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Sri Lanka: No Peace Despite Treaty : War With Tamils Ends but Buddhist Majority Is Bitter

September 10, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The bloody war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces on Sri Lanka has stopped, but that has not brought peace to this troubled island nation.

The agreement signed by the government and Indian leaders on July 29 to end the five-year-old conflict has ignited bitter resentment among the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population that has already led to destructive rioting and political assassinations.

As a result, the arena of conflict has shifted from the Tamil areas in the north of the island to the previously peaceful Sinhalese south.

Unless Sri Lanka's aging leader, President Junius R. Jayewardene, 81, can rally the Sinhalese around the controversial peace agreement, which brought 7,000 Indian troops to the island, he faces political upheaval and the prospect of a permanent Indian annexation of Sri Lankan territory.

For the Sri Lankan Tamils, who account for about 18% of the population, Jayewardene's dilemma may be good news either way.

India Annexation a Prospect

"I don't think the Sinhalese are aware of . . . the consequences of the accord," one Tamil political leader said. "The Tamils have crossed the threshold. There is no turning back. If the accord does not work, the next probable step is Indian annexation."

For many Sinhalese, however--particularly among the 20,000 Buddhist monks, called bhikkus here--the agreement is an unacceptable betrayal by the Jayewardene government.

The saffron-robed bhikkus see themselves as the protectors of the Sinhalese identity.

Their lives are simple. Once they have taken the vow of poverty they are permitted to possess only a robe, slippers, needle and thread, an umbrella, a begging bowl and a razor for shaving their faces and heads.

But their political impact on Sri Lanka is enormous. Each makes a pledge to defend the "Sinhalese nation, the Sinhalese race and Buddhism."

The Buddhists, particularly those from the chauvinistic Defenders of the Motherland organization, were at the forefront of riots that left more than 60 people dead here in the days before and after the signing of the agreement.

"The people asked us to take leadership," said I. Dhammalankara Thero, 52, a monk and Buddhist school principal and the organizer of the Defenders of the Motherland.

"We are in firm belief that this agreement is the foundation stone of a separate Tamil state in our nation."

For almost five years, Tamil separatists, headed by the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have battled the Sri Lankan military in the north for just such a state--a Tamil homeland they call Eelam. Five thousand people have been killed, including hundreds in civilian massacres by both sides.

In June, the vastly improved Sri Lankan government forces demonstrated their military superiority in a successful offensive that captured Tamil Tiger strongholds in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Faced with a possible Tiger defeat in Jaffna, the Indian government sensed the potential for political backlash in its own Tamil Nadu state--home for 55 million Indian Tamils who share many linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the Sri Lankan Tamil population. It quickly stepped in, first by airlifting essential supplies to the besieged Tamil community and then by forcing Jayewardene's hand on the peace agreement, which creates a majority Tamil province in the north and east of the island.

Recognizes India's Power

"I am a practical man," Jayewardene said in a recent interview. "It's a fact that India is the great power of this region, and the world's great powers have accepted that."

Under the terms of the agreement signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene, a peacekeeping force of 7,000 Indian soldiers now patrols Tamil areas in the north and northeast.

This has stopped the fighting cold. Trains and buses now ply roads to the previously blockaded Tamil stronghold in the Jaffna Peninsula. Jaffna red onions can once again be found in the markets of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

For the time being, at least, one of the world's saddest and dirtiest little wars, a "vicious circle of retaliation and counter-retaliation," as Syracuse University political scientist Robert N. Kearney termed it, has ceased.

However, the picture has changed in the Sinhalese south. A recent grenade and gun attack on the Sri Lankan Parliament here emphasized the volatility of feelings against the India-engineered peace pact that brought foreign troops to the island.

Attack Killed Official

In the Aug. 18 attack, one member of Parliament was killed and 15 were injured. Although it was the most spectacular, the Parliament attack was not an isolated incident.

One other legislator has been killed, and many members of Jayewardene's United National Party have been threatened in the wake of the agreement.

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