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Amid harsh rhetoric, Sri Lankans fearful

After its gains against Tamil rebels in the east, the government is in no mood for talks. Fighting is expected in the north.

August 15, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — A small but encompassing word explains why Nagamuthu Nagalingam fled his home of 80 years, and why he has little intention of going back: "Fear," he says flatly.

Fear of brutal intimidation by Tamil Tiger rebels. Fear that his youngest son may wind up being "disappeared," by people and for reasons unknown. Fear that government troops, having just driven the Tigers out of eastern Sri Lanka, are gearing up for a major assault on the rebels' stronghold in the north, where Nagalingam lived the simple life of a farmer until a few months ago.

"Whether they capture the north or not, we are the ones suffering," Nagalingam said on a muggy afternoon, sitting in the weed-choked courtyard of a dilapidated guesthouse here in the capital. "We don't know what's going to happen."

Few Sri Lankans do -- except, perhaps, for President Mahinda Rajapakse and his circle of close advisors. So far, none of them is saying exactly how the next chapter will unfold in the dirty ethnic civil war that has convulsed this teardrop-shaped island for 24 years.

But based on the last 21 months, during which a cease-fire was blown to bits and 5,000 people have been killed, suing for peace hardly seems to figure on any list of options under consideration by either the Sinhalese-dominated government or the Tamil rebels, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, who seek to carve out an independent homeland in north and east Sri Lanka.

The Rajapakse administration appears particularly loath to negotiate now that it is gripped by euphoria over its recent gains in eastern Sri Lanka, which allowed it to proclaim the area free of enemy fighters after months of battle. The president speaks confidently of having the rebels on the run, and has vowed to restore "freedom and democracy to . . . all of Sri Lanka."

Such hawkish rhetoric is by no means a first in this country. The history of the last quarter-century here is littered with leaders who believed that they would be the ones to rout the fearsome Tigers and unify the nation. None has succeeded.

So Sri Lankans are bracing for a long, lethal summer. Life over the last year and a half has steadily become more miserable, especially for residents of government-controlled Jaffna on the island's northern tip, who are squeezed by food shortages and frightened by artillery fire.

To many in the north, the beating heart of the homeland that the Tamil separatists wish to establish, a battle in their backyard seems a matter of when, not whether.

"I think there will be a northern offensive. The government does not believe that a negotiated settlement with the LTTE is possible," said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. "Also, the government's parliamentary majority depends on nationalist parties who advocate a military solution. But the offensive may not be soon. It may be a gradual one."

The government knows that taking the north is an entirely different proposition from recapturing the east.

Eastern Sri Lanka has traditionally been more diverse, with a population composed of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and of both Tamils and Sinhalese, the island's dominant ethnic group. The Tigers' hold in the region has always been weaker.

In the mostly Tamil north, however, the rebels are so entrenched in the steamy jungles that they run a mini-state. Their discipline, zealotry and ruthlessness are legendary, to the point that many fighters wear cyanide capsules around their necks in case of capture. The group was among the world's first to use suicide bombers, and though it claims to have given up the practice, the rebels' recruitment of children continues.

Storming the Tigers' northern redoubt would be a long, bloody and expensive undertaking.

"In the north, the LTTE would be pushed against the wall," said Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. "They'll have to fight back. They have no place to run."

As commander of the Sri Lankan army, Fonseka has his hands full. He is trying to mop up and maintain a grip on the newly "liberated" east, prepare for another potential phase of conflict and recruit thousands more soldiers. Ideally, he said, he would add 20,000 men and women to his ranks, bringing army forces up to 140,000.

Defense already accounts for nearly 1 out of 5 rupees the Sri Lankan government spends -- a huge chunk of the national budget, especially for a country as poor as this one.

"The government seems to think, 'Forget about the expenditure -- let's let the writ of government authority prevail in the north and east,' " said former air force chief Harry Goonetileke. "But there will have to be more belt-tightening. If you push to the north, that will mean more belt-tightening for the people of Sri Lanka."

At the beginning of the year, residents staggered under inflation of 20%. The rate has since come down, but still hovers in the double digits.

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