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East offers glimpse of post-war Sri Lanka

Civilians still suffer from fear two years since conflict ended.

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.