India Riled by Tamils Fleeing Sri Lanka

War pushes refugees off island nation to 'brothers and sisters' in India

The arrival in India of hundreds of Tamil refugees fleeing by boats from neighboring Sri Lanka is provoking concern that India might once again become embroiled in the island nation's bitter ethnic war.

Refugees crammed into fishing boats have been making the short but hazardous sea crossing to India's shore for several weeks now. They avoid Sri Lankan gunboats and Indian naval vessels to land on the long stretches of sandy coastline around the sacred Hindu temple town of Rameswaram, on India's southernmost tip.

"Our houses have been burned, our shops destroyed," says Joseph Anthony, one of the more than 1,200 refugees who has arrived in India over the past several weeks.

Most of the mainly Hindu Tamil refugees say they are escaping the ethnic Sinhalese Sri Lankan armed forces.

"The Army comes in and accuses our families of being Tamil Tiger terrorists. They beat us and arrest our sons. They will not listen to us when we tell them we are innocent. A strict curfew also means we cannot work or live normal lives, so we have to come to India," Mr. Anthony says.

Across the Palk Straits, which separate war-ravaged Sri Lanka from mainland India, thousands more Sri Lankan Tamils are waiting to come over.

Aid workers say the Tamil Tiger rebel group, which has been waging a violent campaign for an independent and ethnically pure Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka for the past 13 years, may be actively encouraging Tamil civilians to leave for India. The Tigers may hope that the presence of those refugees in India will be a way to attract sympathy for the rebels' separatist cause, workers say.

And to some extent, say observers, the rebels may be achieving their aim: Intense media coverage of the influx of Sri Lankan refugees is fueling concern among Indian Tamils about the plight of their Sri Lankan brethren.

"These people are our brothers and sisters," says V. Gopalswami, the leader of the recently formed MDMK party in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The party is hoping to capitalize on public sentiment by campaigning in forthcoming local elections on a platform of support for Sri Lankan Tamils.

"We cannot continue to watch them suffer at the hands of the Sri Lanka government. We should give them every assistance. After all, blood is thicker than water," says Mr. Gopalswami.

He voices increasingly widespread sentiments once held by many of India's 55 million Tamils, who in the 1980s were passionately sympathetic to the Tamil Tiger cause of separatism in Sri Lanka. Then, the southern state of Tamil Nadu provided a base for the dissidents to wage war against the Sri Lankan Army.

While successive Indian governments provided arms and military training to the Sri Lankan rebels, Tamil Nadu politicians rode a wave of popular Tamil nationalism, fiercely critical of the mainly Buddhist Sri Lankan state.

The signing of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord at the height of the civil war cleared the way for Indian troops to operate as peacekeepers in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Although Indian troops were initially welcomed by the Tamil Tiger rebels, hostilities soon broke out. And despite nearly three years of fighting between the two forces, support for the rebels among the Tamils back in India remained strong; so much so that when India finally withdrew its peacekeepers in 1990, after losing more than 1,200 men, Tamil Nadu's then-Chief Minister, M. Karunaniddhi, boycotted the troops' welcome home ceremony.

These days, Indians who sympathize with Sri Lankan Tamils are invariably dismissed as politically marginal.

Since the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, Sri Lankan Tamils and their problems have been effectively shunned by a once supportive India. But as memories of the killing fade into the past, observers say the sympathies of many Indian Tamils are being rekindled.

"[Tamil Nadu's former chief minister] Karunaniddhi was ousted after Rajiv's killing. India's Tamils despised him for supporting the rebels," says Cho Ramaswami, a veteran Madras-based journalist.

"For the past five years, the issue of Tamil separatism has been sidelined, no politician could talk about Sri Lankan Tamils and have a hope of being supported. But now people are forgetting about Rajiv and are talking more about Sri Lankan Tamils. The refugees coming from Sri Lanka are rekindling some sympathy and with Karunaniddhi coming back to power earlier this year, there has been lots of speculation that history might be repeating itself."

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