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Paradise Lost: The Endless
War In Sri Lanka

By Joseph Grosso

30 June, 2007

Ask most decently informed Westerners the following questions: What country has for most of the past two plus decades been racked with ethnic and religious violence supported enthusiastically by fanatical clerics, has a constitution that states the duty of the state is to foster a religion, been manipulated by a large regional power, and was the true incubator for horrifyingly calculated suicide bombers? It’s a solid bet that the typical response would be a country in the Middle East or at least one with a Muslim majority (one shutters when contemplating how many responders would answer “Palestine”); however the correct answer is the South Asian country Sri Lanka, the combatants ethnic Tamil separatists against a majority Sinhalese government, and the fanatical clerics in this case, Buddhist monks.

If the reality of war-crazed Buddhist monks shatters the conceptions of good hearted liberals, the largely overlooked Sri Lankan conflict features many other of the worst hallmarks of modern warfare including the use of morally destroyed child soldiers, a terrorized urban population, death squads, and a large internal refugee crisis. Like most of Africa’s post-colonial civil wars, the civil war in Sri Lanka takes place within an ecologically brilliant ecosystem and an otherwise beautiful cultural environment.

Legend has it that it was Buddha himself who on his deathbed pointed across the Bay of Bengal and proclaimed “In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish.” Whatever the validity of this glorious image it is true that Sri Lanka is one of the world’s centers of Buddhism; indeed tourists can treat themselves to countless giant statues of Buddha and other public displays of devotion, the result of generous government patronage and Buddhism’s “foremost place” in the country’s constitution. Even the 1972 name change of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka was full of Buddhist overtones; it was also however an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come as well as an eerie precedent for the rise of Shiv Sena and Hindu fundamentalism in next door India.

Like in India it was the British who were the final colonial power to conquer Sri Lanka with their vanquishing of the Dutch (prior to the Dutch came the Portuguese). By 1815 the island was unified under British control. After some initial good will based on the fifth clause of the 1815 Kandyan Convention (the convention that formalized Britain’s colonial rule) which promised maintenance and protection for Buddhism and its places of worship, it wasn’t long before conflict arose with the Sinhalese (and Buddhist) majority over the restoration of the country’s monarchy. When the British refused to allow the installation of a new king events quickly led to what is called in Sri Lanka the Great Rebellion in 1818.

Despite nearly being defeated by efficient guerilla warfare and disease, the British were able to survive the rebellion on the strength of a vicious scorched-earth policy that included “the starvation of a substantial percentage of the peasantry” according to William McGowan’s excellent book Only Man is Evil: the Tragedy of Sri Lanka.

After crushing the revolt British policy towards Buddhism shifted to one of confrontation, both religious and economic (Buddhism came to be seen as an obstacle to the dynamics of a market economy). Under the reforms proposals of Lord Colebrooke, the British Colonial Office set about abolishing Ceylon’s feudal caste system and granted missionaries a monopoly on education, thereby requiring a conversion to Christianity and necessitating the learning of English. In standard colonial practice these reforms favored minority groups, in this case the Christianized elite created by the British system and the Tamils (most of whom are Hindus).

Predictably this contributed to fanning a militant Buddhist resurgence, a vehicle for Sinhalese nationalism, that was aimed not only at the British but also eventually at the wealthier minorities. That nationalism was symbolized, in part, by fraudulent mythology about Sinhalese golden ages, Buddhist purity, and Aryan race “theory”.

When the British gave independence to Ceylon in 1948 it is probably fair to note that they left a well organized civil administration, wide-ranging infrastructure, a secular elite, and limited democratic structures. This may compare favorably to the awful reality of Belgian Congo but like many other post-colonial tragedies it was the legacy of division that would prove most sustaining; whatever the positives these were offset by the ultra-nationalist Sinhalese sentiment lurking below optimistic shadows.

