WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

 

On island of death, war is a way of life

 

By CHRISTOPHER KREMMER
COLOMBO
Saturday 7 October 2000

Sri Lanka's general election next Tuesday might change the government, but it
will not halt the long-running war against Tamil separatists.

After 18 years the tragic conflict, which has claimed some 60,000 lives, has
become a way of life in this tropical Buddhist-majority island nation - and
more and more people have a vested interest in ensuring that it continues.

Despite the periodic renewal of a national state of emergency since 1983, and
annual defence outlays of more than $A2 billion, successive governments have
pulled their punches in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers.

The Sinhalese-speaking Buddhists, who outnumber the Tamils five to one, could
long ago have introduced conscription to overwhelm the Tigers by sheer weight
of numbers. They have chosen not to. "The Colombo-based middle class would not
like to send their children to war," says Sugeeswara Senadhira, associate
director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

While fashionably dressed teens learn to drive their new Alfa Romeos in
Colombo, the burden of war sacrifice falls on the poor, uneducated villagers of
southern Sri Lanka, who have provided most of the estimated 18,000 troops
killed so far.

But far from becoming war weary, the military machine has bred a macabre war
dependency, a phenomenon revealed by Sri Lankan film maker Prasanna Withanage
while shooting a feature film near the ancient city of Anuradhapura.

"In many villages you see new, half-finished houses, built with the lump sum
compensation received by the families of killed soldiers. The families feel
guilty, but in a way they have become dependent on the conflict," Mr Withanage
says.

Sri Lankan army officers and many in the lower ranks who are killed in action
get posthumous promotions. Their salaries, including mortality increment, are
paid to their families until the notional retirement age of 50.

Even if the government elected next week ends the war, Colombo will still be
paying the salaries of dead soldiers in 2030.

Censorship also contributes to the muting of dissent over the cost of the war
and the army's all-too frequent setbacks, such as the loss in March of
strategic Elephant Pass, which connects the Tamil-dominated Jaffna Peninsula to
the rest of the island.

Mr Withanage has been denied permission to screen his film. Its audiences are
overseas - as are the arms merchants who fuel the war.

Ukraine, China, Pakistan, and Israel sell weapons to both sides. While economic
growth has plunged to half its 1990s average of 7 per cent, fortunes continue
to be built on the war. Although it is widely believed that illegal commissions
are paid on all major arms deals, and that bribery allows military supplies
destined for the Tigers to pass through Colombo's port, not one senior military
officer has been successfully prosecuted for corruption.

Funding to the Tigers comes partly from the movement's worldwide chain of
businesses, including shipping lines, travel agencies, shops and money
changers, augmented by clandestine weapons and drugs smuggling. But, according
to Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a research associate at the University of St Andrews, in
Scotland, at least half the Tigers' funding comes from the 7000,000 Tamil-
speaking Sri Lankans who now live abroad.

Pundits say expatriates give out of a sense of guilt over their affluence and
security abroad, a tendency to romanticise a distant conflict, and fear.

 


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka