Rising racism in Sri Lanka's ethnic strife weakens fabric of nation

The ethnic strife between Sri Lanka's Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority is taking a serious physical and psychological toll on the nation. Analysts and academics say the protracted ethnic conflict is bringing to the surface fundamental problems, such as deterioration of Sri Lanka's traditionally democratic structure, massive dislocation of both Sinhalese and Tamil communities, and the rise of racism alongside a gradual disintegration of moral values.

``What you're seeing here is the complete breakdown of the country's moral infrastructure,'' a senior government official says.

Racism has emerged in various levels of society, even though day-to-day interaction between ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese does not appear to be affected, some sociologists say. In addition, this racism has also become a convenient political tool, analysts say.

Underlying the ethnic crisis, however, is a current of general dissatisfaction with the government of President Junius Richard Jayewardene.

Geographically, the tiny island is being torn apart into Tamil areas in the north and east and Sinhalese areas in the south. The majority of the country's 15 million people are Buddhist Sinhalese, and about 18 percent are Hindu Tamils. The struggle by Tamil separatists for an independent homeland, or Eelam, has been going on since 1974, but the conflict has become more widespread in the past five years.

Many Sri Lankans lay the ultimate blame on the government for allowing the present political crisis to get out of hand because of partisan politics. The country's democratic traditions are crumbling, despite government claims to the contrary, critics say.

``The erosion of all fundamental rights over the last decade,'' Sinhalese lawyer Desmond Fernando says, is responsible for heightened political awareness.

``People are angry because the problem has escalated. The danger is that there will be no moderate voice, just criminal elements,'' a Sinhalese businessman says.

Academics trace this ethnic strife back to ancient times when Sinhala Buddhists, who claim descent from the Aryan race, lived in perpetual fear of invasion from Dravidian Tamil forces in the north. Tamils claim that the political conflict emerged because of the gradual erosion of Tamil rights over the last 37 years since the country gained independence from British rule in 1948.

Analysts agree that each attempt to move toward equality was shot down by political pressure from elements in government and powerful Buddhist clergy. Increasingly disenfranchised from mainstream politics, Tamil organizations began advocating a separate homeland.

Analysts say the summer of 1983 proved a turning point for the escalation of violence. At the time, massive communal riots broke out, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths and millions of dollars in property losses.

Since then, the country has been gripped in a war of attrition. The armed strength of Tamil militant groups has grown from several hundred in the early 1980s to more than 5,000.

Although precise figures are unavailable, reports say there are now an estimated 100,000 refugees in the northeast. In addition, thousands of Tamils have left the country -- many to join ethnic kin in Tamil Nadu State in southern India.

The Indian government has been trying to mediate an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil guerrilla leaders. Last week Indian diplomats said the several Tamil groups are expected to reach a joint position on talks with the Sri Lankan government. The Tamils have rejected a Sri Lankan proposal for local self-rule, saying it would give them only limited autonomy.

And despite the extension last month of a government-guerrilla cease-fire, there have been continued reports of violence. According to official figures, at least 70 people have been killed in the last week, and more than 100 people have died in guerrilla attacks and security force raids this month.

Both Sinhalese and Tamils say there has been a hardening of feelings on both sides. ``[It shows that] we have become terribly polarized, and brutalized, when one kills a person just because he or she is Sinhalese or Tamil,'' says Neelan Tiruchelvam, a Tamil lawyer.

As one Western diplomat puts it, ``Sri Lanka has reached a crucial point in its history when it must realize that this is absolutely the last chance for a real political solution.''

However, Sri Lankans say that such an agreement will not solve the country's other problems. ``A political solution is only just a beginning,'' says one.

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