National elections in 1956 saw the rise of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on a Sinhalese nationalist program (particularly emphasizing the Sinhala language as a replacement for English in government, the courts, and police) and the sweeping away of the British inspired elite. When minority Tamils began to protest nonviolently making the newly elected Prime Minister hedge on his campaign sentiment, and flirt with granting limited Tamil autonomy in the northern and eastern parts of the country, Buddhist monks led Sinhalese crowds in protest. On September 29th, 1959 Bandaranaike was assassinated on suspected orders of a shady monk in his government. He was succeeded by his wife, the world’s first ever female prime minister.

From there the government began years of reforms designed to advance the interests of the Sinhalese and, by extension, Buddhism. These ranged from educational reforms that made major curriculum changes, separated students by language, and gave Sinhalese admission advantages to universities, to economic preference; the latter took place under a bogus socialist program that served to ensure nationalized industries were dominated by Sinhalese.

By the mid1970s the protests of alienated Tamils, met at times by harsh responses, became increasingly more aggressive. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the most powerful (and brutal), though by no means exclusive, opposition group. Led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE proclaims it is fighting for an independent Tamil state to be named Eelam. After years of violence outbursts and worse reprisals, matters came to a head in 1983, nearly four decades after independence, when rioting Sinhalese mobs rampaged Tamil areas in an old European style pogrom with complicity from local security forces; estimates of the numbers killed run as high as 10,000. What followed was prolonged war, massacre, and atrocity.

Suicide Bombings and Child Soldiers

Whatever instinctive sympathy that the Tamil cause may draw, the same cause is severely tainted by the antics of the LTTE. From its recruitment of child soldiers and use of suicide bombings, the LTTE has earned its just characterization as one of the world’s worst terrorist groups. The victim list from suicide bombings is enough to make the Islamist equivalent swell with envy; it includes Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister who oversaw an Indian intervention in 1987 that initially forced the Sri Lankan government to accept constitutional amendments that promised some autonomy for the Tamils and made Tamil an official language (there is evidence that Indian intelligence supported the LTTE before the intervention), a Deputy Defense Minister and 18 others in March 1991, and Sri Lankan president Ranasighe Premadasa in May 1993. Premadasa, and 23 other people, were killed by a suicide bomber at a rally in Colombo after being stalked by the same bomber for two years. There was also the April 1987 bombing in Colombo that killed as many as 150 people (resulting in lynch mobs being unleashed against Tamils), and a truck bombing against an army base that killed 70 soldiers that same year.

Responsible for these and other horrendous suicide bombings are an “elite” corps of highly trained, disciplined killers known as the Black Tigers. Chosen by Prabhakaren, himself an object of cultish worship within the LTTE, for their discipline and loyalty, the Black Tigers are given six months of further training before being sent on their suicide mission, before which they have the honor to dine with the Great Leader. Theirs is indeed a death foretold: just in case a Tiger is captured alive each member sports a cyanide capsule around their neck to ensure the grim destiny is fulfilled.

Indian journalist Anita Pratap’s book Island of Blood gives a harrowing description of the level of indoctrinated fanaticism of the bombers in waiting:

They are everything the ordinary Tigers are, but to a much higher degree. They are more reticent, more disciplined, more motivated, and utterly emotionless. I tried to get at least a flicker of emotion out of them- nostalgia, homesickness, regret…But I got nothing. No reaction at all…How could they not be afraid of death, especially violent death? But all the Black Tigers I interviewed said more or less the same thing: ‘I feel honored that my death will take our struggle one step closer to Eelem.’

Like in many conflicts, the thousands of children forced to commit such atrocities are often “recruited” from their families through intimidation, violence, or outright kidnapping (an assessment published in Jane’s Intelligence Review in 1998 found that 40-60% of LTTE soldiers killed in the 1990s were children under the age of eighteen). A 2004 Human Rights Watch report describes the ghastly process:

Tamil children are vulnerable to recruitment beginning at
the age of eleven or twelve. The LTTE routinely visits Tamil
homes to inform parents they must provide a child for the
“movement”. Families that resist are harassed and threatened…
The LTTE makes good on these threats: children are frequently
abducted from their homes are night, or picked up by LTTE cadres while walking to school or attending a temple festival. Parents who resist the abduction of their children face violent LTTE retribution.

