COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — NEAR picturesque southern beaches, dismembered and charred corpses are daily reminders of the vicious uprising by Sinhalese extremists and the government's brutal backlash. Along the stark coastal lowlands in the north and east, civilians are caught up in the war between the Indian Army, sent in to enforce a Tamil-Sinhalese peace accord, and a Tamil group that rejects the terms of the accord.
In the lush central highlands, once a tranquil center of Sinhalese culture and the key tea-growing industry, random violence has surged. Even the gracious colonial capital, Colombo, has been seared by indiscriminate killings and disappearances.
``The place is just falling apart,'' says a Western diplomat, pointing out that the economy is near ruin, essential services are not operating and the schools and colleges have not not been in session for over two years. ``You have a young generation that thinks it's perfectly normal to carry a gun.''
Numbed by the spree of savagery, Western and Sri Lankan observers and human rights activists question if the government can stem the civil conflict that in six years has killed more than 15,000 people in this South Asian nation of 16 million.
``The people who get the worst of this are the villagers,'' says a senior Western diplomat. ``It's such a small island. There's no place to run, no place to go and make your family safe.''
No longer is the worst fear a Cyprus-style partition between the majority Sinhalese of the south and the northeastern Tamil minority. Political observers predict chaos that could parallel that of Lebanon.
``Although the phenomenon of violence has been overwhelming our society for many years, many people remained deeply committed to a humanitarian vision of Sri Lanka,'' says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a prominent Tamil and human rights activist.
``Now, the militarization of society and number of groups with arms have multiplied to such an extent that the basic sanctity of human life is threatened ... Fear now operates as the dominant force in this society.''
Less than a decade ago, Sri Lanka was one of the most promising nations in Asia. It boasted one of the highest literacy rates and per capita income levels among developing countries.
Then the ethnic strife which has intermittently haunted the country since independence from Britain in 1947 flared again in 1983, setting off a civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and military and Tamils rebels.
Compounding those tensions were a rigid feudal social structure, political frustrations arising out of the government's long-time refusal to hold free elections, widespread corruption among the urban elite, and disenchantment among educated, but unemployed rural youth.
A 1987 peace agreement between Sri Lanka and India not only failed to stem the violent convulsions. It also re-ignited an insurgency by the People's Liberation Front or JVP, a Sinhalese extremist group that has used anti-Indian sentiment in its effort to topple the government.
Elected last December, President Ranasinghe Premadasa tried to strike a deal with Tamil and Sinhalese extremists. But in June, only six months after lifting a state of emergency, Premadasa reimposed it, giving the police and military broad powers to quash escalating violence and JVP control in the south.
Human rights activists say that several thousand people have been rounded up by the army and police scouring southern villages and towns, and hundreds of innocent people have been killed.
At the same time, the JVP continues its campaign of political assassinations and guerrilla justice against petty criminals which has won it some sympathy in the rural south. In turn that has triggered a backlash by vigilantes supported by government officials or those settling other scores with the JVP.
Even in the once-affluent capital, Colombo, death has become a daily discovery. Recently residents were shocked when a prominent Buddhist monk and a popular announcer on state-run television were shot, allegedly by the JVP, for supporting the government.
Political observers say it's difficult to get reliable figures on those victimized by the government and extremists because human rights monitoring has become haphazard and deeply politicized. In some areas, competing citizens committees with rival political affiliations trade charges.
Human rights activism also has become dangerous. On July 7 Charitha Lankapura, a lawyer who filed several hundred habeas corpus petitions on behalf of detained persons, was gunned down in a Colombo hotel. His friends blame government-supported vigilantes.