|Tigers tear each other apart
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|Author:||Peter [ Sun May 07, 2006 11:16 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Tigers tear each other apart|
Tigers tear each other apart
The Tamil rebels' former military leader is driving the Sri Lankan minority into a civil war - with help from Colombo's army
Randeep Ramesh in Batticaloa
Sunday May 7, 2006 / @ The Observer - UK
When fisherman Kandasamy Rajan was jolted from his sleep in the middle of a hot night by the sound of gunfire last month, his family's nightmare had just begun. Lying dead in a street in Batticaloa, a town on Sri Lanka's eastern coast that straddles a blue lagoon, was his 18-year-old son Rajnith. A few hours later the body of Vijneswaran, his teenage nephew, was dumped in an emerald-green paddy field. Both were riddled with bullets.
They were victims of a bloody, sectarian war fought in the streets of this town between government-backed Tamil fighters, led by a breakaway Tiger commander called Karuna, and battle-hardened guerrillas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Both claim to be fighting for a state for the three million Tamils on the Indian Ocean island where the 20 million population is mainly Sinhalese. In Batticaloa the two groups vie for control, using abductions and political assassinations to enforce their rule. Although these rivals were once on the same side, fighting the Sri Lankan army for 20 years in a conflict that has claimed 65,000 lives, they are now sworn enemies. Little quarter is asked for or given.
When pro-Karuna gunmen dragged Rajnith and Vijneswaran out of a neighbour's wake three weeks ago, both were accused of putting up posters supporting the Tigers. Before they could answer, they were shot dead. Pro-Tigers pamphlets were scattered on their bodies.
'These boys were not political. They had hot tempers, but they were innocents,' says Kandasamy, 39, his eyes brimming with tears. He says that the rift between the two Tamil factions means 'we are finding dead bodies on the streets. It is impossible to trust anyone. We just do not know who belongs to whom'.
Batticaloa is being slowly stripped of life by the violence. On the day last week that The Observer arrived in town, 18 pro-Karuna fighters were killed in a gun battle outside the town. This act was followed by the Sri Lankan army spraying Batticaloa with bullets as they pursued Tiger guerrillas. On walls and lampposts large, red-painted letters proclaim that Batticaloa is under the control of the TMVP, initials in Tamil that stand for Karuna's Tamil People's Liberation Party. Under the watchful gaze of machine-gun-carrying Sri Lankan soldiers is the TMVP's huge, newly opened office. A red pennant carrying a yellow tiger flutters above the 20ft walls of the compound.
The TMVP official who answers the door says the party has been told not to talk to the press.
Karuna is the nom de guerre of 42-year-old Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, a widely respected and feared guerrilla fighter. Until two years ago he was the Tigers' military commander.
Hailing from a small village near Batticaloa, Karuna broke away from the Tigers, saying that the eastern Tamils were laying down their lives in disproportionate numbers for the northern leadership. It is an open secret that Karuna, and his crack troops, are now sheltered by his former enemy, the Sri Lankan army.
Although the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers signed a ceasefire in 2002, it has been violated every day in the past few weeks.
Things came to a head last month with a brief return to full-scale conflict after a pregnant Tamil Tiger suicide bomber tried to assassinate the country's army chief. He barely escaped with his life. She died in a bloody haze.
The retribution was swift, with Sri Lankan air force planes, supported by naval artillery, pulverising rebel positions near Trincomalee, sending thousands of local people fleeing into the jungle. Unicef said that children had been killed in the attack.
The death toll continues to rise in this shadow war. More than 150 people have been killed in spiralling violence since April. On Friday the Sri Lankan navy sank a Tiger suicide boat squad. The day before, 10 people, including seven Tigers, were killed in fighting in the northern town of Jaffna.
What is clear is that both sides have failed to abide by promises made in the last round of peace talks in February. The Tigers pledged to desist from violence and in return the government agreed to rein in 'armed groups' operating in its territory - a reference to Karuna's paramilitary outfit. Neither has happened.
Most analysts agree that Karuna is being funded and armed by the Sri Lankan army. The truce began unravelling after the election last November of a hardline Sinhalese President, Mahinda Rajapakse. The Tigers gave the new government a year to settle the conflict.
'The government is unwilling to disarm the Karuna group because it is a strategic asset that can harass and attack the LTTE,' says Saravanamuth Paikiasothy, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. 'Neither side believes hostilities are about to end. The LTTE are choreographing a return to war and the government is sustaining that.'
Separating the Tiger-held territory and land under government control in Batticaloa is a bridge across an estuary. On one side flutter the distinctive yellow and red flags of Tamil Eelam (literally 'homeland'). Here the Tamil Tigers collect taxes and operate courts. They run a de facto government. On the other are the heavily armed soldiers of the army.
In charge of the LTTE's Batticaloa area is Thaya Mohan, the group's political head. A balding, roundish man with a limp, he carries a smile on his lips and a 9mm revolver on his hips. Despite his unassuming appearance he is a veteran of 10 major battles and 'about 60' skirmishes with the Sri Lankan army. He says he has killed 150 'enemies not civilians'.
His next target, he says, is Karuna's fighters. 'The government is not keeping its promises to disarm these paramilitaries. They are killing Tamil people and abducting them,' says Thaya Mohan. 'Our message is that, if you do not disarm these paramilitaries, we will take steps to do so ourselves.'
There is plenty of evidence to suggest the Tamil Tigers retain a formidable military capability. They have a well-earned reputation for fanaticism and ruthlessness. Every activist wears a cyanide pill, for suicide if captured, around his or her neck.
The zeal of the fighters is chilling. Sathurai Pradeepa is a slip of a young woman who ran away to join the Tigers when she was 12. She left her home after seeing her father and uncle beaten by soldiers in the streets. The Tigers sent her to school for three years until she was 15, when she was given a gun.
Sathurai, 20, has killed six people in 'jungle operations'. Under Tigers' rules she cannot marry for another eight years, and she laughs off questions about whether she misses 'shopping and make-up'. 'My parents came last week to convince me to come home. I told them that the LTTE is my family now.'
Sitting under pictures of the Tigers' revered and elusive leader, Prabhakaran, Sathurai, wearing civilian clothes, says she is ready to die. 'I am not scared. I do not think peace is possible now and I am ready to kill and die for the Tamil people.'
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