Amid Abuse and Fear, Tamils Continue to Flee Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankan police stand outside the printing press of Uthayan, a Tamil paper, in Jaffna, 400 km (250 miles) north of Colombo, on April 13, 2013

The offices of a Tamil newspaper in northern Sri Lanka were attacked on Saturday morning, the latest in a string of outrages on the press and a fresh reminder of how the war’s end nearly four years ago did not bring peace for all in this South Asian nation. In what has been reported as the second strike on the paper’s operations in two weeks, senior staff of Uthayan, a Tamil paper that has been critical of the government and the nation’s powerful military, told reporters that three armed men broke into the paper’s headquarters in the northern city of Jaffna, setting fire to the day’s edition and to its printing presses.

No employees were hurt in the attack, but they have been in the past. In 2011, an editor and reporter were attacked, and in 2006, gunmen stormed the paper’s offices, killing two members of staff. Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, Uthayan’s owner and a parliamentarian for the Tamil National Alliance party, told the U.K.’s Independent newspaper that he believed the attack on Saturday may have been linked to the military, which a military spokesman has denied.

The tensions revealed in the incident are becoming depressingly familiar. The clouds have been darkening over this picturesque island nation in recent years as euphoria over the end of its long-running civil war has ebbed. Since its 2009 defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgency group that for decades fought for an independent homeland for the nation’s ethnic Tamils, the Sri Lankan government has not responded to increasingly vocal demands from the international community for a investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final stages of the conflict. In March, 25 countries, including India, passed a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Human Rights Council resolution calling for a probe into those allegations and expressing concern at ongoing reports of human-rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. Colombo called the measure a threat to Sri Lanka’s domestic reconciliation efforts; Minister of Media and Information and government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp. that “the U.S. government is trying to undermine Sri Lanka’s endeavor to consolidate peace and harmony.”

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That recalcitrance — paired with an oversize army without a war to fight and the enduring distrust of some sectors in the Tamil community — has prevented a more meaningful peace from taking hold. “It was the end of a war, but not the end of conflict,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Colombo-based research group. “There are flagrant violations of rule of law and a culture of impunity that envelop this country.”

One of the most obvious symptoms of that culture has been the near relentless siege on the nation’s press. Sri Lanka ranks 162 of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index. Tamil news outlets, particularly those with historic links to the separatist movement, have long been regular targets, but members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority have not been spared either. In 2009, months before government forces defeated the LTTE, Sunday Leader editor and TIME contributor Lasantha Wickrematunge, an outspoken critic of the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was assassinated by two gunmen on the way to his office, prompting an exodus of independent-minded journalists. Wickrematunge had predicted his own demise. In a chilling posthumous editorial published days after he was murdered, he wrote: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

Recently, rights groups staged a campaign to stop the United Arab Emirates from deporting a well-known Tamil television reporter back to Sri Lanka, where they feared she would be tortured. Their concerns are well founded. Reports of military and police torture and sexual violence against Tamils with alleged separatist ties were not uncommon during the 26-year civil war. Returning Tamils now appear to be facing the same abuses. A Human Rights Watch report on alleged rapes that took place between 2006 and ’12 found that sexual violence continues to be used by security forces against male and female prisoners with suspected links to the insurgency. Because the agency was unable to speak to those currently in detention in Sri Lanka, or conduct open research in the country, it believes that the 75 cases it has documented represent “a fraction” of total custodial rape cases.

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To escape this climate of fear, it appears that an increasing number of Tamils are fleeing Sri Lanka, boarding barely seaworthy vessels, bound for an uncertain future as asylum seekers. This is despite the government’s official effort to reconstruct the war-torn north of the country. “You have a significant number of people leaving postwar, at a point at which the government is assuring that economic development is prioritized and reconciliation is being effected in earnest,” says the CPA’s Saravanamuttu. The fact that so many people are choosing to go “seems to suggest people in the north don’t feel that way. They are voting with their feet, so to speak, and they are paying fairly large sums of money and risking life and limb to do it.” Saravanamuttu says that official numbers of the number of people leaving are unavailable, but to give just one example, over 6,000 Tamils arrived in Australia in 2012, some 30 times higher than the 2011 figure.

Uthayan, the newspaper whose offices were attacked, had been reporting on the encroachment of the military into local businesses in the north, the paper’s owner has said. The ratio of military to civilians is exponentially higher in the region compared with the rest of the country, and now that they are not required to mop up armed insurgents, soldiers have taken on nonmilitary roles, such as farming and running small shops that compete against Tamil businesses. While new roads have been built and internationally funded efforts are under way to help the region get back to some version of its prewar self, many say that the military’s overwhelming presence stands in the way of a return to anything resembling normalcy. Saravanamuttu recalls what one man from Jaffna told him after the war: “Things might look better, but they feel a lot worse.”

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