Facebook Twitter

Sri Lanka conflict is ‘war the world is missing’

SHARE Sri Lanka conflict is ‘war the world is missing’

One of the world's most savage and least reported wars rages on the island of Sri Lanka, a former British colony off the southern tip of India whose old name is still used on labels of Ceylon Tea.

Britain's Economist once called it "The War the World is Missing."

It features an androgynous rebel army that is outnumbered 10-to-1 by government forces but frequently wins set-piece battles against tanks, artillery, multiple-rocket launchers, air force jets and naval warships while staging devastating terrorist attacks in and around Colombo, the capital.

Half the guerrillas in the Liberation Army of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are women. These "Birds of Freedom," as they are called by fellow rebels, also form the core of an elite suicide squad known as the Black Tigers.

Over the course of the 18-year war the Tigers have assassinated one Sri Lankan president, two presidential candidates, several Cabinet ministers, a clutch of armed services chiefs and an Indian prime minister. They also attacked Colombo's international airport and adjacent air force base Tuesday, briefly putting Sri Lanka in the headlines again.

Hundreds of foreign tourists and Sri Lankan travelers witnessed the six-hour battle in which 13 rebels, some with explosives strapped to their bodies, blew up five civilian airliners and eight military aircraft, including two Kfir bombers newly purchased from Israel. All the attackers and seven Sri Lankan soldiers were killed.

So what is this war about?

Sri Lanka is an island roughly the size of West Virginia only 50 miles from the Indian mainland across the Polk Strait. It is rich in spices, gems and timber, and its history is laced with Indian invasions and long periods of colonization by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

Sinhalese migrants from northern India conquered the ancient Veddah inhabitants in the 16th century B.C., making the island a center of Buddhist culture. Subsequent invasions added minority Tamils from southern India, mostly Hindus with a sprinkling of Christians and Muslims.

The Tamils became a prosperous middle class after Britain conquered the central Kingdom of Kandy in 1833 and established the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They grew rich running tea and rubber plantations for the British and actively discriminated against the Buddhist Sinhalese.

But the tables were turned when Ceylon gained independence in 1948. The Sinhalese majority began slowly eroding Tamil rights and, by the time Ceylon changed its name to the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972, the Tamils were agitating for an independent Eelam, a state of their own.

Now 18 percent of the population of 19 million, Tamils inhabit the northern Jaffna Peninsula and Sri Lanka's eastern coast. They turned to terrorism in 1981 after Sinhalese troops burned down the Jaffna Library, a barbarous act that drove even moderate Tamils into extremist ranks. The library contained priceless historical books and scrolls sacred to the Hindu religion.

But the war did not begin in earnest until 1983 when 3,000 Tamils were slaughtered by Sinhalese rioters in retaliation for the deaths of 13 soldiers killed in a rebel attack. In those early years there were several Tamil guerrilla groups that fought each other almost as often as they did the Sri Lankan army. But the LTTE proved dominant and swallowed up the others.

Its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is a high school dropout remarkably adept at brainwashing his followers. He recruits, or dragoons, children as young as 10 for guerrilla training, selects mostly girls for his suicide squad and makes them wear cyanide capsules around their necks to give them "a special edge."

While this outrages human-rights groups, it has forged a formindable fighting force now 8,000 strong. Not only has the LTTE held its own against vastly superior Sri Lankan forces, it also put Indian troops on the run when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent 60,000 "peacekeepers" to help out the Sri Lankan government in 1987-89.

That ill-fated intervention cost him his life in 1991 when a Black Tiger assassin killed Gandhi in his own country.

Overall, the war has left 64,000 dead and created 700,000 refugees. Sri Lanka's economy is ruined, with massive unemployment that fuels more war.

Without jobs, young Tamils and Sinhalese have nothing better to do than join their opposing armies and add to the body count.


Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail: hjens@aol.com.