But the mostly Tamil residents of Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula say much more still needs to be done to heal the wounds of a long civil war – and they are pinning their hopes on an upcoming general election.
Jaffna voted overwhelmingly in January’s presidential election to oust the strongman incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse, who maintained de facto martial law in the region. His successor Maithripala Sirisena has drastically reduced the number of troops on the streets of Jaffna and lifted restrictions on diplomats, foreign tourists and journalists visiting.
But locals say his election promise to bring about national reconciliation between the Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority remains unfulfilled.
“We will have reconciliation when the government gives us real autonomy under a federal structure,” said C. V. K. Sivagnanam, chairman of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), a local government body.
“Give us autonomy and 90 per cent of the problems will be solved.”
The Tamils’ longstanding demand for greater autonomy has become a key issue in the August 17 elections.
The NPC was elected in September 2013, five years after the war ended, but it lacks legislative authority.
Former Jaffna MP Suresh Premachandran said the Tamils were hoping to increase their influence in the next parliament. “We hope to increase our say in the next parliament so that we can push for a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka,” Premachandran said. “The election is an opportunity for the people to send a message to the government.”
Jaffna, 400km north of Colombo, has thousands of bombed-out homes and many people still live in camps six years after the war ended.
Sivagnanam says there have still been no concrete steps towards reconciliation after Sirisena took power in January. But what he calls a “fear psychosis” has disappeared from the region and state intelligence operatives no longer barge into homes when families have friends over.
“After the new government came to power, Tamil people are slowly breathing again,” the head of the local chamber of commerce R. Jeyasegaran said. “Now there is no fear. Earlier, we did not speak to anyone fearing arrests.”
The region’s top civil administrator, Nagalingam Vethanayahan, said the military’s engagement in day-to-day civilian life has diminished. “We are now dealing with the police, not with the military,” he said.
The new freedoms have encouraged residents to demand justice for the 40,000 Tamil civilians that the United Nations says were killed by government forces in the final phase of the 37-year guerrilla war that ended in 2009.
The Tamil Tigers, who fought for full independence for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, were comprehensively defeated in a no-holds-barred military campaign that also left thousands of troops killed and wounded.
Rajapakse always maintained that the largely Sinhalese military under his command did not kill a single civilian, and had refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation into the allegations.
His successor, who enjoyed strong backing from the Tamils in January’s election, has promised accountability and said he will establish a credible domestic mechanism to investigate.
Local officials said Sirisena had paid three visits to Jaffna in as many months, underscoring the importance of the region.
But Tamil politicians say the president would be no better than Rajapakse if he insisted on a domestic enquiry without involving independent international experts.
“We want the perpetrators of war crimes brought to justice,” Sivagnanam said at his home in Jaffna, the Tamil Tigers’ de facto separate state for five years until 1995.
“We don’t have faith in local systems to investigate these allegations.”
Sinhalese nationalists see inviting foreign investigators as interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and an affront to national sovereignty.
Rajapakse’s government had even refused visas for foreign investigators appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission, whose report is due out in September.
NPC member Ananthi Sasitharan whose Tamil Tiger husband is still missing after surrendering to troops in May 2009, says Tamils cannot rely on a local investigation and there must be a credible foreign inquiry.
“If the government fails to ensure justice, I will go to the UN or any other international organisation in search of justice,” she said at her home on the outskirts of Jaffna.(SCMP)