Sri Lankan ethnic strife troubles Tamils in the US

`IF they arrest a fellow like Ram, how can I go back?'' A Sri Lankan student -- sworn to secrecy and torn by fear -- lets his question sink into silence. No answer is needed. Like thousands of Tamils living or studying abroad, he knows he cannot go back.

Especially not now.

For three years, his island home -- suspended like a teardrop off the southeastern coast of India -- has been ripped apart by ethnic violence between the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. And now, the conflict is lurching toward the abyss of civil war.

Like many others here who still dream of returning to a peaceful homeland, this slender, dark-skinned student has been frustrated and frightened this week by news from halfway around the world:

On Saturday, the Tamil mother of Ram Manikkalingam finally confirmed that her son -- a 1985 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- had been arrested for ``suspicion of being involved in terrorist activities.''

Later that day, an Air Lankan jet exploded on a runway in the capital city of Colombo, killing over 20 passengers.

And on Wednesday, a bomb blasted the city's crowded Central Telegraph Office, killing 11 people and wounding more than 115.

The Sinhalese-controlled government has blamed both terrorist acts on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, one of 20 extremist groups fighting for a separate Tamil state in the island's northern and eastern regions. Even to Tamils here who scoff at such accusations, the latest bombings do bear a disturbing resemblance to the killings that sparked mob riots in July 1983, forcing many Sri Lankans to flee the country.

The violence, which crippled the economy and killed about 2,000 Tamils, stemmed from a complex web of fearful perceptions.

To many Sinhalese -- the mainly Buddhist group that makes up 74 percent of the nation's 15 million people -- the Sri Lankan Tamils are a privileged minority bent on tearing the nation apart with the help of the 50 million Tamils in India.

To the Sri Lankan Tamils -- the mostly Hindu, 13 percent minority (excluding the lower-caste Indian Tamils) -- the Sinhalese are a tyrannical majority intent on wiping out Tamil civilians and culture.

Some Tamils here think the 1983 history will repeat itself: ``It's going to happen all over again. It's going to happen all over,'' says one Tamil upon hearing the latest news. His family, which lives in the Colombo area, could be a tempting target for Sinhalese seeking vengeance, he says.

But what makes the turmoil perhaps even more tangible for Boston's sizable Tamil community is the arrest of Mr. Manikkalingam. The budding physicist -- and son of a former Sri Lankan diplomat -- returned home last summer, even though his mother begged him to remain in the United States. He had been missing from his Tamil residence near Colombo for over 20 days before the government revealed his arrest two weeks ago.

Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a 1979 measure designed to quell what the government calls a Tamil insurgency, the government can detain suspected terrorists for up to 18 months before leveling formal charges. But the government's army and police force -- made up almost solely of Sinhalese -- have abused that power, according to Amnesty International. The human-rights group cites reports that some Tamils have been held without notice, tortured, and sometimes even executed.

``At least now I know that he probably won't get killed,'' says Manikkilingam's younger brother Sudarshan, a student at Hampshire College in central Massachusetts. According to Sudarshan, his brother supports neither the goals nor the guns of the Tamil militants: ``Ram does not advocate separation. He went back because he felt that there was an urgent need to educate the Sinhalese to the racial problems -- that there was a lack of communication between the two groups.''

But from the Sri Lankan government's point of view, Manikkalingam's background makes him a prime terrorist suspect -- whether or not he was linked to a devastating dam break two weeks ago.

The government looks with ``natural suspicion on outsiders returning to Sri Lanka,'' says S. Samarasinghe, associate director for the International Center for Ethnic Studies at the University of Sri Lanka. According to Mr. Samarasinghe, who is now doing research at Harvard's School of Public Health, the highest level of distrust is reserved for Tamil students from Boston, who have earned a high-paying education in a center for Tamil activism in the United States.

Part of that suspicion stems from the government's perception of Tamils abroad as economic opportunists. Human-rights abuses are often cited ``just as an excuse'' for leaving, says John Gooneratne, deputy chief of missions at the Sri Lankan embassy. ``But immigration is more [from] some kind of economic reasons. . . . People leave for better pastures.''

``Even if we have total peace tomorrow, few expatriates will want to come back,'' adds Samarasinghe. For some Tamils -- especially those who settled in Europe, the US, and Canada well before the exodus of 1983 -- that may be true. But the assumption creates an aura of suspicion that haunts well-educated or well-heeled Tamils who do wish to return to their impoverished island.

That's why most Tamils here are extremely cautious: They generally don't associate with separatist groups, even if they think their people have no other choice; they don't defame the Sri Lankan government, even if they believe it condones and concocts violence against Tamils; and they don't criticize the US government, even if they think its assistance for economic development ($46 million in FY86) only allows the remarkable build-up of the Sri Lankan military.

For most Sinhalese students and immigrants in the US, there is ``no danger at all,'' says Jeham Perera, an outspoken Sinhalese student at Harvard Law School. He's written several articles critical of the government, but he's felt no animosity from the Sinhalese.

The only Tamils who feel free to air their views in public are those that have few or no remaining family ties to Sri Lanka. That's the case with T. Sritharan, secretary general of the Eelam Tamil Association of America. Given the option of a system that afforded more regional autonomy, ``we would reject the separate state idea,'' he says, pushing a photo of Ram Manikkilingam across the kitchen table. ``But right now they treat every Tamil as a terrorist.''

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