x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

If the Tigers' battle is lost

Sri Lanka's army claims it is close to wiping out the Tamil rebel insurgency. How high a price will the country's minority pay for peace?

The incidents of July 24, 1983 are as clear in S Thanaraj's mind as if they happened yesterday. It was the day large-scale anti-Tamil riots erupted in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. He watched as Sinhalese mobs went on a murderous rampage, bludgeoning Tamil men, raping Tamil women and torching properties owned by the country's ethnic minority. The Sinhalese were incensed by the killings of 13 soldiers in a mine attack the day before in Thirunelveli, a town in northern Jaffna.

Suspicion pointed to Tamil separatists, but the angry mobs vowed that the entire Tamil community would pay the price. Violence quickly spread to other towns. At least 1,000 Tamils were killed in the island-wide disturbance, which came to be known as the Black July pogrom. Nearly 130,000 Tamils were made refugees overnight, including Mr Thanaraj's family, who escaped men wielding spikes and clubs, and eventually spent four weeks in a squalid refugee camp.

It was a life-changing event for the Colombo University professor, then a young student. But what followed was even more unsettling, he says: the government, led by then-President JR Jayawardene, accused by human rights groups of complicity in the slaughter, justified the communal flare-up, with numb insouciance, as a spontaneous reaction of the "Sinhala people". "It was a watershed event," Mr Thanaraj says, speaking at his home in Wellawatte, a Tamil ghetto in Colombo. "For the first time, it made me realise I was a minority and a second-class citizen in my own country."

In recent months, the Sri Lankan government has chased the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who claim to be fighting for the rights of ethnic minority Tamils, from much of their de facto state in the east and the north of the island. The Tamil Tigers are now dug in amid a patch of jungle roughly a quarter of the size of Bangalore. After nearly three decades of war, their end is near, the Sri Lankan government claims.

For some Sri Lankan Tamils such as Mr Thanaraj, the obliteration of the Tamil Tigers, if it happens, is viewed with a sense of foreboding. It will presage an era of Sinhala hegemony, he says. Sri Lanka will turn into an abattoir for Tamils, he fears, and events akin to the 1983 pogrom will come back to haunt them. "There is no other entity in Sri Lanka that represents Tamil rights," he says. "Tamil political parties are weak and opportunistic puppets controlled by the Sinhala government."

Analysts warn that wiping out the Tamil Tigers will not be the tourniquet that stems nearly 30 years of bloodletting. The war goes beyond the military combat between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. The real battle, they point out, is between two communities, the Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhist, and who constitute 74 per cent of the population, and the minority Tamils, mostly Hindus, who make up about 18 per cent.

"Capturing all Tiger-held territory will only end the conventional phase of the Eelam war," said Ashok Mehta, a retired general who led an unsuccessful Indian peacekeeping force in 1987. "The real battle begins after that - to find a negotiated political settlement with the Tamils; to win Tamil hearts and minds." If that doesn't happen, Mr Mehta warns, peace in Sri Lanka will remain elusive. From their hideout in the jungles, the Tamil Tigers will continue to wage a low-level insurgency with "guerrilla attacks backed by suicide terrorist attacks".

"The emphasis right now is to ferret out the enemy," he said, "but you need to address the reasons why the enemy came into existence at all." Tamils, long a minority in this tear-shaped island, didn't always feel alienated. In 1833, a unified Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, came to be a British colony. Tamils proved to be more responsive to the educational opportunities offered by British Christian missionaries. Through the 19th century, Tamils flourished with their educational edge and their entrepreneurial acumen, rising up the ranks of both the colonial administration and commercial enterprises in Colombo and other regions.

When the British left in 1948, Tamils accounted for 30 per cent of government services admissions. By 1956, Tamil recruitment in the railways, postal and customs stood at nearly 50 per cent. They made up 60 per cent of doctors, engineers and lawyers. But Sinhalese fears of being culturally "swamped" spurred a Sinhala Buddhist revival. During the 30 years since independence, successive governments have taken measures to reduce the disproportionate number of Tamils in the professions and the public sector. The 1956 "Sinhala Only" Act, replaced English with Sinhala as the official language in government offices. This disadvantaged a large number of Tamils who, because of the language barrier, could no longer function in those jobs. The most controversial measure was the introduction of communal quotas for university entrance in the early 1970s, which led to the exclusion of many able Tamil students.

