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.
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.