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Hundreds of former Tamil Tigers, the defeated Sri Lankan rebel army, are moving into a peaceful trade, swapping a history of bombs and guns for bras and football shirts.
In a sign of long-awaited economic reconstruction following the brutal conclusion in 2009 of the nation’s 23-year civil war, one of the biggest suppliers to Victoria’s Secret is training the former Tigers to work in the first big garment factories to open in the battle-scarred north of the island.
MAS Holdings – a Sri Lankan company which also makes clothes for Gap and Marks and Spencer – is building two factories in Killinochi, the one-time political capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.
The area was recaptured by Sri Lanka’s army after months of fierce fighting in early 2009, a crucial turning point in the struggle that led to a decisive but bloody victory a few months later, in which nearly all of the Tiger’s leadership were killed.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has since pledged to bring new infrastructure and jobs to the country’s Hindu minority Tamils, as part of a promised “peace dividend” after the end of their struggle against the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
But critics say Mr Rajapaksa has moved slowly on redevelopment and showed increasingly authoritarian traits, charges made again recently during a heated meeting on Sri Lanka’s record at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Almost destroyed in the fighting, Killinochi’s newly constructed main road, where one of facilities will be located, remains dotted with bombed-out buildings. Many local people are also displaced, unable to return to homes that have been destroyed or occupied by the army.
Training centres for the factories, which will make undergarments and sportswear, are already operating in the town. MAS wants to hire some of the more than 2,000 locals for the manufacturing facilities when they become fully operational by 2015.
The owners admit there will be challenges in hiring former LTTE members. Medical experts say, for example, that many are suffering trauma from their experiences in the war’s final months, in which as many 40,000 civilians were killed.
“We believe the workforce will comprise people who will have been a part of that organisation,” says Mahesh Amalean, chairman of MAS. “We may not have all the competency to deal with all the possible psychological issues they have, and we may need to bring people in for this.”
Sri Lanka’s government says it has invested at least $1.1bn in the north since the end of the war, helping to push annual economic growth over 20 per cent, albeit from a low base. But local people say there is little in the way of private investment, while unemployment remains widespread.
“My husband used to work for a western charity as a driver,” says one displaced Tamil woman, standing on the roadside in a nearby town next to the white tarpaulin tent where they live. “Earlier we had a good life, we earned money and paid rent . . . but now there are no jobs, and we don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Many locals hope that the lingerie and football shirts churned out by the factory will be the first of a series of projects bringing opportunity to a region where charities and aid agencies are still among the largest employers.
Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s 26-year-old son who is responsible for promoting development in the area, says he wants two further garment factories to open in nearby towns, helping to boost the country’s $4.1bn garment export trade.
But local Tamil leaders complain that the area has missed out on the lavish infrastructure projects being built in Sri Lanka’s more prosperous south, while moves to devolve political power have also stalled since the conflict ended.
“After the war we have come back to zero again”, says Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, a former Tamil language newspaper editor, based in Jaffna, the capital of the northern region. “Yes, we might have some more fridges and sodas and even electricity sometimes now, but we still don’t have our self respect. And until we do this conflict cannot be truly over.”