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Sri Lanka's elite are in the dark about gravity of war

A recent gag order on the media's military coverage continues, but was lifted for foreign journalists on June 5.

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When Sri Lankan forces repelled a raging eight-week Tamil Tiger offensive this month, the government of this deceptively tranquil island breathed a huge sigh of relief. Army sources reported many acts of bravery by Sri Lankan troops, who rallied after heavy losses.

Yet due to a news blackout, the heroism of the soldiers got scant coverage in the Sri Lankan press.

Press censorship here reached full force this spring when a stronghold called Elephant Pass was taken for the first time by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The loss signaled a critical moment in a 17-year ethnic war - since the Tamil Tigers appeared ready to take the Tamil-majority city of Jaffna, giving them a capital for the separate state they desire in the north.

Yet with no journalists allowed in the war zone, and with an ongoing official 20- person censoring team - readers abroad knew more about the war than ordinary Sri Lankans.

Press censorship in wartime is nothing new. But the official strictures are now so pervasive in Sri Lanka, experts say, that they symbolize a deeper condition in which the jungle war - whose outcome still hangs in the balance - has become an abstraction in the nation's own skyscraper-studded capital. Most of the majority ethnic Sinhalese in Colombo, in an informal poll, have never traveled to the 90 percent ethnic Tamil north country.

To have reported on the heroism of the soldiers, for example, would also raise questions about the gravity of the war situation - and be grist for criticism of the government.

Indeed, numerous critics and diplomats say the distance between elites in Colombo, and the actual state of hostilities in the North, would require a novel like "Alice in Wonderland" to describe.

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