Tigers under the bed

Observations on the Tamil Tigers

After 25 years of conflict, the defeat of the brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) brought hopes that Sri Lanka’s government would embark on serious efforts to work with moderate Tamil leaders to address the long-standing grievances of the Tamil community, which the LTTE claimed but failed to represent.

Steps to end discrimination against Tamils would be a good start, as would a mood of magnanimity from the Sinhalese majority government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Wary Tamils, who have borne the brunt of the Tigers’ violence, need a sign that they will be equal citizens in the “new” Sri Lanka.

They are not getting it. The government is treating all Tamils in the north-east of the country, the former headquarters of the LTTE, as presumptive criminals. Around 300,000 Tamils are now being held in detention camps, barred from leaving even if they have family members or friends who would take them in. Many are children, elderly, or others who cannot reasonably be considered dangerous.

Huge numbers of people are being held indefinitely behind barbed wire. Far from enjoying their liberation from the LTTE, they are prisoners, again. The government could hardly have devised a policy more likely to engender fear and suspicion.

This is no accident. It is part of a larger policy to control all aspects of the postwar situation and root out enemies, real and imagined. In a country that is desperate for IMF assistance to avoid literally going broke, the army has announced a 50 per cent increase in its size, from 200,000 to 300,000.

The government is also systematically harassing and threatening aid workers, the media and Sri Lankans who question the detention policy. It has refused visas to some humanitarian workers and kicked out others. Many Sri Lankan journalists and activists have fled the country recently, fearing the notorious “white vans” that have for so long picked up dissidents in the night and made them disappear.

Rajapaksa and his advisers, staunch Sinhalese nationalists, appear to believe the western world, including the UN, have been plotting against them. Virtually anyone who had any contact with the LTTE, whether Sri Lankan or foreign, is now a suspected LTTE sympathiser. Sri Lanka appears headed for a McCarthyite period where the government believes – or cynically acts as though it believes – there is a Tamil Tiger under every bed.

The end of a long-running war should be a time for celebration, but the Sri Lankan government risks a new cycle of grievance and militancy. It must be pressed to plan for the future instead of fighting the last war. Allowing Tamils out of the camps and investigating the conduct of the war would be extremely significant actions. But they won’t happen if the UN, US, British and other governments move on to other crises and forget strategically unimportant Sri Lanka.

Brad Adams is Asia director at Human Rights Watch

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran