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War - No end in sight.

No end in sight for Sri Lankan war

Despite repeated calls for peace and harmony the fighting still rages around the country that has lost thousands to its racial conflict.

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga said the agreement reached with the opposition United National Party (UNP, to solve the countrys ethnic problem was the historic opportunity to forget narrow political differences.

At the inauguration ceremony to rebuild the Jaffna Public Library, at a cost of US$1.2 million (B 31.million), Kumaratunga stressed that the British-brokered agreement between the major Sinhalese dominated political parties was a historical achievement.

Nothing can now stand in the way of achieving peace in the country through devolution proposals, she said.

The initiative by the government to reconstruct the Jaffna Public Library, a former cultural centre of the Tamils, received mixed reception.

The decision is a long delayed attempt to win the hearts and minds of people living in the peninsula.

But the Tamils living outside the country have claimed that it is simply a propaganda ploy of the government.

Tamils still recall the incident of May 31, 1981, which ultimately led to the burning down of the library.

During the election rally for the district development council in Jaffna city, held on behalf of the UNP candidates, unidentified gunmen fired random shots and a Sinhalese policeman was injured.

Afterwards about 70 policemen went on a rampage, burning and torching the house of V.Yogeswaran, a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MP, and several other homes.

The following night, armed policemen did a most cowardly and dastardly act they torched the Jaffna Public Library, a repository of irreplaceable historic treasures and ancient manuscripts.

The library founded in 1934, had grown over the years. It moved into a spacious two story building, constructed on South Indian architectural lines, in 1966 and housed almost 97,000 books and rare manuscripts on the culture and history of the Tamils.

The monstrous act of arson destroyed the identity of the Tamils and was branded as calculated cultural genocide by the then government of J.R.Jayewardene.

The loss is still mourned today by many Tamils.

Earlier, during the colonial era, a similar incident resulted in the loss of chronological and literary manuscripts of immense value and significance to Tamils.

In 1621, Portuguese troops captured the Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna and captain Fillipe de Olivira , the Portuguese commander, ordered the demolition of almost 500 old Hindu temples. He also burnt down the Tamil library, Saraswathy Mahal, in Nallur, the capital city of the kingdom.

The ancient library was the seat of the Fourth Academy of Tamil art, culture and literature.

Tamils having twice lost their historical manuscripts, are deprived of their individual identity and have become a people without any historical roots.

The move to build the Jaffna Public Library is welcome, but the hidden agenda behind the decision is loathsome, according to expatriate Tamils. They feel that peace with honor should have priority.

The Archbishop of Jaffna, Rev Thomas Savundaranayakam, regarded as a strong ally of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, (LTTE), has hailed the Sri Lankan president as being sincere when compared to the late president Ranatunge Premadasa, who according to him, was not honest.

The archbishop, considered the conscience keeper of the Catholic Tamils of Jaffna, welcomed the British-brokered pact between the ruling Peoples Alliance and the opposition UNP.

Savundranayakam said that this agreement could be used by the government and the Tamil militants to work out a lasting peace.

People want lasting peace, but at any cost. They want devolution of powers and not the delegation of authority, he added.

The agreement is seen as an inspiration, where the government consults and keep the opposition informed of important developments in the governments search for a sustainable peace in the protracted ethnic strife.

The bishop appealed for a cease-fire in the northern and eastern provinces and an end to the war between the government and the Tamil militants.

Savundranayakam did so with the view to working out the necessary preliminaries for a political negotiation, through third party mediation, to solve the decade-long ethnic struggle in Sri Lanka.

The clergyman emphasized that the involvement of a third party in the negotiation with the warring partners, the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. That would help guarantee the implementation of any settlement for a sustainable peace.

Recently, a Tiger spokesman said the LTTE was ready to participate in third party mediated peace talks with the government.

In contrast, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar grudgingly rejected the proposal and imposed conditions for any future talks.

As polarization persists in the two warring camps, the government adamantly rejected the cessation of hostilities during the Hindu-Buddhist New Year celebrations.

But in a New Year message , President Kumaratunga called upon all Sri Lankan to work towards peace and prosperity for all communities.

The Sinhala and Tamil new year signifies the desire and capability of all people m to unite in a common endeavor to strife towards a common goal, she said.

Despite the appeal for peace, prosperity and harmony, pitched battles were reported on several fronts in the northern and eastern provinces.

The LTTE continue to prove its military resilience, despite of being dislodged from the Jaffna peninsula.

By shifting from the earlier position of conventional warfare to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, the LTTE has demonstrated that it is not a spent force.

Kumaratunga, who came to power convincingly on a peace platform after mutually reneging the peace negotiations with the Tigers in April 1965, gave in to military pressure and staged a two-pronged strategy of war for peace.

This was an endeavor to weaken the military might of the LTTE, but the strategy back-fired.

Thousands of Tamil civilians became internally displaced and many took to boats and fishing rafts to cross the narrow sea strip, the Palk Strait, that divides Sri Lanka from India, seeking asylum in India.

Thousands more managed to leave for Europe and Canada, also seeking asylum.

Recently, a panel from the Committee for Refugees, set up by the United States to probe the conflict and displacement in Sri Lanka painted a grim scenario that the residents of the Jaffna peninsula live under perpetual fear of being detained by the military.

In addition, the disappearance of several hundred of Tamil who lived under the control of the Sri Lankan armed forces has yet to be accounted for.

The Jaffna peninsula, which was controlled by the militant separatists, the LTTE , for a long time before government troops took over in December 1995, is said to be in practice, if not in name, under martial law and many people live in perpetual fear.

The Committee for Refugees, which probed the ground conditions in the peninsula, added that, on the surface there is a semblance of normalcy in Jaffna city, but one does not need to scratch too far below the surface to see that the situation is far from normal. Many men fear that their wives and daughters might be raped by drunken soldiers.

According to the report, day to day life marked by check points, passes, curfew and restrictions is further marred by large unemployment with most residents surviving on food hand-outs from the government. In a heart rendering revelation, the Committee pointed out that, while more than 30,000 people in Jaffna had applied for permission to leave the war ravaged city.

But the military administration in the peninsula was allowing only an average of 45 people per day to leave.

The report touched on the 15,000 displaced and uprooted people held incommunicado in detention centres in Vavuniya, 190 kilometers south of the Jaffna city.

The report urged Kumaratungas government to either take urgent measures to ensure the rehabilitation of the uprooted civilians and improve life in areas which had suffered under a decade or more of ethnic conflict or allow international community to assist.

It demanded the removal of barriers that have prevented displaced people from receiving food and aid , adding that tens of thousands were suffering from critical shortages.

It also accused the government of detaining several thousand displaced persons in so-called welfare centres in the town of Vavuniya.

The Government should screen those persons and release those who are not considered security risks, the Committee said.

The Committee also urged government authorities to desist from preventing displaced Tamil civilians from seeking refuge in India.

The Committees conclusion was that, most people cannot envision a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict, sounds prophetic in the light of institutionalized violence.

K.T.Rajasingham is an independent business adviser for governments in the region.

The Nation - Thailand - 21/04/97.