundation for Coexistence.

“People will be the victims,” said one prominent leader of the Catholic Church in the East about future elections. “We dread that time. We can see the sword of democracy coming, hanging over our heads.”

(Maura O’Connor traveled to Sri Lanka on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

Additional dispatches by Maura O'Connor:

In peace, Sri Lankans still disappear

Tamil civilians endured horror

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What the Tamils and Palestinians have in common

Silenced in Sri Lanka