Tragedy without end

The warring factions in Sri Lanka agreed a ceasefire five years ago. Officially, both the government and the Tamil Tigers say it’s still in place and they are observing the truce. In reality, the war rages anew.

About 65,000 people died during the war proper (1983-2002). More than 3,000 have died in the last year. About 160,000 have been forced to leave their homes. There have been allegations of human rights abuses and the killing of civilians by both sides. It seems the hopes raised by Norwegian-brokered peace talks five years ago have been dashed.

The conflict dates back to independence from Britain in the late 1940s. The new regime was Sinhalese-speaking and Buddhist in orientation, while the Tamils, who are largely Hindu with Christian and Muslim minorities, suffered widespread discrimination. War broke out when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam stepped up their low-level offensive into an armed campaign for a separate Tamil state on the island of Sri Lanka (incidentally, the vast majority of Tamils live in India).

The Tamil fight has stepped up dramatically in recent months. Having lost strategic territory to the military in September, the Tigers killed at least 130 government soldiers in one day of fighting (the number of Tamil casualties is disputed). They followed up the battle with a suicide attack on a naval convoy which killed about 100 soldiers. Bus bombings came next.

Then, in March, the rebels carried out their first airstrike. A second strike last week briefly knocked out the power to the island’s capital, Colombo. Previously, the Sri Lankan government had held total air superiority; the military continues to bomb rebel positions. The island’s only international airport is now closed at nights.

Despite the continuous artillery bombardment by the government, the Tamils operate a de facto state. There are Tamil laws, courts, police and even a forestry department. But they only continue to operate in the absence of government control of the north of the island, where the Tamil Tigers are strongest.

The stated goal of the Tigers — who are listed as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US — is a Tamil state in the north and east of the island. The current Sri Lankan offensive has largely driven the rebel forces out of the east, which leaves the fortified northern heartland. There is no telling how bloody the fighting will be if and when the government launches a final assault to crush the rebels.

Matthew Rosenberg, who has covered the conflict extensively for the Associated Press, was given special permission to cross the frontier into rebel territory. You can read his report, which details how Tamil civilians are steeling themselves for war, here.

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