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Sri Lanka under pressure to investigate war crimes
The UN pressures Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes as the country looks to rebuild.

The UN estimates Sri Lanka's civil war claimed between 80,000 and 100,000 lives*, with casualties soaring in the final months of the conflict.

It's believed that no fewer than 40,000 people died during the government's final offensive against the Tamil Tigers. And that is now the focus of United Nations pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged war crimes.

South Asia correspondent, Richard Lindell, reports on Sri Lanka's post war reconstruction.
RICHARD LINDELL, REPORTER: On the streets of Colombo most are enjoying the benefits of three years of peace. The threat of terrorism has disappeared bringing a freedom and sense of security not possible during the almost three decade civil war. The economy is one of Asia's fasting growing and tourists arrive in ever increasing numbers.

In the north and at the former epicentre of the civil war there are also some outwardly promising signs. New roads are being built, as are shopping centre and hotels.

But here in Jaffna, the battle scars remain as does the Army. And locals say the peace dividend is largely going the Sinhalese majority of the south.

SARAVANA BAWAN, TAMIL NATIONAL ALLIANCE MP: What's the big idea of having infrastructure development without having the community be given any vocational training or education et cetera? But nil, that is nil. So, we are forced to bring from down south for our development whoever takes a contracts, if you go and take speak to the contractors you will find everyone is from Colombo.

RICHARD LINDELL: The army's also crowding out local business, with interests in hotels, restaurants and farming. The military intrusion into daily life suggests the army's here to stay and there's no mistaking who's now in charge.

Dissent isn't tolerated. Nearly three years since the end of the war, activists are still disappearing at an alarming trait. Janatha Kugan's husband is an ex-Tamil Tiger who was detained at the end of the war. When he was released he earned a living as a truck driver, but when his brother was abducted he started tracking missing persons. And then, last December, he disappeared too.

JANATHA KUGAN; WIFE OF MISSING EX-TAMIL TIGER (Translation): Many people have seen but nobody is ready to talk. The reason is fear.

RICHARD LINDELL: Janatha Kugan's case is well known, giving her the courage to speak out. But she remains careful not to openly criticise the government and those responsible for leaving her and her 9-year-old daughter destitute.

JANATHA KUGAN (Translation): The neighbours help some days. I have trouble in my heart. I can't work. I am selling the fire wood he purchased. When the firewood sells out I don't know how to manage our life.

JEHAN PEREIRA, NATIONAL PEACE COUNCIL: What is particularly disturbing is that in these cases where people disappear or are killed in mysterious circumstances, there is no police success in tracing the wrong doers.

So there is a sense that we cannot cross a certain line or else we fall into serious trouble and that leads to a self -censorship.

RICHARD LINDELL: And that includes most of the media which has been cowered by years of intimidation.

Thirty-four journalists have been killed since 2005, often for reporting on alleged war crimes. A UN report released last year was critical of the Tamil Tigers for using civilians as human shields and the military for indiscriminate shelling civilian areas.

The Government has defended the army's final thrust, but the ABC has obtained these previously unpublished pictures taken during the last days of the war. They appear to add to an already considerable bodied of evidence of heavy civilian casualties in areas that still remain off limits.

Some of the high security zones are military bases or uncleared mine fields. But there's deep suspicion that some of these areas must contain the bodies of 40,000 civilians the UN estimates were killed in the last months of the war.

JEHAN PEREIRA: And as for mass graves, yes we have heard that that one of the reasons why the military is not permitting people into certain areas is because they want to get rid of the evidence.

But again I don't know whether that is true because there are also stories that the military is setting up bases there or that the government has plans to settlement Sinhalese in those areas to gradually change the ethnic demography of that part of the country. The essential problem is that there is no transparency.

RICHARD LINDELL: After initially denying large scale civilian casualties the government now says 8,000 were killed. The real number may never be known and many still don't know what happened to their loved ones.

Ananthy Sasitharan's husband was senior Tamil political leader. He surrendoured in the final days of the war and hasn't been seen since.

RICHARD LINDELL (speaking to Ananthy Sasitharan): So you went to the police and they refused to register.

Ananthy Sasitharan holds out hope that her husband is among the hundreds being held without charge.

ANANTHY SASITHARAN, WIFE OF FORMER TAMIL POLITICAL LEADER (Translation): I believe my husband is being kept in a hidden place. If the government released him the war crimes would be exposed. The government fears that. That's the reason the government is not ready to release my husband.

RICHARD LINDELL: Under intense international pressure the government set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which handed down its finding last December. Despite its narrow terms of reference, the commission made important recommendations, including a full investigation into missing persons and justice for those illegally killed in the war.

Ananthy Sasitharan gave evidence to the commission and a move that saw her harassed by the police.

ANANTHY SASITHARAN (Translation): If I don't talk my husband won't come. I don't need a life without my husband. If I am silent the missing persons will never be found. If anything happens to me tomorrow, the government will be responsible for it. The international community and others will question the government.

RICHARD LINDELL: It's the kind of scrutiny the government is looking to avoid. It's organised street protests against the US sponsored resolution before the UN that calls for Sri Lanka to implement its own report and allow international monitoring.

PROTESTER: The peace is here now. The war is over. Now let America allow us to live peacefully. Not to put, not to pour cans into Sri Lankan activities.

RICHARD LINDELL: It's a sentiment that makes human rights activists despair.

RUKI FERNANDO, HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST: We need to, number one, respect the rights of minorities and marginalised people. It is how we treat minorities that will be an indicator of the level of democracy that we have.

It is not how the majority is treated. It is now how we treat people who agree with those in power, but it is how we treat those who disagree and criticise those in power that will indicate the level of democracy that is there. And the level of caring society that we have.

RICHARD LINDELL: For now, most Sri Lankans appear willing to give up some democratic rights to a government that crushed the Tamil Tigers and ended the bloody civil war.

But the US warns that without reconciliation, justice and greater autonomy for the north the government is generating the kind of anger that could spill over into renewed violence.

*Editor’s note (June 8): The introduction to the story has been changed from “more than” 100,000 lives.
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