Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The teardrop explodes

Thousands of people are fleeing the latest round of violence in north-eastern Sri Lanka. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been assisting local agencies with an estimated 21,000 people who have been displaced from the town of Muttur, which lies across Koddiyar Bay from the historic port city of Trincomalee. They are fleeing the latest outbreak of fighting between government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sporadic fighting continues around Muttur where 4,000 people are said to be trapped.

Before the latest outbreak of fighting, more than 312,000 people had been displaced within Sri Lanka since 1983, some 67,000 of whom are being assisted by UNHCR in welfare centres throughout the country. The 2002 ceasefire unravelled in April this year and before this weekend's displacement, 50,000 people had fled their homes to find refuge elsewhere in the country while another 6,000 have fled to southern India's Tamil Nadu region.

The conflict has its roots in ethnic tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority in the south and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority in the north (Tamil regions shown in map shaded areas) who accuse the government of discrimination. The dispute goes back to a “divide and rule” policy of British colonial times. The Sinhalese complained that the British gave the Tamils preferential treatment and better schooling. This meant that there were disproportionate number of Tamils in the civil service, and in medicine and law in post-independence Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka became independent in 1948 and its new parliament was dominated by the Sinhalese. Initially the transformation to nationhood was peaceful but that changed after the 1956 Sinhala Only Act was passed. English was removed as an official language leaving Sinhala as the only language of government. Most Tamils who worked for the government lost their jobs. Tamils protests against the act were broken up by Sinhala gangs while police did not intervene. Though sporadic riots continued in 1958 and beyond, the situation did not seriously deteriorate until 1970 when Sri Lanka decided to ban importation of Tamil cultural material (films, books, magazines and journals) from India. This was done under the guise of achieving self-sufficiency by the socialist Sinhala government.

Discrimination steadily worsened in the 1970s to the point where a coalition group proposed a separate state of Tamil Eelam for the north of the country. In 1981 an attack on Jaffna public library (which was burned to the ground) and as well as a Tamil newspaper office caused great distress and proved to be a turning point in attitudes towards the South. By 1983 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) started to attack military positions in the North. The government responded by unleashing riots in Colombo which killed thousands of Tamils. The violence intensified through the 1980s to the point where Jaffna was a besieged city. In 1987 India signed a peace accord with Sri Lanka which included significant concessions to Tamil demands. However few of these concessions were ever implemented. The Tamils lost their Indian support when ex-PM Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated by a suicide Tamil Tiger bomber.

Tamil was finally recognised as an official language in the 1990s but the war dragged on. Government forces finally retook Jaffna in 1995. However LTTE suicide bombers continued to wreak havoc in Colombo and elsewhere. They caused major damage to Sri Lankan infrastructure and the air force with their attack on the international airport in 2001. One third of Sri Lankan airlines were put out of commission. The attack also caused tourist numbers to plummet. The sides agreed to a Norwegian-brokered peace deal in 2002 but many Sinhala remain against the deal until the Tigers are disarmed. The government also believes that the Norwegians are biased in favour of the Tamils. When a new hardline president Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 the Tigers reneged on the tenuous ceasefire. The situation in the country has been escalating since April this year with many tit-for-tat killings and bombings. In July, the government claimed the LTTE was blocking a sluice gate in the north-east that provided water to civilians. The Air Force attacked rebel positions and ground troops began an operation to open the gate. Following these moves, LTTE political leader S Elilan announced an end to the ceasefire.

29 countries (including India, USA, the EU and Australia) have proscribed the LTTE as a terrorist group. The LTTE proclaims itself the sole representative and protector of Sri Lankan Tamils. The government has accused them of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE position can be summarised as follows: 1) It is for a ceasefire and monitoring by international observers; 2) It seeks the lifting of the economic blockade and a return to normal in Tamil areas; and 3) but they are silent on the issue of a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka. The government position is unsurprisingly different. 1) The ceasefire will follow if preliminary negotiations make substantial progress. 2) The Army is unlikely to sacrifice its recent gains to political expediency. 3) There must be a definite timeframe for the negotiations which can overlap with a return to normalcy in the North. 4) The Tigers must renounce the idea of a separate state.

The prospects of peace in Sri Lanka are bleak while there is such a huge gulf between what any government in Colombo can offer and what the Tigers will be prepared to settle for. Over 60,000 have been killed since hostilities commenced in the eighties. The teardrop shaped island has many more tears to shed.

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