“Given the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka, there is a perception amongst people that the military are there to restrict the rights of the people of the region,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “There is no chance of violence anytime soon. But if people come out in peaceful protest and violence is used against the population, then the likelihood of the population itself becoming more militant is greater.”
The Army tightly controls the region. Civilians have to ask Army permission for everyday activities – from purchasing property to hosting a funeral.
Even nongovernmental organizations must get all projects pre-approved. One man says he can’t go home because the Army is using his family’s land.
“There is no freedom here,” says one Tamil social activist, who asks not to be named for security reasons.
Aid organizations estimate that more than 100,000 are still displaced. And in remote villages where many men are missing or dead, accusations of rape are common.
The military presence also stifles speech. Nobody seems to want to talk to a journalist in public; one man bolts his door before an interview begins, afraid someone will burst in at a sensitive moment. Another man blanches and leaps out of his chair when he sees someone in his front yard twisting to look at his Western guest. The man explains that former LTTE cadres released from government rehabilitation camps are often intimidated into acting as informants.
‘You will be abducted in a white van’
Those who speak out against the Army say they fear reprisal.
Former member of Parliament Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam lists a string of recent assaults and threats against a student leader, two protest organizers, a priest, and the relatives of a dead prisoner.
“The fear,” remarks one journalist careful not to report anything that could seem too critical of government policies, “is you will be abducted in a white van.”