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Post War Sri Lanka: Thoughts of University Students

Last May Sri Lanka ended its long drawn war, fought for over three decades with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). This month Sri Lanka is commemorating the first year after war. This piece reflects the ideas of a cross section of students from the University of Sri Jayawardanapura on how they perceive post war Sri Lanka.

The students of the University of Sri Jayawardanpura had been supportive of the war, since the inception of its final phase in 2006 under the patronage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. On May 18 2009 the students of Sri Jayawardanapura enthusiastically celebrated the end of war, lighting crackers, hoisting the national flag and organizing “kiri-bath dansals”. At the same time they collected dry rations and aid for the displaced civilians in the North.

A year has passed since most Sri Lankans (except for the very few like this writer) celebrated the victory of the government. Has anything changed since then? What needs to be done? I asked;

“I’m really happy that the war is over. It eased our fears, especially the fear of being victim to bombs. Now we can go anywhere. I see a lot of development work being done in the North-East as well as in the South. So it’s good. Now that’s what the Government should do. The war was an obstacle for the development, so now we should focus on developing the country” said Amila.

When asked whether the Tamils should be given a solution, she said, “Yes they should be given a solution. But not a solution based on the 13th Amendment. As a political science student, I don’t agree with the 13th Amendment. It’s provisions on granting police and lands powers to the provincial councils promote separatism and pose a threat to the sovereignty of the country. I think what’s best is to give them a solution based on guaranteeing equal rights.”

Most students I spoke to reflected the same sentiments as Amila. But there were exceptions;

While welcoming the end of war, some students look at the post war situation in an objective manner. They have concerns regarding post war development, rehabilitation, reconciliation, and well being of the Tamils and on the political solution.

“We can’t expect a big change from a short period of 12 months. I recently got a chance to visit Vavuniya, I saw a new highway being built there. I heard that these roads used to be in a poor state. But developing the areas in terms of road development is not enough because post war development is not road development. More should be done to address the issues of the people living in Vavuniya.” Said Vasantha.

“For the past year, the only change I have seen is the absence of bombs in Colombo and suburbs. Our problems still remain. For example the unemployment problem, end of the war hasn’t improved the employment opportunities for the graduates. It neither has changed this corrupt political system. At the same time, the quality of our education is very poor and does not cater to the demands of the job market. Therefore we need a national policy on education”, said Sasanthi.

Citing an article published by the Ravaya newspaper (May 2nd 2010) on the removal and demolishing of the LTTE heroes cemeteries and statues, Prasanna said,

“When King Dutugemunu defeated King Elara, King Dutugemunu constructed a memorial tomb in memory of King Elara and the people were asked to pay respect to it when passing the tomb. This was the example given by our great king Dutugemunu. Instead of following that example, our government is removing the statues and demolishing the LTTE heroes’ cemeteries. By bulldozing the cemeteries of LTTE war heroes, Aren’t we demonstrating intolerance and hatred towards the Tamils? So how can we talk about reconciliation? These types of actions will increase the resentment and anger of the Tamil people on Sinhalese and we will never be able to solve this issue.”

A Venerable Student Monk joining this conversation said, “Although I’m happy that the war is over, I don’t agree with certain things taking place in the North. The people who went to Jaffna and Killinochchi told me that most of the shops in Killinochchi are run by the Army and they also told me that lands belonging to the Tamils in Killinochchi have been acquired by people from Ratnapura. I can’t clarify the veracity of this story. If it is happening, then it is wrong and unfair for the Tamils! I am not surprised about Tamils taking up arms against the government when I hear stories like this.”

Another concern raised by these students was whether there will be a political solution to the ethnic problem or not?

“The Government takes a highly nationalistic approach; an approach based on Sinhala-Buddhist ideology towards the Ethnic Problem, which was demonstrated in the Government’s military campaign against the LTTE. This approach hasn’t changed since the end of war. Therefore the Government has failed to understand the true nature of the ethnic problem. Its interpretation to the national question as a terrorist problem rather than an ethnic problem clearly portrays its lack of understanding on the National Question. After the defeat of the LTTE, Tamil political parties have been forced to withdraw their agendas and stay silent on the National Question. So we don’t see a dialogue among the Tamil political and intellectual circles regarding a solution to the National Question. Because of this, I don’t think there will be a political solution to the national question which will address the issues of the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese.” said Sampath, a post Marxist student.

