New Di­rec­tions

Sri Lanka may be still lick­ing the wounds of civil war but there are many se­ri­ous ef­forts afoot to give new di­rec­tions to its dis­placed youth pop­u­la­tion.

Southasia - - FEATURE SRI LANKA - By S. Mubashir Noor

Sri Lanka’s civil war of­fi­cially be­gan in 1983, but its roots lay in events three and a half mil­len­nia ear­lier. Around 1500 BC, Aryan in­vaders from the North swooped down on the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and con­quered its Dra­vid­ian denizens. Time, in­ter­mar­riages and in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion healed most ethno-religious rifts, but Sri Lanka’s di­vides con­tin­ued to fes­ter as the Bud­dhist Sin­halese and Hindu Tamils squared off for over 26 years. The for­mer claim ances­try from the Aryans, the lat­ter from the Dra­vid­i­ans.

Struc­tural in­equal­i­ties be­tween eth­nic groups gave birth to strife af­ter most civil wars, and Sri Lanka was no ex­cep­tion af­ter its in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in 1948. Sin­halese na­tion­al­ists be­grudged their Bri­tish masters for fa­vor­ing the is­land’s Tamil mi­nor­ity sim­ply be­cause they staffed the lu­cra­tive tea ex­port busi­ness. Af­ter Bri­tain’s exit, th­ese na­tion­al­ists took ad­van­tage of the su­pe­rior Sin­halese num­bers to fan sec­tar­ian flames and re­dress Sri Lanka’s sta­tus quo in their fa­vor.

In 1972, Sin­halese politi­cians changed the coun­try’s name from Cey­lon to Sri Lanka, and in­stalled Bud­dhism as the state re­li­gion. This trig­gered a Tamil back­lash that had bloomed into a full­blown in­sur­gency by 1983. Sep­a­ratists killed thir­teen sol­diers in a se­ries of face­offs that year, pro­vok­ing na­tion­wide ri­ot­ing that ended 2500 Tamil lives. The Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE) emerged from this blood­bath as Sri Lanka’s pre­mium rebel force, un­der

the ruth­less lead­er­ship of Velupil­lai Prab­hakaran, be­gan tak­ing over ter­ri­tory in the north­east­ern parts of the coun­try.

The Tamil youth of the Jaffna penin­sula and other LTTE-con­trolled ar­eas were the most vul­ner­a­ble play­ers in Sri Lanka’s civil war. They un­wit­tingly sank into a gi­ant whirlpool of ha­tred and both the LTTE and Colombo used them as pawns, shields and bait. Child sol­diers, some barely in their teens, re­ceived cyanide pills from LTTE com­man­ders in a macabre sui­cide-pact to live and die by the Ee­lam flag. A few of th­ese thou­sands were will­ing par­tic­i­pants and the LTTE used a mix­ture of co­er­cion and re­warded co­op­er­a­tion to pry one child from each Tamil fam­ily.

Re­port­edly, over 500 child sol­diers died in the sin­gle bat­tle at Kilinochchi in 1998. There are box-loads of case files which are a tes­ta­ment to sim­i­lar atroc­i­ties. A 2004 UNICEF re­port re­vealed that the LTTE re­cruited over 3500 un­der­age fight­ers, two years into an un­easy cease­fire with Colombo. The Sri Lankan govern­ment, too, is guilty of equal crimes. Al­lan Rock, a spe­cial ad­viser to the UN Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Chil­dren and Armed Con­flict, claimed in 2006 that, "Sri Lankan se­cu­rity forces rounded up chil­dren to be re­cruited by the Karuna fac­tion," a turn­coat LTTE wing helmed by “Colonel” Karuna Am­man.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil youth to­day live in emo­tional limbo and be­tray a ni­hilis­tic streak born of the coun­try’s dark past. A par­tic­u­larly grim car­i­ca­ture painted by the el­derly de­picts young Tamil males as crea­tures of street cor­ners; smok­ing, drink­ing and ha­rass­ing women. Un­der­age ad­dic­tion to drugs and al­co­hol has sky­rock­eted and so have re­gional sui­cide rates. The mistrust­ful pres­ence of mil­i­tary per­son­nel in for­mer LTTE ar­eas com­pli­cates their post­war rein­te­gra­tion into Sri Lankan so­ci­ety. Cou­pled with ram­shackle com­mu­nity in­fra­struc­ture and em­ploy­ment op­tions lim­ited to man­ual la­bor, many young Tamils have de­vel­oped a dis­con­nect with their mi­lieu and dream of mov­ing abroad.

