Tamils in Sri Lanka

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Apr 9 12:29:15 UTC 2002

  		New York Times, April 9, 2002

           After Ferocious Fighting, Sri Lanka Struggles With Peace

           By CELIA W. DUGGER

               BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, April 5

The reclusive Tamil rebel leader who has dispatched more suicide bombers
than anyone in the world, is expected to surface Wednesday for his first
public meeting with reporters in more than a decade the most remarkable
sign of a peace process now gathering momentum on the island once known as

           Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, has
battled the government of Sri Lanka for 18 years. He has been branded a
terrorist by the United States and Britain and is wanted by India for the
assassination of a former prime minister.  Now, after a cease-fire he
signed with the government in late February, the guerrilla strategist is
comfortable enough to surface without fear of government arrest.  During
three months of successive cease-fires by the separatist Tamil rebels and
the country's new government, no one has been killed on Sri Lankan soil.
That in itself is an achievement. The fighting here has claimed more lives
at least 62,000 in this small nation of 19 million people than the United
States lost in Vietnam.

           There have been many recent scenes that have Western diplomats
shaking their heads in amazement.  On the first visit in 20 years by a Sri
Lankan head of government to the northern Tamil town of Jaffna, Ranil
Wickremesinghe, the new prime minister and a practicing Buddhist from the
Sinhalese majority, was mobbed by rapturous Tamils last month when he
showed his respect for Hindu tradition by taking off his shirt to enter a
revered temple. Most Tamils are Hindu.

           In government-held cities in the north and east, which would
constitute the separate Tamil nation sought by the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam, large crowds have rallied openly for the Tigers, who are
still formally banned in Sri Lanka.  The first face-to-face peace talks in
seven years between the government and the rebels brokered by Norwegian
diplomats are expected to begin in May or June. Sri Lankans of all
ethnicities are relieved that the guns have fallen silent the ruling party
won strong endorsement for its strategy in an overwhelming victory in
local elections last month but a terrible anxiety underlies the hope of a
negotiated settlement.

           Mistrust between the Tamil Tigers and the large Muslim
           minority in the east could derail progress toward a settlement.
Tiger leaders did not grant interviews requested in a letter delivered to
them in the rebel-held north or through intermediaries here in Batticaloa
in the east.  People in eastern Sri Lanka part of the territory rebels
claim as the separate Tamil nation they call Eelam say they know firsthand
the brutalities committed both by government troops and rebels.

           In government-controlled areas, where Tigers are allowed ever
greater freedom to operate, many fear that the rebels will also have
greater freedom to abuse their power.  Any effort for peace is haunted by
ghosts. In 1990, the Tigers massacred more than 125 Muslims during evening
prayers at two mosques here in the Batticaloa district. That same year,
the Tigers gave Muslims in the northern, Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula
24 hours to get out. Tens of thousands who fled are still homeless and
living in camps.

           Muslims, who say the Tigers have stepped up extortion of
"taxes" from them since the cease-fire, have no direct representative in
the peace talks, though their political support is crucial to the ruling
coalition.  "Who will represent the needs and rights of Muslims?" asked
Nawaz Muhammad, now a human-rights activist, who said his 22-year-old
sister was abducted and killed by the Tigers in 1990.

           Some Tamils, too, are fearful. A 19-year-old Tamil woman
described her harrowing escape earlier this month from a Tiger training
camp after being conscripted at gunpoint in February. She and three other
young women one 17 and two 16 all had their long black hair crudely shorn.
Despite threats of beatings if they ran away, the foursome spent five
nights hiking, hiding and sleeping by day, until they stumbled on an army
post.  The two youngest girls said they were kidnapped by the Tigers on
March 26 as they walked through their village to a math tutor.

           All four say they cannot go home.  "It's very scary," said the
19-year-old, talking of the Tigers roaming increasingly free. "If I go
back to my village, I'll be spotted."  Many people wonder whether the
Tigers, universally known by the initials LTTE, can change from a
totalitarian military organization to a political party that submits to

           "Is the LTTE going to evolve into a Stalinist or Sandinista
regime?" asked Milinda Moragoda, one of the two key officials in the Sri
Lankan government on the peace talks. "I don't know."  Most analysts
believe that the newly elected government is inclined to let the Tigers
rule the north and east of Sri Lanka for perhaps two to three years
without elections while negotiators try to resolve the conflict.

           Mr. Moragoda said the government would seek to ensure
democratic safeguards for the substantial Muslim and Sinhalese populations
in the east, as well as the Tamils who dissent from Tiger domination. In
any permanent settlement, the government has ruled out giving the Tigers a
separate state, but has been willing to discuss much greater autonomy for
Tamils within a democratic Sri Lanka.  Both sides are continuing to
recruit troops and maintain their arsenals. The Tigers are a formidable,
disciplined military force, with an estimated 4,000 trained soldiers.
Suicide bombings are their trademark Mr. Prabhakaran has sent forth some
220 suicide bombers, compared to about 70 from Hamas, said Rohan
Gunaratna, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and
Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

           Under the cease-fire agreement, the Tigers have consolidated
their position because rival armed Tamil groups have been required to turn
over their weapons.  The government is taking risks that would leave the
Tigers refreshed and strengthened for war if talks were to break down, as
they have before.  The United States Embassy in Colombo recently warned
the Tigers that they would face further international isolation if
credible reports of recruitment of children and abduction and extortion

           Fear of the Tigers is palpable in Batticaloa. A leading citizen
was plain-spoken in an interview about the group's terrorist tactics, then
pleaded not to be quoted. "If I stick my neck out, they'll chop it off,"
he said.  One of the few fearless or foolhardy enough to comment publicly
is the Rev. Harry Miller, a 78-year-old Jesuit priest from New Orleans who
came to Batticaloa in 1948 and has been selected by the government to help
monitor the cease-fire.

           He said no one would dare speak out against the Tigers for
dread of a severe retaliation.  "They will get back at you one way or
another and usually it will be quite horrible," Father Miller said.  He
told of a family he knew that was pressured by the Tigers to give up a son
and sent a mentally retarded son. The Tigers beat the young man badly and
dumped him at the family's home. He had to be hospitalized.  "Will the
parents make a report to the police?" the priest asked rhetorically.
"People do not report against the LTTE."

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