Sri Lankan Tamils push for autonomy and justice
The road blocks and military checkpoints are gone, and the restrictions on foreign tourists and journalists visiting the area have been lifted.
But the mostly Tamil residents of Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula say much more still needs to be done to heal the wounds of a long civil war — and they are pinning their hopes on an upcoming general election.
Jaffna voted overwhelmingly in January’s presidential election to oust the strongman incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse, who maintained de facto martial law in the region.
His successor Maithripala Sirisena has drastically reduced the number of troops on the streets of Jaffna and lifted restrictions on diplomats, foreign tourists and journalists visiting.
But locals say his election promise to bring about national reconciliation between the Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority remains unfulfilled.
“We will have reconciliation when the government gives us real autonomy under a federal structure,” said C.V.K. Sivagnanam, chairman of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), a local government body.
“Give us autonomy and 90 percent of the problems will be solved.”
The Tamils’ longstanding demand for greater autonomy has become a key issue in the Aug. 17 elections.
The NPC was elected in September 2013, five years after the war ended, but it lacks legislative authority.
Former Jaffna MP Suresh Premachandran said the Tamils were hoping to increase their influence in the next parliament.
“We hope to increase our say in the next parliament so that we can push for a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka,” Premachandran told AFP.
“The election is an opportunity for the people to send a message to the government.”
Jaffna, 400 kilometers ( 250 miles) north of Colombo, has thousands of bombed-out homes and many people still live in camps six years after the war ended.
Sivagnanam says there have still been no concrete steps toward reconciliation after Sirisena took power in January.
But what he calls a “fear psychosis” has disappeared from the region and state intelligence oper- atives no longer barge into homes when families have friends over.
“After the new government came to power, Tamil people are slowly breathing again,” the head of the local chamber of commerce R Jeyasegaran told AFP.
“Now there is no fear. Earlier, we did not speak to anyone fearing arrests.”
The region’s top civil administrator, Nagalingam Vethanayahan, said the military’s engagement in day-to-day civilian life has diminished.
“We are now dealing with the police, not with the military,” he said.