Sri Lankans voted Maithri­pala Sirisena into of­fice in Jan­uary last year on pledges of unit­ing a frac­tured coun­try. The new pres­i­dent promised to shun the di­vi­sive pol­i­tics of his fore­run­ner Mahinda Ra­japaksa and usher in an era of in­ter-race har­mony. Last May, how­ever, a damn­ing re­port by the Amer­i­can think-tank Oak­land In­sti­tute rub­bished Sirisena’s peace­mak­ing cre­den­tials, al­leg­ing “Six years later, a silent war con­tin­ues un­der a dif­fer­ent guise.” The re­port ac­cused Colombo of re­set­tling in­ter­nally dis­placed Tamils in ar­eas with poor ameni­ties and con­tin­u­ing an un­nec­es­sary and heavy­handed mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion in for­mer LTTE ar­eas, with one solider for ev­ery six civil­ians.

The re­port also con­demned Sri Lanka’s army for prof­it­ing off its pres­ence, as­sert­ing it “of­fi­cially run lux­ury re­sorts and golf cour­ses that have been erected on land seized from now in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons.” Still, Sirisena sol­diered on and an­nounced a war crimes tri­bunal in Septem­ber that would log atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted dur­ing the civil war, pros­e­cute war crim­i­nals and pay repa­ra­tions to the vic­tims. Colombo also lifted bans on eight groups and 267 per­sons re­lated to the Ee­lam cause, and re­leased 1000 acres in the Palali high­se­cu­rity zone to re­set­tle Tamil fam­i­lies.

Fur­ther­more, Sri Lanka’s eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity shack­les Sirisena’s de­vel­op­ment agenda. Though the coun­try boasts a 7.4 per­cent growth rate, its bud­get deficit-to-GDP ra­tio hov­ers above 6.5 per­cent and se­ri­ous liq­uid­ity prob­lems are off­set mainly through the $5 bil­lion dol­lars in over­seas re­mit­tances. Pre­dictably, the IMF cracked down on Colombo to curb spend­ing and in­tro­duce aus­ter­ity mea­sures, which took ef­fect with Novem­ber’s bud­get. Also pre­dictably, th­ese mea­sures widen the in­fra­struc­ture gap and make it harder to ratchet up in­vest­ment in education and train­ing pro­grams for mi­nor­ity groups.

Nev­er­the­less, Colombo rec­og­nizes the ur­gency of rein­te­grat­ing young Tamils into main­stream so­ci­ety. In Oc­to­ber, Sri Lanka’s Po­lice Depart­ment an­nounced the re­cruit­ment of 1500 such youth, while the Prison Depart­ment also hired 100 of them as trainee of­fi­cers. In­ter­na­tional donors are also help­ing re­build Sri Lanka. In­dia has al­ready erected 10,000 houses in the north­ern prov­ince, and will build a to­tal of 50,000 dwellings for in­ter­nally dis­placed Sri Lankans. The UN-Habi­tat’s Pro­ject for Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Com­mu­nity In­fra­struc­ture (RCIF) is also work­ing to res­ur­rect key pub­lic re­sources in 80 war-torn vil­lages of the Mul­laitivu and Killinochchi dis­tricts. Th­ese in­clude in­ter­nal ac­cess roads, drainage sys­tems, preschools and com­mu­nity cen­ters.

Ger­many has set up the Sri LankanGer­man Train­ing In­sti­tute (SLGTI) in Kilinochchi to pro­vide vo­ca­tional train­ing for Tamil youth. This fa­cil­ity of­fers ap­pren­tice­ships in food pro­cess­ing, con­struc­tion and au­to­mo­bile me­chan­ics among other pro­grams. More­over, to pro­mote in­ter­faith di­a­logue and bet­ter race re­la­tions, the Cen­tre for Peace Build­ing and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion (CPBR), a UK non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, con­venes con­fer­ences and work­shops bring­ing to­gether Sri Lanka’s var­i­ous racial and religious iden­ti­ties. Over 33,000 Sri Lankans of all shades and stripes par­tic­i­pated in CPBR peace-build­ing events last year.

Though funds are tight and Sri Lanka needs in­ter­na­tional pa­tron­age to broadly rein­te­grate young Tamils into main­stream so­ci­ety, the so­cial fault-lines pro­duced by 26 years of war will not dis­ap­pear overnight. In­deed, th­ese di­vides, more than an in­ad­e­quate num­ber of so­cial up­lift pro­grams, ham­per ef­forts to speed up the process. That said, time is a great healer and if suc­ces­sive Sri Lankan gov­ern­ments fol­low Sirisena’s lead and the post-apartheid South African model, the coun­try’s Tamil youth will re­gain their self-es­teem and sense of place in mod­ern Sri Lanka. The writer is a free­lance colum­nist and au­dio en­gi­neer.

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