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May 19, 12:07 PM EDT

Sri Lanka marks 8 years since end of bloody civil war


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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) -- Sri Lanka marked the eighth anniversary of the end of its bloody civil war on Friday with much of the legacy and divisions created by more than quarter-century of violence still intact.

Families are still looking for their missing relatives, others demanding their land back from military occupation, fishermen asking for sea access blocked by the navy, widows heading families and handicapped persons are struggling without jobs. Rehabilitated ex-rebels are shunned by a society that once glorified them.

Lawmaker Abraham Sumanthiran said "a sense of uncertainty is hanging over the people."

Sumanthiran belongs to the main political party representing minority Tamils who bore the brunt of the civil war, which ended in May 2009 with the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels at the hands of the Sinhalese-dominated government.

Family members of government soldiers who died in the war paid homage Friday at a war memorial in Colombo in a ceremony attended by President Maithripala Sirisena. A court, however, barred Tamil activists from holding a commemoration near a monument in the country's former northern war zone to Tamils killed in the fighting, but other ceremonies were carried out unhindered in many parts of the north and east.

Tamils in the north complain that the government continues to have a heavy military presence there despite an absence of violence since the end of the civil war. But Sirisena vowed Friday to increase the military's strength.

"Given the responsibility the government has toward national security, we would always take steps to strengthen the three forces," he said. "We must build our future based on past experiences."

People had hoped for better times with the election of Sirisena, who in 2015 overwhelmingly defeated strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the war effort.

"More than Mahinda Rajapaksa, the people are angry with the current government because the people did not expect him (Rajapaksa) to do any good," said T. Paranthaman, who works with the war-affected in the Tamil-majority north. "People are getting fed up. There is a lot of mistrust that the Sinhalese-dominated government is not going to give them anything."

Despite promises, the government has not provided answers on the fate of tens of thousands of people who went missing. Relatives say they personally handed them over to the military in the last days of the fighting after the military asked those with the least connection to the rebels to surrender.

No steps have been taken to establish a judicial mechanism to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes against both the government and Tamil Tiger rebels, despite pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Dozens of people arrested on suspicion of links to the rebels have been detained for years without being charged and the anti-terror law, criticized as draconian and which the government promised to replace, is still in place.

Sirisena has also given mixed signals about his commitments, occasionally saying he wouldn't prosecute soldiers who protected the country from the Tamil rebels in fear of upsetting majority Sinhalese. The military has been accused of serious rights violations during the war, including deliberate shelling of civilians and hospitals and blocking food and medicine for thousands of people trapped in the war zone.

According to a U.N report, some 40,000 people are believed to have been killed in just the final months of the fighting.

The rebels are accused of recruiting child soldiers and exposing people to danger by holding them as human shield and killing those who tried to escape their control.

A Rajapaksa-led opposition has been gaining ground among majority ethnic Sinhalese with the slogan that the Sirisena government has been making too many concessions to the Tamils, betraying the military's hard-fought victories.

"Preoccupied with appearing patriotic and worried about dissent and Rajapaksa loyalists in uniform, the government has done little to reform the national security state or reduce the military's considerable autonomy," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a statement.

It said the sense of grievance generated by the continued heavy military presence and lack of progress in addressing the war legacy is strengthening the nationalist sentiments of many Tamils and increasing tensions with Sinhalese and Muslims.

The group warned that continued failure by the government to provide regional autonomy would lead to a growing restlessness and radicalization, which could be felt for decades.

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