|Inside Sri Lanka: An end to violence in sight|
|Friday, 26 September 2008|
Hundreds of thousands have fled Sri Lanka's civil war, many of them to Canada. While the war zone has been off limits to journalists, the National Post's Stewart Bell recently toured the front lines just as the conflict appears headed for a decisive showdown. This is the sixth of a six-part series.COLOMBO - At the bustling Fort Railway Station, the walls have been patched and the bloodstains scrubbed away, but everyone still remembers what happened. A woman stepped off a commuter train onto Platform 3 and detonated a suicide bomb in a crowd of D.S. Senanayake College students. A dozen died, eight of them kids. "This is very ridiculous because only schoolchildren were dead," says Kumar Jayantha, a tour guide who was waiting for customers outside the station last February when the blast occurred.
Though far from the front lines of the civil war, Sri Lanka's seaside capital has been steadily rocked by bombings, the work of Tamil Tigers guerrillas making their case for independence. In response, yellow metal barricades and military checkpoints made of stacked green sandbags seem to be everywhere. Security is especially tight along the downtown Galle Road waterfront, a designated high-security zone that encompasses the Ministry of Defence, Army Headquarters and Temple Trees, the official residence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Fortified behind high walls, the presidential compound is guarded by soldiers in high gun towers.
To get inside, visitors must pass through four vehicle checkpoints and undergo two full body searches. In the President's office, framed black-and-white portraits of his mother and father are displayed on a small table and a photograph of the mountaintop holy site Sri Pada - said to be a footprint left by Buddha on his way to paradise - hangs behind his desk.
During the 2005 election that brought him to power, President Rajapaksa campaigned on a platform of ending the country's civil war through negotiations with the Tamil Tigers guerrillas who have turned the tropical island into a battlefield. But within months of taking office, the President changed course; he ordered his armed forces back to war and last January formally pulled out of a 2002 ceasefire agreement.
A poster showing Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
He has stepped up the campaign against the Tamil Tigers.
His stance now: War will continue "until the last rebel is killed or every inch of land is captured." The Rajapaksa regime, which includes the President's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is the Defence Secretary, has come surprisingly close to accomplishing that: After 25 years of civil war that has cost more than 60,000 lives, Sri Lankan troops are now within a few kilometres of the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi.
Asked in an interview with the National Post if the war was almost over, the president replied: "Yes, I think so. It will take a little more time," although he quickly added, "terrorism, you can't just finish it overnight." -----The Rajapaksa brothers are members of a political dynasty that has held public office since the 1930s, when the island was a pleasant British tea-growing colony called Ceylon.
The President is a 62-year-old Buddhist lawyer first elected to Parliament in 1970 at age 24. He is never seen in public without his maroon shawl, which represents the peasant farmers whose political interests his family has long represented. His brother served two decades in the armed forces but moved to Los Angeles before returning to Sri Lanka to oversee the 250,000-strong armed forces. Two other brothers and a niece are Members of Parliament, as was their late father and uncle. "We said we were ready to talk to them," the President says of the Tamil Tigers.
But three weeks after he was sworn in, the guerrillas resumed their attacks. "I didn't even react because I was trying to negotiate with them," he says. But following a failed assassination attempt against the commander of the army, the President ordered retaliatory air strikes and before long the war was once again in full swing. "You can't trust him," he says of the longtime Tamil Tigers boss Velupillai Prabhakaran. "He's a killer, he and his number two, Pottu Amman.
So, this is what I thought, you know, they can't understand the language that you and I talk. The language he understands is force." To finish off the Tigers, the President appointed a new Army Commander and added 50,000 troops to the ranks, an increase of 25%. The armed forces went on a buying spree. New guerrilla-fighting tactics were introduced.
Small commando units were deployed to confront the Tigers deep in their territory. "We started dominating the jungles, not only the built-up areas, not only the townships, not only the villages. We started operating in small groups ... of commandos and Special Forces," the Defence Secretary says in an interview. "We didn't just go in to grab land but we were more keen to confront them and because of this, they lost a lot of cadres, bases, guns, air targets. This weakened them a lot. Then only we moved forward." The Navy also stepped up its fight, engaging the Tigers' supply ships in deep waters and sinking 10 floating weapons warehouses.
