Friday, January 9, 2009

In the interest of full disclosure…

Sri Lanka is a great place, don't get me wrong. But it's not all beaches and good times.

I made a conscious decision not to write about the civil war
that’s been going on in Sri Lanka since 1983 (although the ethnic conflict has “unofficially” raged for much longer). The decision was an easy one to make, I simply don’t know that much about it and didn’t want to editorialize about such a complex issue when, unlike so many of the ex-patriot friends I have here who are working in the human rights arena or doing development work, learning more about the war and dealing with its effects have nothing to do with my reason for being here. Yesterday however, the chief editor of a local newspaper who was know for criticizing the government in general and its policies on the war specifically, was gunned down in broad daylight not too far from where I live.

From the BBC News Website:

Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga, 52, had been highly critical of government policy and the war with the Tamil Tiger rebels. He received numerous death threats through his career and was detained on several occasions because of the controversial nature of his stories.

In his last editorial he accused the president of pursuing the war to stay in power.

"Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become [the president of Sri Lanka] Mahinda Rajapaksa's recipe for electoral success," he wrote.

According to the newspaper report I read, the hit took place while Mr. Wickramatunga was driving to work yesterday. Four men on motorcycles surrounded his car forcing him to stop. One gunman got off his bike and broke the passenger-side window with a steel bar but did not fire; another broke the driver’s side window and shot him point blank in the head; a third man got off his bike and fired through the windshield; the fourth circled the front of the car preventing escape; all four rode off after the shooting and none have been apprehended. Passer-bys rushed Mr. Wickramatunga to the hospital where he died of his injuries.

Since I feel the need to report this as something of note that has happened while I’m here, I feel I should also give a brief history of the “conflict” in Sri Lanka. The following is based on a very small amount of research.

Tamil people are an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka making up about 18% of the population. They are native to Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India. Tamils in Sri Lanka are broadly divided into two groups. Sri Lankan Tamils (or Ceylon Tamils) and Indian Tamils. The latter group are descendants of Tamil people who were brought from India to work on the country’s tea plantations in the 19th century and, for the most part, are not party to the conflict. The Ceylon Tamils however have come to inhabit particularly the north and eastern parts of the island via waves of migrations and invasions over a couple of millennia.

In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was elected the fourth Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. One of the first things he did after coming to power was to make Sinhala the official language of the country and downgraded the official status of English and the Tamil language. Anti-Tamil policies such as this led to the eventual formation of several militant Tamil groups in the early seventies. One of these, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), emerged as the dominant group and has waged a violent cessation campaign against the government with the goal of forming a separate Tamil state on the north peninsula of the island. The LTTE is widely considered to be a terrorist organization and wages its campaign largely by assassinations, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, and recruitment of child-soldiers; the government responds to these acts by bombing civilian-populated Tamil areas.

Many Tamils are fully entrenched in lives outside the north and east parts of the island and have no desire to change this status. These people have worked and lived in Colombo for generations, they have become fully integrated without losing their cultural heritage, and have no need or desire for a separate Tamil state. However this group, concentrated in and around the capital Colombo, faced the brunt of the anti-tamil riots of 1983, and as a result many of them have since migrated out of Sri Lanka.

The beginning of the civil war in 1983 is attributed to an incident in which the LTTE killed 15 Sri Lanka army soldiers in the North; some Sinhalese civilians angered by news of the ambush formed mobs and started killing, raping, and assaulting Tamils, while looting and burning their properties in retribution for what happened. Sinhalese civilians were equipped with voter registration lists, burning and attacking only Tamil residences and business, while army and government officials stood by. The government declared an emergency curfew in Colombo the next day; however, the police were unwilling, or unable to enforce the curfew. The army was then called in to help the police. However the violence continued the next day, and began to spread all across the country, engulfing areas with sizeable Tamil populations; Tamil people were dragged from cars and beaten or hacked to death with knives and axes.

The pattern of assassinations and the killing of soldiers/officials on both sides followed by bombings from both sides, with intermittent peace-talks and negotiations has continued since 1983.

The sunsets here are indeed beautiful, the beaches pristine, and the food fantastic. There are fabulous night-clubs, hotels, parties, and restaurants, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s a war going on even though Colombo is also a city with a huge army presence. I am routinely stopped for identification by soldiers holding machine guns almost every night that I go out; this is a part of life my Tamil friends (who can be identified as such by their last names) find much more nerve-wracking than I do. This is a city where everyone is searched for explosives every time they go into the mall or into a major office building. It is a city where government and police corruption is obvious and rampant, and it is a place where the chief editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, criticized government opposition parties for staying "mute" in the face of obvious corruption, suggesting journalists were having to do their job for them, and paid for it with his life.

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