War in Sri Lanka Feeds on Itself

Conflict-weary people watch as military seems to flourish on an ethnic war now in its 15th year.

At his heavily bunkered headquarters in Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle revels in treating correspondents to an eggs-and-toast breakfast briefing on how he is winning the war for the hearts and minds of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.

Complete with computer-generated graphics, detailed maps, and impressive statistics, the briefing is more public relations than strategic analysis.

"The disappearances, rapes, and other excesses have to stop," says the mustached and portly leader. "But getting the confidence of the people is difficult," he admits.

General Balagalle says the soldiers patrolling the marketplace and manning checkpoints at almost every intersection are there to reassure the Tamils that peace and security have returned.

But people are angry and frustrated by the constant searches, the lack of electricity, and the shortage of telephone lines. The only way out of the city is by a motley fleet of chartered Ukrainian aircraft booked months in advance.

"We are in a prison. We can't go anywhere, we can't do anything," says a street vendor who asks not to be named.

Growing military forces

With no end to the 15-year-old separatist war in sight, an increasing number of Sri Lankans believe that the government and the armed forces are perpetuating the conflict for their own ends.

Since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other separatists took up arms to demand a Tamil Eelam, or homeland, in the early 1980s, more than 50,000 people have died in this brutal and intractable ethnic conflict.

Last week hopes of a resolution took a step backward when President Chandrika Kumaratunga extended a state of emergency already in force in Jaffna to cover the whole country, citing the threats posed by the ongoing insurgency.

The opposition blasted the move as an excuse by the government to postpone provincial elections that they claim would go against the ruling People's Alliance.

Some loyal to rebels

The loyalties of many people in this battle-scarred city are still with the LTTE. For nearly five years, until they were driven out in December 1995, the Tigers ran a de facto state in Jaffna - collecting taxes, dispensing justice, and recruiting fighters for their cause. "LTTE government good. Strict. Understand the Tamil people. No curfew. No problem with food," whispers Kanageratna, a shopkeeper at Jaffna's central market, making sure no soldiers are within earshot.

Whether this former British colony, the former Ceylon, can ever restore the 'emerald isle' image promoted in glossy tourist brochures will depend largely on Balagalle's success in weaning Jaffna's Tamils away from the Tigers, who have retreated to the jungles in the south.

The 45,000 troops under Balagalle's control are drawn entirely from the Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and are seen as an occupation force by the peninsula's Tamils. "The majority of our soldiers cannot speak Tamil and there is a vast communication gap," Balagalle says.

From a largely ceremonial force of just 12,000 in 1983, the Sri Lankan military has grown 10-fold and now numbers 120,000 soldiers and 6,000 officers. Defense spending consumes a massive 30 to 40 percent of the annual budget.

In a country where unemployment is endemic, thousands of rural youths are absorbed into the Army every year. And the need to keep the forces equipped with increasingly sophisticated weaponry has increased the opportunity for corruption.

"The youth are not joining the army for patriotic or nationalist reasons. They are joining because they need a job. If there was no war, where would they go?" asks Marwaan Macan-Markar, features editor at the Sunday Leader newspaper in the capital, Colombo. "And yes, you have people who have built empires as a result of the war, particularly those in the upper cadre."

Uncovering evidence of corruption within the military can be risky for journalists who are already subjected to strict censorship when reporting on the war. When Iqbal Attas, an investigative reporter for Colombo's Sunday Times, began closing in on evidence of massive kickbacks in a combat-aircraft deal, armed men broke into his house, pointed a gun at his head while his terrified wife and daughter looked on, and then fled. Mr. Attas later identified one of the assailants as the personal bodyguard of a former Air Force commander implicated in the deal.

"The war has become a very big industry," says Attas. "Look at the sophistication of the Army and the Air Force ... and yet they claim that the LTTE numbers only a couple of thousand soldiers."

As the military tries to sidestep damaging allegations of corruption, a new controversy has erupted that could jeopardize whatever progress Balagalle has made in Jaffna. In June, a Sinhalese soldier being sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for raping and murdering a school girl at an Army checkpoint made the startling revelation that a mass grave containing 400 bodies of Tamil civilians was located on the outskirts of the city.

Distrust of the government

Balagalle has promised a thorough investigation. But Tamil groups accuse the government of stalling for time so that the Army can tamper with the evidence before a fact-finding mission reaches the site. "Delays of this nature are making the people suspicious," says S. Paramantan, a member of the People's Council for Peace and Goodwill. "It cannot be left up to the Army alone. One person cannot be the prosecutor and the defense."

With a devolution package giving more autonomy to Tamil-dominated areas stalled in Parliament and the Tigers unwilling to come to the negotiating table, a military solution is the only option, says Balagalle.

"Peace will only come through military means. I am saying that because we [the Army] know the LTTE better than anyone else."

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