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Tamil Tiger Rebels 'Ethnically Cleanse' Parts of Sri Lanka

May 19, 2000|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KALAYANAPURA, Sri Lanka — As Tamil separatists sweep toward victory on the battlefield, they are beginning to cleanse their land of the people who were once their neighbors.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have won a series of victories against Sri Lankan forces in recent weeks, are stepping up attacks against ethnic Sinhalese civilians living in the region that the rebels claim as their homeland.

The Tigers are bombing schools, wrecking Buddhist temples and shooting civilians in a campaign to force thousands of ethnic Sinhalese from their homes. The attacks are directed at Sri Lanka's majority Buddhist Sinhalese living in areas dominated by the mostly Hindu Tamils.

The attacks, overshadowed by the recent military engagements on the northern tip of this island nation off the coast of India, portend a grim round of ethnic expulsions as the Tigers inch closer to their goal of a separate state for the minority Tamils.

"They want us to leave, but we have nowhere to go," said Kadirathage Ran Keranhamy, a Sinhalese rice farmer whose 21-year-old son was kidnapped Saturday by Tiger guerrillas. "We are brothers. Why are they doing this to us?"

Keranhamy lives here in Kalayanapura, one of a cluster of Sinhalese villages in the sprawling tropical flatlands of northeastern Sri Lanka. The villages, populated by more than 10,000 Sinhalese, are an island in a sea of Tamils. Kalayanapura is part of the region earmarked by the Tigers for a future nation.

As guerrillas have rolled over government forces on the Jaffna peninsula, the attacks on these Sinhalese villages about 80 miles to the south have grown in frequency and ferocity. Tiger guerrillas are stepping up their activities as hundreds of Sri Lankan troops are moving out of this region to help their besieged comrades.

"We just don't have enough troops to protect the villages," said Maj. Gen. A.K. Jayawardhana, the provincial governor.

In Kalayanapura, a hamlet of simple brick houses and about 600 people, the Tigers come at night. They set fire to rice crops and sweep homes with searchlights and gunfire. Last month, guerrillas blew up a school in a neighboring village. On occasion, the guerrillas abduct the Sinhalese men and boys who work the rice paddies; more than 30 have disappeared in the area since 1995. None have returned, and few bodies have been found. An additional 15 people have died in shellings and shootings.

More than a dozen villagers have already packed up and left, and others say they are considering leaving. Those who remain are so terrified of attack that they carry their straw mats into the jungle at night to sleep.

"When the sun goes down, our houses are empty," said Indrawathi, a 39-year-old villager who sleeps in the jungle. "We are too afraid."

The Sinhalese villages are the victims of the tangled myths of Sri Lanka's history and the bloody realities of its civil war. In the 17 years since the conflict began, more than 60,000 people have been killed. The Tamils began their struggle after enduring years of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese. The Tamils' fight is being led by the Tigers, a fanatical guerrilla organization that has killed some moderate Tamil rivals. The U.S. government has declared the Tigers a terrorist group.

Though the Tamils make up less than 20% of Sri Lanka's population, the Tigers are claiming as much as a third of the nation's land area--the northern and eastern rim of the island. The imagined Tiger nation includes the entire Eastern province, where the village of Kalayanapura sits. According to estimates, Eastern province is less than half Tamil, but the Tigers want it all.

Some of the Sinhalese who live in Eastern province were settled as part of government-sponsored land giveaways--a major grievance of the Tamils. But many of the province's Sinhalese villages, including Kalayanapura, have been settled for generations.

Some historians say that the Tigers' secretive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is trying to revive the old realms of the 13th century Jaffna kings--and then some. The Tamil nation sketched out in Tiger propaganda overlaps with the Sinhalese kingdoms that came later. Those kingdoms stretched northward all the way to Kalayanapura.

"What the Tigers have done is imagine that the Tamil kingdom is much larger than it ever was," said K.M. DeSilva, former chairman of the history department at the University of Ceylon and author of several books on the conflict. "It's a myth, but whether in Kosovo or Sri Lanka, national myths are extremely powerful."

The Tigers' dreams bear directly on the villagers of Kalayanapura. In the Tigers' imagined nation, the Sinhalese would be a minority. Or, if the villagers heeded the recent shootings and kidnappings, they wouldn't be around at all.

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