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Civil War in Sri Lanka?
Francis Wheen, London Times, 30 July 1983
During the last outbreak of serious communal violence in Sri Lanka, in 1981, I met a 74-year-old. Tamil doctor standing in the blackened ruins of his house on Main Street, Jaffna. It had been fire-bombed by Sinhalese police officers a few nights earlier. The doctor told me that he had lived in the Sinhalese-dominated town of Kandy until 1977, but then his house there had been burnt down. "I had a good practice in Kandy,'" he said, "but I moved here because it was the only place where I felt safe, where I could be among other Tamil people. Now my house here has been burnt down, so it seems I'm not even safe in Jaffna. Where can I go now?
It is a question which more and more Tamils have been asking.
Some have answered it by emigrating, most commonly to Britain, West Germany or the United States. Those who have stayed, however, have come to believe that there is only one way to protect themselves from the increasingly frequent Sinhalese attacks: the creation of a separate Tamil state - referred to as Eelam - in the traditional Tamil areas in the north and east of the island.
To the outsider, such a suggestion may seem wildly impractical - and ill-omened, if one reflects on the success rate of other partitioned islands, such as Cyprus or Ireland. But the Tamils argue that this is as unfair comparison. Elsewhere, they say, partition has created artificial edifices with no cultural or historical foundations; Tamil Eelam, on the other hand, would be a recreation of the Tamil Kingdoms that existed in pre-colonial days. If one remains unconvinced, the Tamils produce their clincher: What is the alternative?'.
It is difficult to think of one. Ever since Ceylon became independent in 1948, the Tamils have been a persecuted minority. Their language and culture have been downgraded; they have been discriminated against in employment and education; and they have been subjected to violent physical attack. Genocide is a word that must be used with care; but how else is one to describe the impulse which guided the Sinhalese lynch-mobs this week?
Alarming numbers of Sinhalese now wish to see the Tamils driven off the face of Sri Lanka, and are more than willing to carry out the task themselves.
The Sri Lankan government must take its share of the blame for this. In recent years, President Jayawardene has from time to time tried to sound conciliatory, admitting that some Tamil complaints might be justified. However, his action - or lack of it - - has belied these soothing words, and in a television broadcas this week, he said that since the Tamils had so annoyed the majority community by advocating parti- tion, he and his government had decided to calm things by making it illegal to urge the separation. The government, when presented with evidence that the army or the police have committed atrocities against defenceless Tamils, has usually reacted with a shrug of the shoulders.
Sometimes, indeed, police misconduct has actually been rewarded. In two separate cases recently, the Supreme Court found that police officers had acted illegally; in both cases, the officers concerned were promoted soon after the judgement. The security forces have interpreted this as a licence to do as they please with impunity, and President Jayawardene has not seemed eager to disabuse them. Early last month he introduced a regulation which allows the police to cremate or bury dead bodies, if they think it "necessay", without any inquest or post mortem taking place.
Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been used almost exclusively against Tamils, suspects can be held with- out trial for up to 18 months. Three weeks ago Amnesty International published a report which suggested that Tamils de- tained under the Act had been tortured, bothin army camps and by the police. President Jayawardene dismissed the allegations as soon as the report appeared, denouncing Amnesty as "communists".
This reaction was consistent with his normal approach to the bearers of bad tidings. One month ago he ordered the closure of two leading Tamil newspapers. Suthanthiran and the Saturday Review, which had printed accounts of attacks on Tamils in Trincomalee. At the same time he confirmed that in future all candidates for Parliament would have to swear in an affidavit that they would not support the Tamils' demand for a separate state.
All this was done in the name of "eliminating terrorism- - a reference to the Tamil Tigers, who have been held responsible for attacks, on troops and police. It is a queer sort of logic which holds that the best way of eliminating Tamil terrorism is to ban all Tamil political parties and proscribe the main Tamil newspapers. But President Jayawardene, like many of his compatriots, seems to use the words " terrorist and "Tamil" as if they were interchangeable these days. He told an interviewer this month: "I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now. Now we can't think of them; not about their lives or of their opinion of us."
Given this hardening of attitude, it is hard to see how Sri Lanka's drift into civil war can be stopped. The government is determined that the Tamils' demand for Eelam must be silenced; yet each bout of communal violence merely strengthens the Tamil conviction that a separate state is the only solution.