Monday, May 15, 2006

Did a Buddha Statue Cause the Ending of Sri Lankan Ceasefire?

On April 25th a suicide bomber blew herself up inside Sri Lanka's military headquarters in an attack on the Army commander's motorcade that killed nine people and injured 27. The bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam disguised herself as a pregnant patient trying to enter an Army hospital in the compound in the capital, Colombo, today, the Army said on its Web site. She struck as the commander, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, left his office for lunch, killing both soldiers and civilians and injuring Fonseka.

Retaliatory strikes by the Sri Lankan forces in the past three weeks have seen the fragile ceasefire and the Norwegian brokered peace agreement go down the tubes. Today's New York Times story about violence in Trincomalee, adds a new religious twist to this otherwise non-religious conflict: of how a Buddha statue may have caused a provocation! The story follows.

Sri Lankan City Mired in Ethnic Violence

Published: May 15, 2006
TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka — The bad blood, you could say, began with the Buddha.

Last May, in the dead of night, someone erected a giant white Buddha statue on a five-foot-high concrete platform behind the town's main market. What followed in this multiethnic, multifaith, perennially self-destructive eastern city on the edge of the sea was a chain of anger and savagery, foreshadowing the return of a grave past.

The ethnic Tamils of Trincomalee, who are mostly Hindu and Christian, saw the clandestine raising of the Buddha statue as an act of provocation by Sinhalese Buddhists. The man who led the protests against the Buddha statue, Vanniasingam Vigneswaran, was shot to death as he went to the bank one morning.

Another morning, the bodies of five Tamil youths were found on the beach. The largely Sinhalese security forces came under steady attack by people suspected of being ethnic Tamil guerrillas.

The tit-for-tat went into overdrive on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, when an explosion at the mouth of the market killed 16 people, prompting a Sinhalese mob to instantly torch Tamil-owned shops and hunt down Tamil civilians.

In the reprisals that followed, Sinhalese villagers were slaughtered, Tamil homes were burned, schools and churches turned into squalid camps of frightened, wounded villagers. At the end of April, a suicide bombing in the capital, Colombo, said to have been carried out by the Tamil rebels, prompted government airstrikes on the rebel-held countryside south of here. More than a dozen died, and hundreds more fled.

After four years of livable peace since the 2002 cease-fire between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Trincomalee has once again sunk into the muck of fear, uncertainty, and distrust that marked the worst years of Sri Lanka's hateful ethnic conflict of the past two decades.

Nearly 200 people died nationwide in April, compared with just 9 two months earlier when the parties decided to have talks in Switzerland to strengthen the cease-fire.

With the cease-fire having all but unraveled, the latest violence raises the specter of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom that plunged the country into all-out war. Bad memories compound the ill will. Nowhere is that more apparent than in this port city on the northeast coast about 160 miles from Colombo. Trincomalee is a demographic microcosm of the country, with Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims living in roughly equal numbers. It is here that the repercussions of the conflict, rooted in the grievances of the ethnic Tamil minority against the Sinhalese who dominate the government, are felt most intensely.

"There is right now a lot of suspicion by the communities of each other," said the Rev. George Dissanayake, a Roman Catholic priest and the secretary of the Inter-Religious Peace Foundation here. "We have gone back 20 years. It is very difficult to repair the damage."

Today, Sinhalese villagers living around Trincomalee say they have been offered shotguns to protect themselves. In their territory, the Tamil Tigers, too, are raising village defense committees.

The city and the surrounding countryside are increasingly divided along ethnic lines. The market has turned into a Sinhalese enclave, and the traders, bereft of Tamil and Muslim customers, while away the day playing cards. Nearby, a Tamil laundry, blessedly spared by the mob, waits for its Sinhalese customers to bring in their wash. Across the street, a Sinhalese grocer waits for Tamil shoppers who no longer come. Offices close by early afternoon. By nightfall, the streets are bare, except the edgy soldiers who man checkpoints at every street corner.

