Sri Lankan Brutality

ETHNIC brutality is cropping up in various corners of the globe - Liberia, South African townships, Kashmir, Burma, and now, again, in tiny Sri Lanka off the tip of India. In June the 14-month cease- fire in Sri Lanka between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the majority Sinhalese government ended. The fighting since has bloodied beyond recognition one of the world's most beautiful garden spots. Civil society in Sri Lanka seems to be cracking like an egg shell. And it's not clear that it can be put back together.

Since June, some 3,400 soldiers have been killed in Sri Lanka. In the past week, more than 400 civilians in scattered villages and mosques have been hacked to death with knives and axes in a mindless cycle of retribution between the largely Hindu Tamils and their Muslim neighbors. The Muslims do not support the Tamil fight for an independent state in the northeast.

Increasingly, the cost of Tamil independence - at least as envisioned by the Tigers - outweighs any potential gains. When India pulled out her troops early this spring - troops sent in 1983 to keep Tamil and Sinhalese apart - hopes for peace were high. Both the Tamils and Sinhalese President Premadasa opposed the Indians' presence. When they left, a main grievance of ultranationalist Sinhalese ended.

What hadn't been foreseen was the inability of Tamil rebel leaders to control their ranks. The splintered rebel factions have isolated themselves even from other Tamils. Rebels are attacking civilian buses and churches. Twelve-year-olds are setting road mines. The tiny Muslim minority is being butchered for holding differing opinions.

Can this culture of violence support a serious bid for political independence?

Partitioning Sri Lanka ought to be a last step. Premadasa's government is fairly moderate. His bid to remove millions of Tamil civilians and isolate the rebels in the north isn't ideal. It won't settle deeper problems. At best, it's a temporary answer to violence.

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