WORLD

A savage civil struggle

PEETER KOPVILLEM June 9 1986
WORLD

A savage civil struggle

PEETER KOPVILLEM June 9 1986

A savage civil struggle

SRI LANKA

The 20 dead included 10 children between the ages of nine months and 14 years. Some were forced

to kneel beside an irrigation ditch and then were shot in the back of the head. Others burned to death in their houses. The May 20 attack by Hindu Tamil guerrillas on the Sri Lankan town of Siripura—populated by members of the country’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority—was only one savage episode in the island country’s bitter and swiftly escalating civil violence. Afterward, Gen. Sépala Attygale, Sri Lanka’s secretary of defence, said, “Massacre is the only word to describe what happened in Siripura.” But the minority Tamils claimed that an army offensive last month against their strongholds in the North of the island had resulted in more than 90 civilian deaths. Said a statement from a group of prominent Tamils: “The offensive has been the most inhuman and brutal of all army attacks on civilians.”

During the past three years the war between the Sinhalese and Tamil guerrillas fighting for a separate Tamil homeland—to be called Eelam—has

claimed at least 3,000 lives. And last month experts warned that the fighting was entering a new, deadlier phase. Then, a powerful bomb ripped apart an Air Lanka Lockheed Tristar on the tarmac of Colombo’s Katunayake International Airport, and 16 people died. Four days later another bomb destroyed part of the Central Telegraph Office in Colombo, the country’s capital.

The toll: 11 dead and more than 115 injured. And last week a bomb exploded in a

processed food and soft drink factory in central Colombo, killing eight people, injuring 50 and shattering windows in buildings up to a kilometre away. Sri Lankan authorities attributed all three blasts to Tamil guerrillas.

Sinhalese and Tamils have lived in an uneasy accord on the teardrop-

shaped island off the southeast coast of India for over 2,000 years. But after the former British colony gained its independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority—now 74 per cent of the population of 16 million—entered a confrontation course with the Tamils, who represent almost 20 per cent of the population. Unlike the Sinhalese, the Tamils invested more heavily in education than in land, and they held a dis-

proportionate number of higher-paying jobs. As a result, when a wave of Sinhalese nationalism swept the country in 1956, the Sinhalese-dominated government of thenprime minister Solomon Bandaranaike

mon

made Sinhala the offi-

cial language—excluding many Tamils from universities and positions of power.

Since then, Tamils

have claimed that they are being discrimi-

are nated against. In the summer of 1983 racial tensions exploded into bitter riots that left 400 people dead. One year later Tamil guerrillas began intensifying their counterattacks against Sri Lankan forces and eventually against

Sinhalese civilians. As the situation deteriorated, the Indian government of Rajiv Gandhi stepped in to sponsor peace talks in mid-1985. But in those discussions both sides failed to reach any compromise. The reason: Tamils want the northern section of the country—where they are a majority— joined into one Tamil homeland with the East, where the population is evenly distributed between Sinhalese, Tamils and Moslems. But although President Junius Jayawardene has said he would be willing to discuss granting some federal autonomy to Tamils, he

has refused to negotiate on the question of unifying northern and eastern Sri Lanka into one Tamil state.

Many Sri Lankans say that positions have now hardened even more. For one thing, fierce battles last month between rival Tamil factions left the Marxist-oriented Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the most violent and hard-line of Tamil organizations—in firm control of opposition forces. Said Neelan Tiruchelvam, a Tamil lawyer and member of the Tamil United Liberation Front, a moderate Tamil political party: “The government will now

face a coherent, unified, militant leadership with a proven track record.” Indeed, the 2,500-strong Tigers have emerged from the fighting greatly strengthened and are widely credited with turning back last month’s army offensive against Tamil bases.

In fact, the Tiger victory will make it even more difficult for moderate Tamils to negotiate with the government. And government spokesmen now say that the war may soon escalate even further. After the bombings in Colombo, the Sri Lankan parliament approved a government request to increase the military budget from $280 million to $420 million. Jayawardene has said that a negotiated settlement may still be possible. But, he added, if negotiations do not bring results, “we will have no option but to go for a military solution.” Said the president: “The curse of terrorism is plaguing our land. The main task is to eliminate terrorism.”

Still, some Tamils charge that the government itself is engaging in terrorism—against Tamil civilians. Jayawardene’s administration has been criticized by the government of India and Amnesty International for human rights violations because of widespread reports that its troops have gone out of control and are indiscriminately killing Tamil civilians. Said one member of a Tamil citizens’ committee: “We live in fear and panic. We feel very insecure.” Some Sri Lankan officials flatly deny such accusations. But others admit that military abuses exist and must be corrected.

Adding to the divided country’s problems is an uncertain political outlook. Jayawardene, head of the United National Party, has at least shown some willingness to negotiate with the Tamils. But the 79-year-old president has already served two terms and, under the country’s constitution, cannot seek re-election. With elections expected sometime in 1988, observers say that the primary contender for the presidency is Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo, head of the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party and herself a former prime minister. But Bandaranaike has based her return to the political arena on an appeal to Sinhalese supremacy, and some experts speculate that she will not favor a negotiated solution to the Tamil problem. Declared Godrey Gunatilleke, director of a social sciences research institute in Colombo: “I do not think there has been an active effort to sell a solution to the people. Her return will just make it worse.”

-PEETER KOPVILLEM with SUZANNE GOLDENBERG in Colombo