At the same time, countries like Canada, Britain and France cracked down on the Tigers' international financial network, leaving the guerrillas short of cash to buy arms. Government troops cleared the guerrillas from the east last year, then, went north. The major obstacle at the moment is what to do about the up to 200,000 civilians in the area under Tamil Tigers control. Army helicopters dropped leaflets last month telling them to leave the war zone and a corridor has been established so they can flee south. "This will help minimize civilian casualties," the Defence Secretary says. "If the civilians come out of this place, then that is the end."
Nobody is certain when that day might come, but commanders seem confident it will be over in a matter of months, although the rebels could still retreat into the more isolated jungles to continue guerrilla attacks. "We have to expect delays, casualties, but we can see that it goes according to the military strategy, according to the plans, so the commanders are confident and we are winning." The government's claim that it is liberating Tamils from the Tigers has the backing of some Tamil leaders.
Veerasingham Anandasangaree, President of the Tamil United Liberation Front party, says Tamils are happy that government troops are beating the Tigers. "People have to be liberated from the so-called liberators," he says. But others argue the war won't solve the country's underlying ethnic problem, which is how to include the country's Tamil minority in a united Sri Lanka. "I don't think there can be a military solution to this problem.
It's a political problem," says Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance. "As far as I'm concerned this is not going to be a solution to anything." While the government's view is that the Tamil Tigers are the cause of the country's ills, he believes the guerrillas are a symptom of the failure of successive governments to resolve Tamil grievances. Current complaints include a drive forcing ethnic Tamils living in Colombo to register with police. "No Tamil in this country feels absolutely safe and free.
The fact that you're a Tamil puts you in danger," says Mr. Sampanthan, who is the Member of Parliament for Trincomalee. Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, does not support the government's approach either. The council is a non-governmental organization that promotes the notion that the country's ethnic conflict must be negotiated and not settled on the battlefield. Its platform: War won't buy peace, the Tamil Tigers should be at the negotiating table and the solution is a federal system, with a strong central government. For this, the council is at odds with both the guerrillas and the government, which fears giving too many powers to the Tamil-dominated regions. "The fear of the Sinhalese is that eventually federalism will lead to separation," he says. President Rajapaksa says that after the Tigers are defeated, he intends to begin devolving powers to the regions. He has appointed an all-party committee to report to him with proposal to address Tamil grievances, he says. As for international concerns about human rights abuses, he says government forces do not engage in abductions although they do take suspects into custody. The President accused Tamils seeking refugee status in the West of exaggerating conditions in Sri Lanka. He urged Canadian Tamils not to support the Tamil Tigers and their fight for independence.
"They must stop this. They should not encourage the terrorists. They are not helping the Tamils," the President says. "Prabhakaran will never succeed." -----Colombo is the capital of a divided, exhausted, beautiful country. Compared to the tension in the north, the capital seems relaxed. Tourists talk excitedly about their day's adventures on the veranda of the Galle Face Hotel, and young couples sit on benches facing the pounding Indian Ocean. But even here, soldiers and police watch over everything and bombers sometimes slip through the security walls. So far this year, almost 200 civilians have died in terrorist attacks that have targeted public figures and public transportation around Colombo. Five attacks on buses and trains between January and April left 75 dead. Bus bombings continued last week.
"We couldn't believe what happened," says Indra Sumana, a young Buddhist monk with a shaved head and a saffron robe. Rev. Sumana was inside his temple on Colombo's Lotus Road in May when he heard a blast.
A suicide bomber had rammed a police guard post beside the temple's main entrance, killing 10 people, injuring 90 and shattering the windows of the white pagoda. It was the second time the temple had been hit. The last time, the victims included the chief monk, who is memorialized in a bust displayed next to a giant golden statue of Buddha. Rev. Sumana is a young man but he has had enough and he says he supports the government's drive to wipe out the Tamil Tigers. "I think we have to finish this."
(Courtesy : National Post )
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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