The latest sequence of events prompted R. Rajarammohan, one of the town's most successful businessmen, to do what he had strenuously resisted for years: cloister himself with his fellow Tamils.

Within minutes of the April 12 market blast, a gang of young men came up Central Road with kerosene cans and fishing knives and set upon Mr. Rajarammohan's household products wholesale company. They broke into his office, but seemed not to know who he was, nor his ethnicity. It signaled to him that they were not from the area.

The mob set his shop on fire. In an hour, Mr. Rajarammohan lost $400,000 in goods, computers, four trucks, a new Honda, even the insurance papers. Today, he is setting up shop in a Tamil enclave, far from the buzz of Central Road. "We'd love to go back, we'd love to work with them," he said of his Sinhalese neighbors on Central Road. "But they can't protect us, can they? We've learned the bitter way." It was the fourth time since 1983 that his business had been hit in anti-Tamil riots.

One measure of the distrust between the communities in Trincomalee is the swirl of conspiracy theories about what happened that afternoon. Among Sinhalese, one widespread theory is that the bomb killed mainly Sinhalese, and that the riots erupted spontaneously. Among Tamils, a common theory is that the bomb was the handiwork of security forces or their allies and that the majority of the dead were Tamils in what they call organized reprisal attacks.

According to the main hospital, the blast killed 16 people, representing the town's demographic mix: 8 Tamils, 5 Sinhalese, 2 Muslims and a person who could not be identified. The reprisal attacks five more: 4 Tamils and a Sinhalese, who were burned, stabbed and shot to death.

Whether the riots were spontaneous or planned is impossible to know, although one thing seems certain: the police and the army, in full force around the market, did not manage to stop them. Rohan Abeywardana, the deputy inspector general of police in charge of Trincomalee, said his forces were overpowered.

Eleven days later, terror came to Gomarankadawela, an isolated Sinhalese village on the fringes of the forest. M. B. Kalyanaratti, 45, was bending low in a rice field, when she heard gunfire and looked up. Six gunmen, in uniform, motioned to the women to stay back. Then they shot dead six men in the rice field, including her younger brother, M. B. Chaminda Prasanna Bhandara, 28.

There had been no warning of trouble, the villagers said, nor any acrimony with the Tamils who live nearby. In fact, the farmers of the village relied on Tamil labor for help at cultivation time. Mr. Bhandara's family blamed the Tamil Tigers.

Mr. Bhandara might have made a choice target because he was a member of a village defense force known here as home guards. All through the war, home guards had been recruited from among Sinhalese villages to man checkpoints and help the largely Sinhalese security forces in their military operations.

Mr. Bhandara's family insists he joined the service to survive and not to kill. His wife and son survived on his $100 monthly income. More than half the village fled after his killing.

Three days later, terror circled around to Thanganagar, a largely Tamil hamlet surrounded by Sinhalese ones. Two gunmen, their faces shielded, marched into the home of Joseph Baby, 38, as she ate with her family. They pulled everyone out of the house, and shot to death her husband, her uncle and her brother. A bullet pierced her left thigh. "Your people are hurting our people," she recalls the gunmen saying.

Her family was no stranger to hurt. Her two sisters lost their husbands many years ago, during the height of the war. The men had gone to collect honey in the woods; they never returned. On the morning of his death, Ms. Baby's husband, a day laborer, had unloaded cement bags and brought home $1.30.

Thanganagar, along with several other Tamil villages, has since emptied out.

Not far from the school where Ms. Baby has taken refuge, in a deadly quiet Sinhalese hamlet, came reports of a new perilous turn in the conflict: villagers said the police were offering guns to any Sinhalese who wanted them for protection. Reluctantly, it appears, a few villagers have taken up the offer. "This is purely out of fear," confessed W. K. Dharmapala, a farmer. "We are not really sure how to use it."

Behind the market, the Buddha, encircled by concertina wire, gazes silently on the grim crossroads at Trincomalee's once-busy market. The dozens of soldiers barricaded around the statue light oil lamps before him every day. They are the only ones who can worship at its feet today, along with the crows still free to roam.


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