Sri Lanka's War Is Long Over, But Reconciliation Remains Elusive : Parallels The civil war is now six years in the past, but thousands of Tamil families are still looking for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
NPR logo

Sri Lanka's War Is Long Over, But Reconciliation Remains Elusive

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/418518510/418641230" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sri Lanka's War Is Long Over, But Reconciliation Remains Elusive

Sri Lanka's War Is Long Over, But Reconciliation Remains Elusive

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/418518510/418641230" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Sri Lanka, six years after its civil war ended, thousands of people who had disappeared remain unaccounted for. A new government elected this year promised to begin a reckoning of crimes committed during the conflict. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the island's difficulty in coming to terms with its wartime past.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Sri Lanka declared the war over in May 2009 with a blitz that annihilated the Tamil Tigers who had ruthlessly agitated for an ethnic Tamil homeland. Today, the surf is all that pounds the shores of this lush Indian Ocean island shaped like a teardrop.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: The intervening six years of peace have not dulled the horror of the war. In this fishing village of Mannar, in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province where most of the fighting occurred, Manual Udaya Chandra is still haunted by the events of the night her son disappeared.

MANUAL UDAYA CHANDRA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Three men with weapons rousted him from his bed and took him away. Anton Sanistan was 24. It was September 2008, eight months before the final offensive of the war. Manual insists her some was no Tamil militant. Rather, he juggled school and odd jobs to support the family. The 58-year-old mother lists all the places she's gone searching for word of her son.

CHANDRA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: To the Navy 30 times, to the police a hundred times, to prisons, criminal investigation departments, the presidential commission on the missing, to British Prime Minister David Cameron. It's no use, she says.

CHANDRA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Overcome, she says, "I'm his mother. I raised him. I can feel he is alive, and I cannot give up." Manual now leads 5,000 families across the North, demanding the government account for those who disappeared. Many believe their relatives are alive in secret camps. The Catholic bishop of Mannar says the idea black sites exist has flourished in the absence of any proper investigation, including those of men who surrendered at the end of war.

BISHOP RAYAPPU JOSEPH: We want justice. We want to know, what has happened to my son, to my husband? What has happened to them? Where are they are? Who killed them? Accept the truth, and acknowledge it. And feel, I mean, that you have done this evil thing - greatest evil. A fellow has surrendered himself, and you go and kill him. Where is this allowed in the world?

MCCARTHY: Tracing disappearances and the impunity that prevailed are part of a larger question of justice for possible war crimes committed in Sri Lanka. There's the shelling of tens of thousands of civilians in the final stages of the war by the regime of former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Tamil rebels are accused of using civilians as shields. Rajapaksa formed a presidential commission to investigate cases of missing persons, but the International Crisis Group's Sri Lanka project director, Alan Keenan, says just as it was never intended to find the missing...

ALAN KEENAN: It was never intended to hold anyone to account. It was established by the previous government as something it could say to the international community - in particular, to the Human Rights Council in Geneva - that it was doing something.

MCCARTHY: Keenan says at times, the commission exposed Tamil eyewitnesses to new dangers.

KEENAN: The commission has allowed military intelligence to regularly be in the room as people are testifying about disappearances which they allege were caused by the military. Now, that's a blatant conflict of interest and a blatant form of intimidation.

MCCARTHY: Still, 20,000 people have reported their story to the commission. The new government has added commissioners to speed the work, but its promise to form a more muscular inquiry is likely to recede, at least through the upcoming national elections. Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne says his government is moving cautiously because if it is seen to be favoring the minority Tamils, there'll be a backlash.

And you're satisfied that the speed is where it should be?

RAJITHA SENARATNE: Not that we are satisfied, but the majority are the Sinhalese, so we have to balance them also, not to show that we are a pro-Tamil government or a pro-Western government.

MCCARTHY: Leaders of the Tamil community say that without truth, there will be no national reconciliation, and many would trust only an outside tribunal. But government spokesman Senaratne says Sri Lanka is not answerable to the United States or the West and can investigate itself. Manual Udaya Chandra, however, says the war cannot be over as long as what happened to the disappeared, like her son, remains a mystery. She's counting on the new government to solve it.

CHANDRA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "The new president was in the old government, but came to power with the votes of the Tamil people," she says, "and he can't just dump this question. You must," she says, "answer us." Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Parallels

Many Stories, One World

About