Sri Lanka's shadow battle

The last time Sinnathurai Kandasamy saw his wife, Thiraviyam, was a little more than two weeks ago, when she left home for a hospital check-up in the east coast Sri Lankan town of Trincomalee.

Hours later Kandasamy found his wife dead in a mortuary. A bullet had blown her left cheek away. Her eye was missing.
Gone too were her ear lobes and fingers—chopped off for the gold jewellery she adored.

The 59-year-old was a victim of the violence that swept through the town’s main market just more than a fortnight ago. It began with a bomb blast that the authorities blamed on the Tamil Tigers—a rebel group that wants a state for the country’s three million Tamils carved out of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population.

What followed in Trincomalee, say its residents, was murderous retribution. They tell of how the town square filled with Sinhalese mobs armed with knives and pistols. The town’s Tamils say this was a premeditated killing spree. “The market is next to an army camp. There are armed police and soldiers there. Yet they just stood by. What had my wife done to deserve this?’’ asked Kandasamy, between tears.

There are tales of butchery and rape. Shops owned by Tamils were burnt. Later the Tamil Tigers slaughtered five Sinhalese farmers in retaliation.

The trouble, say Tamils, started last November when a statue of Buddha materialised overnight in the square, a provocative religious act for the mainly Hindu Tamils of the town. Local Sinhalese claim that after Tamils won control of the council, there were overt displays of support for “terrorists’‘.

This reaction and, sometimes blatant, discrimination by the Sinhalese authorities has fed separatism among the local Tamils. “They are trying to provoke us into becoming terrorists,’’ said Murugaiah Anandan, the nephew of Kandasamy. “My aunt lay on the road for four hours. No one cares what happens to us. Why should we not join and fight?’’

Trincomalee’s centre is now deserted, save for the heavily armed Sri Lankan soldiers at every crossing. Along the main drag, the shops are either shuttered or charred wrecks.

Concentrated mostly in the north and east of this small island nation in the Indian Ocean, these spasms of destruction punctuate daily life. They are some way from the full-scale conflict that the country witnessed for two decades from 1983, which claimed 65 000 lives. But in parts of Sri Lanka today the scene is of daily assassinations, abductions and gunbattles between armed groups.

The Tigers remain a terrorist organisation in the eyes of the United States, Britain and India. The European Union has barred Tamil Tiger delegations from its territory after the assassination of Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, last August.

Officially the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a ceasefire agreement in 2002, but an undeclared war is being fought. Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times estimates that 600 people have been killed since November.

The string of tit-for-tat killings over the past few months culminated last week with a brief return to full-scale conflict when a pregnant Tamil Tiger suicide bomber tried to assassinate the country’s army chief. He escaped with his life. She died. By evening Sri Lanka’s air-force planes, supported by naval artillery, were pounding rebel positions near Trincomalee, sending thousands of people fleeing into the jungle for refuge.

Although the Sri Lankan military bombardment has stopped and the Tigers have said they will attend peace talks, it appears both the government and the rebels believe they have more to gain from continuing this shadow battle.

Sri Lankan soldiers shot dead five people in the northern town of Jaffna on the day the bombing stopped. The Tigers remain in control of much of the north-east, running a de facto government while ambushing security forces at will from remote jungle camps.

At the heart of the matter is the refusal by both sides to adhere to the peace agreement signed in February. The Tigers promised to abjure from violence and, in return, the government agreed to rein in “armed groups’’ operating in its territory—a reference to a new Tamil paramilitary outfit led by the breakaway Tamil Tiger commander Karuna. Neither has happened.

Five hours’ drive from Trincomalee is Batticaloa, a palm-fringed town that straddles a blue lagoon that has become the frontline of a brutish battle between government-backed Karuna fighters and battle-hardened Tigers.

Large red letters daubed on lampposts proclaim that Batticaloa is under the control of the TMVP, initials in Tamil that stand for Karuna’s Tamil People’s Liberation Party. The word on the street is that Karuna’s party is being built up as an alternative, more cooperative Tamil force capable of taking over administrative and police functions in the east of the country. Karuna’s troops are sheltered in the army’s barracks.

Batticaloa’s streets are now segregated into pro-Tiger and pro-Karuna fiefdoms. On the day The Guardian arrived in Batticaloa the Tigers killed 18 Karuna fighters, an act which was followed by the army spraying the town with bullets in hot pursuit of LTTE soldiers.—Â

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