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    South Asia
     Jun 10, 2008
Fighting dirty in Sri Lanka
By Sudha Ramachandran

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 hundred injured.

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 Northern Province.

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 control.

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 confinement.

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 Bangalore.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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