Sri Lankan War Takes Human, Economic Toll: Government, Guerrillas Guilty of Rights Abuses

Article excerpt

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - A Tamil Hindu woman and her husband were picked up at the main railroad station in Colombo, the capital, because her hairstyle appeared to police like those worn by women of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebels in this country's civil war.

The couple were abused by Buddhist police, who struck them with batons and threw them into an overcrowded prison with other Tiger suspects held without trial, some for more than four years.

The woman's husband, a high-ranking physician, got word of their detention to a local human rights group, which was able to secure their release. They are among the fortunate.

Among about 150,000 Tamil refugees in Colombo from the war in the northeast of Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian Ocean off India's southeast coast, hundreds are screened every day in police sweeps and some arrested on suspicion. Some are tortured to obtain confessions, other released on payment of bribes.

Tamil political groups who disagree with the Tigers' insistence on waging a war for independence have denounced the sweeps and threaten to pull out of peace efforts.

Such violations of human rights on both sides of the conflict - the Tigers are accused of numerous massacres and of harassment of people in their area of control and terrorist attacks against civilians throughout the country - are the biggest tragedy of the 14-year-old civil war.

An estimated 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared.

A second tragedy is the damage done to the national economy, in which 40 percent of the national budget is spent on waging war to the detriment of health, education and development issues.

Ten to 15 years ago, Sri Lanka was considered by economists as one of the three best potential economies in Southeast Asia, largely because of its strategic geographic position just off the Indian coast, its busy transshipment port and a skilled work force.

Today, it ranks about 15th in the area and is deteriorating fast because of large budget deficits and a 20 percent inflation rate.

Observers say that the war, like the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, appears unwinnable by either side, and yet peace seems to be unattainable.


The Tigers have been pushed out of their stronghold on the Jaffna Peninsula in the northeast, but continue to control about 10 percent of the country, launching guerrilla attacks from the jungles to make more of it ungovernable.

The current government, a coalition headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was elected on peace promises that would grant wide autonomy to the Tamils, has not satisfied the Tigers or other Tamil nonmilitant groups seeking peace.

"The more difficult phase [of the civil war] will start once [guerrillas] are demobilized . . . with their reinsertion into civil society," said Jean Arnault, the United Nations' director of demobilization in the recently ended 40-year Guatemalan conflict.

He noted that most guerrillas and regular army soldiers lack vocational skills because they have been fighting for so long.

The Sinhalese Buddhist majority, numbering about 13.5 million of the 18 million population, came from northern India about 500 B.C. Tamil Hindus, now about 3 million, migrated to northeastern Sri Lanka from southern India much later, in the 13th century.

But foreigners have ruled or exploited the former Ceylon for several centuries until independence in 1950. The Turks were there early, then came the Portuguese in the early 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th century and the British in the late 18th century. …