After being recruited children are permitted no contact with their families and face humiliating beatings for mistakes or escape attempts; Smoking, drinking, and sex are forbidden. Subjected to brutal training that includes the handling of bombs and other weapons, as well as hardcore totalitarian indoctrination, many of these terrorized children are soon happy to commit the unspeakable.

Pratap describes visiting a Tiger hospital after a battle:

In one ward there were sixty young women, recuperating,
from serious wounds. Most had their arms or legs ripped
off, some did not have part of their face, some had craters
where there should have been stomachs. But what was even
more bizarre was the atmosphere in the ward- it was cheerful.
Sixteen-year-old Sumathi, who lost her right leg in battle, said
‘All I want is to get an artificial leg so I can go back in the field.
If I stay home, how will we get Eelam?’

Never-Ending Conflict

From the beginning the Sri Lankan civil war is a perfect demonstration of entropy. It has seen years of violence, a disastrous intervention by India in 1987 (whose intelligence agency had supported the LTTE) that eventually resulted in something of a bizarre alliance between the LTTE and the government against the Indian army forcing a chaotic withdrawal which allowed the LTTE to capture armaments for the war.

The years following India’s retreat were an orgy of suicide bombings against Sri Lanka’s political elite and numerous reversals of fortunes for both sides- the military forcing the LTTE back to guerilla tactics and retaking the northern city of Jaffna, the LTTE regaining control of the strategically significant Elephant Pass in a battle where as many as 1000 government soldiers were killed and in 2001 capturing the country’s only international airport and destroying half the air-fleet- until a full ceasefire (CFA) was signed in February 2002.

The CFA did provide a few years of stability allowing economic conditions to improve, though coastal areas were devastated by the 2004 tsunami. However peace talks on a final settlement stumbled over the extent of LTTE consolidation in areas largely under their control and the issue of “high-security zones” (from where the government’s counter-insurgency operation cleared the population from their homes for “security” reasons); of course there still remains the ultimate question of Tamil autonomy and Eelam. Fighting erupted again in 2006, twenty-three years after the 1983 pogrom, killing thousands and displacing over 100,000 people with no end in sight.

While news from the current phase features many of the same themes such as suicide bombings, including a truck bombing last October that killed 94 people, Buddhist monks brawling with antiwar demonstrators and publicly torching the Norwegian flag in protest of Norway’s peace efforts (Buddhist monks currently have their own political party called the National Heritage Party that holds nine seats in the 225-member parliament), it also contains some new twists: The LTTE has shown air capability by using light aircraft to bomb a government air force base- also terrifying waiting passengers at a nearby airport, and the government forces now have as an ally a breakaway faction of the LTTE under the command of a man known as Colonel Karuna, formerly one of the LTTE’s best and most brutal commanders. He now engages in child recruitment, assassination, and extortion for the state.

By now it may well be that the Sri Lankan war has reached the stage that Bernard-Henry Levy has described of wars “which have seemingly let go of the cord that tied them to the universal”, i.e. the war has little actual meaning or principle left. Whatever the case the international community has an obligation to the children and civilians still caught in the war’s deadly grip. Actions that could be taken, as suggested in a recent International Crisis Group report, include targeted sanctions against the LTTE and other factions involved in the use of child soldiers and pressure from the UN Security Council to reestablish the cease-fire agreed upon five years ago (which actually hasn’t been officially renounced by either side). Multilateral support should also be provided to Norway’s efforts to broker a lasting peace. After decades of ethnic and religious nationalism along with cutting edge violence, it is long past due for Sri Lanka to overcome a legacy of colonialism and bigotry. However long the short-term odds, on this the world cannot abdicate.


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