The situation of Sri Lanka’s northern Tamils three years after the war

‘I need not state afresh that this day – the 19th of May - is now a great historic day in our country. Today marks third celebration of victory of the nation under a single flag. It is the great victory that restored the honorable peace that our country had preserved through many centuries. Similarly, it is also the great victory that freed many lakhs of people in the North who were held hostage by the forces of terror and removed the fear of death that existed among all people’ - President Mahinda Rajapakshe, 19 May 2012

The President’s speech was made at the grand victory celebrations in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. But in northern Sri Lanka, home to the country’s minority Tamils, who lost tens of thousands of family members in the last stages of the fighting, the sentiment was very different. The Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers both face credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws in the last stages of the conflict.

As many as 40,000 people are believed to have been killed in the last stages of the fighting, a large number of them targeted by Sri Lankan military shelling and air attacks. The Tigers, who were defeated in May 2009 and no longer exist in the country, also face allegations of attacking civilians and holding them hostage. In the immediate aftermath of the armed-conflict hundreds of Tamil civilians faced extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances or were arbitrarily arrested and detained under emergency regulations. Many families continue to wait in agony searching for news of the fate of their loved ones.

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Women, mainly widows, who lost family members in the last stages of the conflict, commemorate the Sri Lankan military victory by praying for the dead at a undisclosed Hindu temple in northern Sri Lanka. There are reportedly 89,000 war widows in the entire north and east. Credit: Ms. Bisiliya
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Tamil women break coconuts at a Hindu temple in northern Sri Lanka. The breaking of coconuts is a Hindu religious and cultural practice usually conducted by victims of a crime to curse the perpetrators. There have been recent reports of rising sexual violence, including rape, against women in the north. Many women are also looking for justice for the killings, disappearances, abductions and arrests of their loved ones. Credit: Ms. Bisiliya
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Two days before the victory celebrations the secretary of the students union of the University of Jaffna was brutally assaulted by masked men close to a military check point in Jaffna. This is the second attack on a student union leader in less than a year. Jaffna students union have threatened to go on a boycott calling for more security guarantees. They have said that recently there has been an increase in military surveillance of their activities. The north of Sri Lanka is heavily militarised and freedom of expression and assembly is severely restricted. Several Tamil civil society activists critical of the military and paramilitary groups have been attacked or abducted since the war ended in 2009. Credit: Anonymous
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School children in the Northern Province were forced by the Sri Lankan government to participate in the victory celebrations. Many Tamils in the former conflict zone do not see the Sri Lankan military victory as needing to be celebrated. They wish to mourn for the thousands of family members they lost in the fighting but they have no space or opportunity to do this as the Sri Lankan government refuses to acknowledge that civilians were killed in the last stages of the fighting. Credit: Anonymous
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There is increasing concern about the Sinhalisation of Tamil areas in northern Sri Lanka following the end of the conflict. For the first time in 30 years a Sinhalese speaker has been appointed as the Government Agent (GA) to the Vavuniya district. Vavuniya has a 10 percent Sinhala population while 83 percent are Tamil and 7 percent Muslim. Here the GA is seen being blessed by a Buddhist monk as he takes on his official duties on 18 May 2012. The GA reported only spoke one line in the Tamil language, saying ‘I am the Government Agent of Vavuniya’. A few months ago a Sinhalese speaking government agent was also appointed to Mannar district, which is almost entirely populated by Tamil speaking Tamils and Muslims. Credit: Anonymous
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