BANGALORE - A series of bomb blasts in buses and trains in southern Sri Lanka
in recent weeks has drawn attention to the increased targeting of civilians by
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While the terrorist acts of the
LTTE have been widely reported, the Lankan government's targeting and
terrorizing of civilians - Tamil and Sinhalese - has gone by largely unnoticed
in the international media.
On Friday, 20 people were killed and over 80 injured when a roadside bomb hit a
bus in the capital Colombo during morning rush hour. Hours later another bomb
went off in a bus in Polgolla, central Sri Lanka, killing two and injuring 20.
Two days earlier, a bomb on a railway track in Colombo went off
seconds after a packed commuter train passed. Twenty-four people were injured
in that blast. On May 26, a bomb attack at Dehiwela station in Colombo killed
eight and left over 70 injured. On May 16, a suicide attack in the heart of the
capital left 10 dead and almost a hundred injured. On April 24, two dozen
people were killed in a blast in bus in Piliyandala and on February 3 a suicide
attack in a train station in downtown Colombo killed nine and left over a
Most of these attacks in Sinhalese-dominated southern Sri Lanka in recent
months have targeted public transport during rush hour. Some 75 civilians are
reported to have been killed and over 450 injured in these attacks, believed to
be the work of the LTTE.
Sri Lanka's civil war, which was put on pause in 2002 when the government and
the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement, intensified in January this year when
the government formally pulled out of that agreement. The truce had begun
fraying over two years ago, when both sides began engaging in violence even as
they accused the other of violating the truce.
But violence has seriously spiked in recent months, with both sides engaged in
a no-holds barred battle.
Having cleared the LTTE from its strongholds in Eastern Province last year, the
Lankan armed forces are now focusing on weakening the LTTE in its bastion in
In the past, when under pressure in the North, the LTTE has carried out attacks
in Colombo, targeting Sri Lanka's international airport, its World Trade Center
and Central Bank, hotels and transport system. These were aimed at crippling
the country's infrastructure and tourism, thereby weakening its economy. Many
hundreds of civilians have been killed and injured in these attacks.
Although the LTTE has not claimed responsibility for the recent spate of
attacks in buses and trains in Colombo and its suburbs, it does seem that these
are in retaliation for the government's operations in Northern Province,
specifically in response to a series of roadside bombings that have killed
ordinary Tamil civilians.
On June 2, six Tamil civilians, including two children, were killed and four
injured when a car they were traveling in was blown up by a claymore mine
planted by the army inside the LTTE-controlled Mullaitivu district in Northern
Province. According to the LTTE, around 20 Tamil civilians died in similar
roadside bombings in the North in May.
"But the LTTE's attacks probably have a deeper agenda - to push the government
back to the negotiating table," says a Colombo-based political analyst, who
spoke to Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.
Support for the war is strong among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka but this support
is predicated on the government's promise to defeat the LTTE quickly and of
course, on the war not pinching them seriously. "The LTTE reckons that if the
war hurts them directly, public support for the war will quickly wane, as it
has in the past, forcing the government to consider the political option. That
would get the armed forces off its back," he says.
The government's "war on the LTTE" has always hit Tamil civilians harder than
it has the LTTE itself. Its economic embargoes on Tiger-held territory cause
severe hardship to civilians, while the LTTE manages to access the banned items
from other sources. Right from the 1980s, the government has aerially bombarded
Tamil areas, killing hundreds of civilians in the name of eliminating the LTTE.
Even during the "ceasefire period" the government had no qualms about bombing
Tamil civilians, while claiming to take out the LTTE's infrastructure.
It may be recalled that in August 2006, for instance, Sri Lankan Air Force jets
bombed an orphanage in Mullaitivu, killing 61 children and injuring about 150.
The government subsequently justified the attack by claiming that it had
targeted an LTTE training center and that those killed were the LTTE's child
soldiers, a claim that UNICEF subsequently shot down. A UNICEF team that
visited a hospital there found over 100 children - mostly teenage girls - being
treated for various head injuries and shrapnel injuries.
Besides roadside bombings and aerial bombardment of Tamil areas in the north of
the island, the government has taken into custody hundreds of Tamils living in
Colombo and its suburbs. Tamil homes here are routinely searched and youth
taken away for questioning have "disappeared".
An important target of the government's "war against the LTTE" has been the
media. Journalists covering military affairs who haven't reproduced faithfully
the government's account of the war have come in for criticism and worse.
Keith Noyahr, a deputy editor of the English-language weekly The Nation, was
abducted and severely beaten on May 22. Sri Lanka's Free Media Movement said in
a statement that Noyahr was abducted for his independent writing and analysis
of the war in northern Sri Lanka. Noyahr has been critical of the government's
conduct of the war.
TV reporter Paranirupasingam Devakumar was murdered less than a week later in
an area of the Jaffna peninsula in Northern Province that is under military
Intimidation of defense analyst and Jane's Defense Weekly correspondent Iqbal
Athas has grown in recent months, forcing him to stop writing his widely read
and well-respected weekly column in Sunday Times. Personal security provided to
Athas by the government was withdrawn last August.
Senior journalist J S Tissanayagam, a Tamil, and three other media workers were
arrested in March by the Terrorism Investigation Division. Tissanayagam is a
columnist with the Sunday Times and has been running a website Outreach, which
the government claims is maintained "with the financial backing of the LTTE".
(The Paris-based watchdog, Reporters Without Borders says on its website that
"the money in question came chiefly from a German foundation, without any link
with the Tamil rebels of the LTTE".)
Tissanayagam is yet to be officially charged and is being held in solitary
The Sri Lankan Defense Ministry website has launched a virulent campaign
against journalists critical of the government, accusing them of co-operating
with the "terrorist enemy", the LTTE. Attacking the media for criticizing the
military and its decisions with regard to the military operations, promotions,
defense procurement and so on, it accuses journalists of "treachery".
In a clear attempt at intimidation the website says: "Whoever attempts to
reduce the public support to the military by making false allegations and
directing baseless criticism at armed forces personnel is supporting the
terrorist organization that continuously murder citizens of Sri Lanka. The
Ministry will continue to expose these traitors and their sinister motives and
does not consider such exposure as a threat to media freedom. Those who commit
such treachery should identify themselves with the LTTE rather than showing
themselves as crusaders of Media Freedom."
Clearly, the war against the LTTE in the north is not going too well despite
the government having poured US$1.5 billion into the war this year. Lankan
officials, including army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, have pledged
to eliminate the LTTE by the end of this year - a promise that is proving hard
to fulfill, with the Tigers putting up fierce resistance to the army's advance
in the north.
The LTTE has no doubt suffered serious reverses over the past year and lost top
leaders, cadres and territory. Still, the vastly larger Lankan forces backed by
air power have been able to dislodge the LTTE out of a few kilometers of
territory in Northern Province. A major army offensive in the Muhamalai area
near Jaffna in the Northern Province on April 23 was an absolute disaster. Not
only did the army face a humiliating rout, but it lost over 150 soldiers. The
LTTE was able to seize a large quantity of arms and ammunition from the army.
News from the north is clearly not to the liking of the government or the
Defense Ministry. Unable to steer the outcome of events on the battlefield in
its favor, it is opting for the next best thing: silencing the messenger.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in