Sri Lanka celebrates end of war, blocks commemorations

MATARA: President Mahinda Rajapakse led celebrations at a major victory parade Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war after commemorations for its victims were blocked.
Most top envoys of Western nations stayed away from the parade, but a defiant Rajapakse insisted he would not bow to pressure from foreign critics who are pushing him to investigate claims that tens of thousands died in the final stages of the conflict. “Some governments are blind, deaf and dumb. They are opposed to our celebrating this victory,” Rajapakse said in a televised speech from Matara, his birthplace in the Sinhalese heartland of the island’s south. “We are not celebrating victory in a war, we are celebrating peace. Irrespective of who opposes this, or who stays away, we will always commemorate this day,” he added.
The 37-year conflict effectively ended on May 18, 2009, when troops killed the leader of the Tamil Tiger rebels, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in a brutal assault on the northern town of Mullaittivu. The UN has estimated that at least 100,000 people died in the entire conflict, about 40,000 of them in the final months of fighting. Rajapakse however has denied any civilians died in the finale and is resisting calls for an international inquiry into claims that troops killed thousands of civilians who had been herded into no-fire zones. Around 7,500 troops took part in Sunday’s military parade which featured tanks, gunboats and military aircraft.
Canada, a strong critic of Sri Lanka’s war record, boycotted Sunday’s parade while the top diplomats from other Western powers, including the United States and former colonial power Britain, were conspicuous by their absence. Canadian High Commissioner (ambassador) Shelley Whiting said in a statement to a local newspaper Friday the parade was inappropriate because the government should be concentrating on reconciliation. “Five years after the end of the conflict, the time has arrived for Sri Lanka to move past wartime discourse and to start working seriously towards reconciliation,” she said. Rajapakse’s administration also ordered a ban on all commemorations over the weekend for victims of the conflict.
Tensions were high on Sunday on the northern battle-scarred Jaffna peninsula where police blocked Tamils from visiting a Hindu temple in the town of Keerimalai, a Tamil politician said. Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, a Tamil lawmaker who also runs a newspaper, said that while he managed to enter the temple, police prevented other civilians from attending a service to bless the dead. “The temple had prepared alms for 1,000 people but there were only five, including myself because of the security blockade,” Saravanapavan told AFP by telephone. He said police and troops obstructed him at many places.
Saravanapavan also said large numbers of troops poured into the streets around his newspaper office in the town of Jaffna to prevent people entering the building for a candlelight vigil planned for later in the day. “Within our newspaper office we (also) had a remembrance in the morning for those who died in the conflict,” Saravanapavan said. He said the main state-run blood bank had refused to accept donations for fear they were linked to remembrance of war victims. Police on Friday broke up a remembrance service being held in council offices in Jaffna.
In Colombo hundreds of government supporters marched to the Norwegian embassy to denounce what they called Oslo’s support for remnants of the rebels living abroad. Norway acted as peacebroker but failed to secure agreement from the parties to a peaceful end to the conflict. Sinhalese nationalists accuse it of supporting the rebels, a charge Oslo has repeatedly rejected. Prabhakaran’s Tigers, who were notorious for their suicide bombings, had fought for a separate homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils who account for just over 10 percent of the island’s population. 

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