In Formerly Trouble-Free Town, Insurgency, Shooting, and Roundups
KANDY, SRI LANKA — THE classrooms at St. Sylvester's College were filled to overflowing. Young men, among hundreds detained in mass security roundups and held in the school requisitioned by the police, crowded third-floor windows.
Some anxiously searched the gathering of parents and family members waiting in the street below. Others shouted out accounts of their arrests or, seeking food from the crowd, lowered plastic bags on ropes.
``I came to town to buy a shirt and the police took me for having no identity card,'' Upal Sirimanne shouted down. ``They got my brother-in-law too.''
``The other side took his card,'' his father, A.G. Sirimanne, explained, referring to the Sinhalese extremist group, the People's Liberation Front (JVP). ``All I can do is wait here and send up food.''
For years, Kandy, the spiritual center of this largely Buddhist Sinhalese nation and the gateway to the central hills, seemed immune to the ethnic violence that convulses Sri Lanka.
To the north, first the Sri Lankan government, then the Indian Army have battled Tamil rebels. To the south, Sri Lankan security forces have tried to quell Marxist Sinhalese extremists.
But six months ago, the JVP brought its insurgency to the luxuriant green hill country. The death and violence that stalked other parts of the island came to Kandy, shocking its staid landed gentry, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics and society for generations.
``The time of terror has come,'' says W.I. Siriweera, a history professor and the student counselor at Peradeniya University, located near here. ``It's no longer just around Kandy. It is in Kandy.''
The signs of this city's transformation are everywhere. Kandy has frequently been shut down by JVP-sponsored strikes. In the last six months, hundreds of people have been taken into police custody, while scores have disappeared, says Parakrama Ranasinghe, a lawyer.
For the first time since World War II, police have banned a famous Buddhist festival, featuring thousands of dancers and a procession of elephants.
During the last week in July, Kandy was a center for anti-Indian protests instigated by the Sinhalese militants. The JVP, which has been boasting that Kandy will soon become its new capital, launched an attack on an area police station and forced innocent villagers at gunpoint to join demonstrations. Dozens of people were killed, observers say, in the attack and police firing.
``The shooting at crowds and other tactics shows that the government is panicking,'' one Kandy political observer contends.
The JVP, as well as Tamil extremist groups, are actively recruiting in the important tea-growing areas south of here.
Two months ago, to stem the deteriorating situation, the government sent one of its toughest and most controversial police officials in to drive out the JVP.
This official, Premadasa Udugampola, is notorious for his ruthless pursuit and elimination of the extremists. Last year, his elderly mother and four other family members were gunned down in a JVP attack, forcing him to send the rest of his family to the United States.
Mr. Udugampola, whom Kandy residents say has rounded up hundreds of innocent people, admits that this heavy-handed tactic has brought ``certain inconvenience to those who are involved.''
In an interview, he admitted the highly secretive JVP has been difficult to penetrate but predicted he would have the situation under ``fair control'' in three months.
``I may drop myself a little hard on the subversives,'' the burly police official said. ``But if I don't drop myself hard, I am not doing right by the state and the people.''