issue 167 - January 1987
Sri Lanka's nightmare
No foreign journalist, diplomat, human rights activist or even tourist is allowed past the army road-blocks to the forbidden Northern and Eastern Province, of Sri Lanka, where the Government pursues the so-called 'Military Solution' to its chronic ethnic crisis.
'The Government tells journalists that the road-blocks are for their own protection,' a prominent Tamil human rights lawyer told us sardonically. 'I would say that they were for the Government's protection. There can be no doubt that the world's press is being deceived. There are more people being killed in Sri Lanka than in South Africa but, by comparison, we are almost ignored by the press.
'In five or ten years time you will see mass paves being unearthed, skull-littered fields, photographs of innocent civilians - farmers, fisherpeople, students - whose features have been obliterated by acid so that their relations cannot identify them and challenge the Government's declaration that they were terrorists.'
The unseen war In Sri Lanka claimed at least 2,000 lives from April to December 1985 and, since 1983, has created more than 300,000 refugees, including 50,000 Sinhalese and more than ten per cent of the Sri Lankan Tamil population. About 75,000 of the poorest of those refugees, mainly fisherpeople and farmers, now live in overcrowded and disease-infested camps in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, India.
Almost bankrupt, the Sri Lankan Government relies on foreign aid to keep its Military Solution alive. By portraying the separatist groups as 'drug-dealing Marxist terrorists' bent on imposing a totalitarian state throughout Sri Lanka, cunning Prime Minister J R Jayewardene has found a sympathetic hearing in the Reagan White House.
Recent reports reaching Colombo from the war zones speak of British mercenaries and former members of Britain's elite commando unit, the Special Air Service or SAS, fighting alongside Sinhalese troops. Witnesses in Jaffna have also testified that white pilots were flying the Italian-made planes which bombed the town. Whilst Britain denies any official role, Indian diplomatic sources in Colombo state that a top-level delegation of British Military Intelligence was recently in Colombo to advise the Government on anti-terrorist warfare. Israel's notorious Intelligence agencies MOSSAD and Shin Bet are also active in Sri Lanka, and operate out of the Israeli 'Special Interests Section' of the US Embassy.
In the dusk light. our auto-rickshaw groaned to a halt in a quiet street in a suburb of Madras, in southern India. Across the way, young Tamil Tigers were keeping a watchful eye on their organization's headquarters, ready to fend off possible attacks, not from agents of the Sri Lankan Government but from rival guerilla groups. Inside the two-storey house, between the lurid posters of Che Guevara and the idealized image of a Tamil revolutionary, there is a display of grotesque photographs from the war zones decapitated children, anonymous corpses in a blood-stained heap, bloated faces mutilated with acid.
'Here you see the premeditated genocide of the Tamil people,' we were told by Dr Anton Balasingham, the Oxford-educated political theoretician of the Tigers. There are estimated to be 10,000 fighters and 20,000 active helpers in the Tamil guerilla movement fighting for independence from the majority Sinhalese population. 'We are now in virtual control in the North from Jaffna to Elephant Pass. Our strategy is to first secure the entire North and then move into the East.' And bombings against civilians in Colombo? 'Although it is our general policy only to attack state targets, if necessary we shall move into the south and hit more vulnerable targets.'
All over the south of Sri Lanka now one can sense the profound fear that a series of particularly daring guerilla attacks could spark a conflagration, rapidly engulfing the tea plantations, Colombo, and eventually the entire island.
Central to the militants' strategy is the hope that such attacks will exploit pent-up Sinhalese resentment against the increasingly authoritarian regime in Colombo, forcing it to withdraw the armed forces from Tamil areas in order to prevent an insurrection in the South. This would leave the separatists free to establish the independent state of Tamil Eelam.
In response to that threat. the Government's ill-fated Military Solution is aimed at crippling the guerllas so that Tamil moderates will be forced to the negotiating table with demands which will cost a great deal less than Eelam. But whilst the Government floats counterproposals that are inevitably denounced as being 'too little, too late', the island is taking its last steps towards a civil war which promises to become one of the most brutal Asia has ever known.
Bill Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Italy.