Tamils had lost the education and employment opportunities which had cemented their commitment to a united Sri Lanka. Mr Thanaraj tells how his Sinhala junior colleagues at the university were perpetually given promotions ahead of him, even though he is more qualified than them. "Behind my back, I am jeered as a Kotiyan (Sinhalese for Tiger)" he says. "I can sense that the insults will get more vicious, more direct once the fear for the LTTE evaporates."

The country is already turning into a police state, he claims, revealing how he lost a Tamil colleague to the "White Van" menace plaguing Tamil neighbourhoods in Colombo. Going around without number plates in the early hours of the morning, the van disgorges men in civilian clothes who kidnap people. The victim's family later gets a call for a ransom. Mr Thanaraj suspects this is done in collusion with the government.

"Only Tamils, not Sinhalese, get kidnapped," he says. "My friend never returned." In early 2008, the international watchdog Human Rights Watch reported on these disappearances: "In the vast majority of the cases we documented, the evidence indicates the involvement of government security forces - army, navy or police. The victims are primarily young Tamil men who 'disappeared' in the country's embattled north and east, but also in the capital Colombo."

Buoyed by its military successes against the Tamil Tigers, the government led by Mahinda Rajapakse, has vowed that, after it gains control of all rebel-controlled areas, it will transform the island into a land of ethnic harmony, a Tamil-Sinhala idyll. It has offered Batticaloa, a provincial capital of 480,000 on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, as a model for rebuilding this country's war-racked north. This region was "liberated" in mid-2007, nearly two years after a former Tamil Tiger Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, more popularly known by his nom de guerre Col Karuna Amman, reneged on allegiances and joined the government. His defection was a terrible blow to the Tamil Tigers.

A year after "liberation", three eastern districts went to the polls with a 60 per cent turnout. Since then roads have been paved, villages connected to the power grid, and cell phone networks installed. But peace remains elusive. Aid workers say Batticaloa remains as violent as ever, with abductions and killings continuing. In an interview, Col Karuna said Tamil Tigers were trying to destabilise the east, but also conceded that some of his cadres, used to a violent gun culture, could be involved in some human rights violations.

"Fighting is all they have seen for two decades," he said. "It will take some time for us to transform their thinking. This is new-found liberation." Jaffna was "liberated" 13 years ago but here, too, peace remains elusive. Government forces wrested control of the peninsula from the Tigers in 1995, and have since then maintained an iron grip. Its bullet-pocked homes and temples are a chilling reminder of its violent battles. Its people have endured massacres - both warring factions have been accused of human rights violations - and forced displacement.

Today, 40,000 government soldiers stand guard over the peninsula's 600,000 Tamil inhabitants. Troops wielding Chinese-made T-56 assault rifles operate checkpoints. Even fishing boats are closely monitored. Once, a cradle of Tamil erudition and culture, Jaffna is now a maelstrom of killings. Human rights groups warn it is turning into a police state. Nights in Jaffna are surreal. The streets empty at sundown, and an eight-hour curfew is strictly enforced, from 8pm to 4am. In the past two years, a mysterious wave of night time civilian disappearances and killings has gripped the peninsula. Bodies sometimes turn up on streets the next day, but often victims are never seen again.

Jaffna is the worst affected district. In 2007, more than half of the reported disappearances and 28 per cent of Sri Lanka's reported killings took place there, according to the Law and Society Trust in Colombo. Human rights groups remain concerned that the killers - no one conclusively knows who they are - enjoy virtual impunity with little credible investigation into the killings by the government.

Posters of hit lists of supposed Tamil Tiger sympathisers regularly appear on the Jaffna University campus, says a 20-year-old Jaffna student, too frightened to give his name. Most of them are between 18 and 35, adding that some of his close friends have suddenly vanished. "If you are Tamil, you are always under pressure to prove you are not LTTE,"he says. "If you are a young Tamil male, it is nearly impossible to get a government permit to study in Colombo. There are no jobs here, no education, no semblance of normalcy. We live in an open prison."