Tamils Wait and Worry

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Washington Post
| Date: 20000515

By: Pamela Constable

NEW DELHI, May 14 –– In a sparse, dollar-a-night rooming house in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo last week, a dozen Tamil refugees waited anxiously for word from their families stranded in the northern city of Jaffna. Fighting between Tamil rebels and army troops has been escalating near the city for days, but all telephone lines have been cut and virtually all news blacked out by the government.

"I have four daughters back home in Jaffna, and I am dead scared for them," said Arul Seeli, 56, who was interviewed Friday in Colombo. "I sent my other children abroad to save them from all this. I talked to them on the phone from Germany this morning, but they were afraid to tell me what they've heard, because they don't want to frighten me even more."

Despite government efforts to portray the military situation as under control, the intense fighting engulfing the remote Jaffna peninsula has sparked widespread alarm among minority Tamils in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, the rebels' stunning seizure of a key army base on the peninsula last month, followed by reports of other rebel attacks near Jaffna, have aroused anger among the majority Sinhalese, many of whom feel the government has failed badly to crush the insurgency.

"We could easily defeat these terrorists, but the government has not taken them seriously and the army is demoralized. Now, as a result, we are entering the mouth of the devil," said Thejanu de Silva, a student who belongs to a Sinhalese organization called the National Anti-Terrorist Movement.

The rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been fighting the Sri Lankan army for nearly 17 years, and more than 50,000 people have died in the conflict. The Tigers' ultimate goal is the creation of an independent homeland called Eelam for Sri Lanka's 2.5 million Tamils, who represent 13 percent of the population and are mostly Hindu. The Sinhalese majority is largely Buddhist.

If Jaffna--a Tamil city of 500,000 controlled by army troops--should fall to the Tigers, many Sri Lankans say the repercussions would ripple far beyond the isolated peninsula. One prediction is that it would lead to the government's defeat in elections planned for August. Another concern is that it could set off bloody riots between Tamils and Sinhalese in the capital, a repeat of violence that occurred in 1983.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga faces a double challenge. While scrambling to shore up besieged army troops in the north, she is also trying to preserve political peace in the south, by persuading Tamils her government is committed to protecting them and convincing Sinhalese it is determined to defeat the rebels.

"Let us learn the lessons from our recent setbacks and march forward to wipe out [Tiger] terrorism completely," Kumaratunga said in a statement Friday, promising to provide "the most modern arms" and equipment to some 40,000 troops on the peninsula. At the same time, she has stressed that she seeks to "ensure the security of the Tamil people and all other minorities."

Diplomats and independent analysts said Kumaratunga is sincere in her desire to end the war and bring ethnic harmony to Sri Lanka, a longtime parliamentary democracy. But in the current crisis, she has resorted to repressive emergency decrees that could erode public confidence and damage her government's credibility as democratic.

Heavy censorship of reporting on the conflict, including a black-out of some television newscasts and a requirement that newspapers submit all stories to a censor, has generated protests from human rights groups and opposition party leaders. A ban on public rallies and an expansion of police powers, largely aimed at preventing mob violence by Sinhalese, has also led to police harassment of Tamils.

"The government has taken due precautions to prevent any backlash [by Sinhalese], but these controls raise other questions, too," said Joseph Pararajasingham, a Tamil member of Parliament. "With such stringent restrictions on the press, people have no idea what is really going on. All of this leads away from democracy and toward dictatorship."

One result of the army's recent setbacks is the emergence of Sinhalese extremist groups who assert that Kumaratunga's ruling alliance and the main opposition party--both dominated by Sinhalese--have failed to defend Sinhalese interests. A new political party called Sinhalese Heritage was launched last week, but its inaugural rally was immediately banned.

"This is absurd. It seems the government is more interested in fighting its political enemies than the rebels," said S.L. Goonesekara, a lawyer and founder of Sinhalese Heritage. "Both major parties are so worried about courting the minority vote that the Sinhalese voice is never heard, and when we do open our mouths, we are accused of being racists."

For many Tamils who have fled to the capital, the emergency rules have heightened their worries about friends and relatives back in Jaffna. At Tamil rooming houses throughout the city, Sinhalese-speaking police knock on doors at 4 a.m., checking identification cards and looking for suspected rebels.

The refugees say they feel trapped, unable to return to Jaffna because of the fighting but reluctant to venture out in the capital for fear of being detained. Some said they still dream of a future Tamil homeland, but others said they spend all day in their rented rooms, essentially waiting for the war to end.

"People feel depressed and isolated. The psychological toll is very heavy," said Poti Martin, 32, a laborer who said he has been detained repeatedly by the Colombo police. "If we Tamils are to have true freedom, perhaps we do need an Eelam. But right now, freedom for us would mean just being able to sleep through the night."

Courtesy: Washington Post Foreign Service Monday , May 15, 2000 ; Page A16