Then I moved on to speak to some students from conflict ridden North and East.  Rajeshwaran a student from Batticaloa expressing his sentiments said;

“It’s good that the war is over. It has increased many business, tourism and development opportunities in our areas. They have now reduced the number of check points in Batticaloa and it’s easy to travel now.

Recalling the past he said, “During the war time, we had to face a lot of difficulties especially when travelling. We used to freak at the sight an army soldier, for the fear of getting arrested, so we used to get a Sinhalese friend to accompany us to pass check points.” He was also discriminated by some university students during the war period, “those days when we had encounters with Sinhala students, they used to ask, from where we were?. When we said we were from Batticaloa, they asked whether we were with  LTTE (oyagollan LTTE ekenda?)  Or whether we belong to the Karuna Faction? (oyagollo Karunage ayada). We didn’t go to argue with them, but we also had our Sinhalese friends to defend us at times like that. However the situation has now changed with the end of war. We have a lot of freedom to go anywhere now. The soldiers at the army camp in our village are like friends. Even in the university we are no longer discriminated for being Tamil, so it’s good. But at the same time, the Government should provide us with a political solution. 13th amendment should be fully implemented and police and land powers should be given to the Provincial councils” said Rajeshwaran.

Nimali a Sinhala student from a border village in Ampara shared her experience during the war period. “I’ve been living with war since the day I was born. Our village had been targeted by the LTTE on several occasions and fear has been a part of our lives until the day LTTE was defeated. We suffered a lot due to the war. When I came to Colombo to attend university, I had to restrict my visits home due to the security threats in our area. Now that the war is over, we live in peace and more importantly without fear.

“Now the relationship between Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamils has improved in our areas. We have a lot of Tamil friends. We often visit their houses and they visit ours. Their parent’s treat us really well when we visit their houses. Even though my parents don’t like us mingling with the Tamils, they treat my Tamil friends well when they come to see us. Despite being a Buddhist I go to “Kovil” with my Tamil friends.” said Nimali.

Commenting on the progress of post war development in her village she said there isn’t much development work going on in her village. “Lot of development work is happening in Tamil areas compared to Sinhala areas. I blame the Sinhalese politicians in our area for not paying attention to  our villages. I don’t have a problem with Tamil areas being developed. They need that. It was due to the lack of development that Tamils started this struggle. Therefore it is important to address the socio-economic development needs of the Tamils. Lastly what I want to tell is, there should be a political solution and more importantly we have to make sure that there won’t be another war like this!”

Lastly I spoke to a Tamil student from the North Nimalaraj. Having being born and bred in Killinochchi which used to be the “kingdom” of the LTTE, Nimalaraj’s story is no different  to Nimali.

“I have suffered a lot from of this war. I lost a lot of friends. During the last days of war, LTTE forcefully conscripted my younger brother to fight for them and now he is undergoing rehabilitation in Vavuniya. My family lost everything they had and escaped to the government controlled areas before the war ended. Now they are resettled in Jaffna and they were informed that they’ll be resettled in Killinochchi. I think it’s good that the war is over. We can travel freely without being stopped or arrested at a check point. Even in university; we are not looked down  with suspicion. So those are the positive things I see after the war. There should be a political solution to the problem and also need reconciliation.”

What I feel after talking to these students is that the end of the war has eased their fears and has granted more freedom of movement. For some, this is more than enough and they don’t expect anything else while some students feel that the end of war should immediately followed with development.  But they don’t seem to have any idea on how development in post war context should be.

Another fact depicted from them is the lack of awareness regarding a solution to the ethnic problem. Those who oppose the 13th Amendment as a solution do not have any alternative solution. The only solution they suggest is to guarantee equal rights to the Tamils. Although some students address the need for a political solution based on devolution, the fact is that their perception of it is vague, to say the least.

With the defeat and the subsequent exit of LTTE, the dialogue on ethnic conflict in the civil society seemed to have disappeared from the hearts and minds of the ordinary citizens. There is no dialogue or debate among political parties, intellectual circles and media regarding a solution to the national problem. There is no discussion or consensus even among universities which is clearly demonstrated from the views of the students.

Against this backdrop, it is timely and important for the relevant vice chancellors, professors, lectures, student leaders and students to initiate a dialogue on addressing the issues pertaining to post war development, rehabilitation, reconciliation and most importantly to constitute a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

P.S * Names have been changed to protect the identity of the students.

End of War Special Edition