A terror-ridden tropical paradise

In the early morning quiet of the lush forest, villagers walking along a road near here recently found a body with bullet wounds. Such discoveries are common along this exquisite, shimmering stretch of Sri Lanka's southern coast. Daily deaths and disappearances are constant reminders that the area, at one time a tropical tourist paradise, is now a hotbed of terrorism as the stronghold of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP).

Hesitantly, in whispers and undertones, local residents speak with awe and fear of the JVP's grip on the area.

``The situation gets worse by the day,'' says a local community leader. ``No one is really sure who is JVP. Is he the man in the paddy field? Is he the student? Silence is the only way to survive.''

The south's longstanding antigovernment strain is rooted in a left-wing political tradition, economic neglect by Colombo, and resentment toward the ruling landed gentry. The JVP, led by underground communist activist Rohana Wijeweera, has fired the imagination of local Sinhalese youths who are educated but unemployed. The most powerful chord it has struck is its opposition to the 1987 peace accord, and its call for the withdrawal of Indian troops. Fear of India is etched on the minds of Sinhalese in the south where, throughout history, Sri Lankan kings have retreated from Hindu invasions from the north.

``I left the JVP after 1971 because I disagreed with their policies,'' says a young lawyer, referring to an aborted JVP-led insurrection. ``But now on this India issue, I am backing them again.''

But sympathy for the JVP is matched by fear, police officials and some local residents say. The JVP has penetrated every aspect of life here: the police, military, banks, post office, transport, universities, and schools. The situation is similar to that of the north five years ago, when Tamil militants took control of Jaffna in their civil war against Colombo.

Businessmen get extortion notes containing confidential information about bank accounts and business deals. Shopkeepers rapidly close shop when children circulate JVP notices ordering a shutdown. The JVP requires each house is expected to send two participants to antigovernment protests.

The police and military have reportedly arrested scores of suspected JVP supporters. Officials deny widespread arrests and complain they are unable to clamp down because Colombo politicians are trying to negotiate with the JVP. However, local residents say police and Army actions are further hardening opposition to the government. ``People may be frightened of the JVP, but they are more frightened of the government forces.''

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