Uncertain calm hangs over Sri Lanka in wake of Buddhist-Hindu violence
Colombo, Sri Lanka
After 10 days of the worst violence it has ever seen, Sri Lanka today is quiet. Indeed, it is too calm. People appear to be waiting - waiting for a retaliatory strike against the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population by the ''Tamil Tigers.'' It was that small, disciplined cadre of terrorists whose recent attack - in the name of an independent state for the Tamil Hindu minority - provoked the Sinhalese onslaught against the Tamils, killing over 300.
Yet, one of the many paradoxes hanging over this island - until now one of the few democracies flourishing in the third world - is that the presence of Tamil refugees may forestall an immediate retaliatory strike.
Officially, 64,000 Tamil refugees remain in makeshift camps around the capital of Colombo. They huddle together, bound by being Tamilsand by the pervasive fear that a Tiger strike could provoke another bloodbath by revengeful Sinhalese. However, in the view of both diplomats and military officials, the Tigers are not likely to strike until the camps are cleared.
Yet they have already achieved a major objective, nearly dividing this small nation into two irreconcilable camps.
The mayhem could do immeasurable harm to the free-market policies of Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene, who since his 1977 election has been reversing many socialist policies followed here for three decades. Not only may foreign investors now be frightened away, but the island's once-prosperous Tamils may no longer be counted as a mainstay of Sri Lanka's economy. According to Finance Minister Ronnie J.G. De Mel, the 10 days of rioting have pushed back Sri Lanka's economy by at least three years.
Many leading Sri Lankans fear that their tiny country - with a population of 15 million and only 25,300 square miles - is dangerously close to the threshold of an all-out racial war.
On the surface this island, once called Ceylon, is now paradise lost. Everywhere, there is evidence of violent upheaval. Arson, death and looting have all left their brutal scars.
On once-gracious Galle Road, Colombo's main thoroughfare, the remains of burnt-out cars and buses stand abandoned beneath the stately palms. The Pettah market, center of the capital city's food trade, is now a charred ruin, nearly all of its shops destroyed. Yet, within its smoking embers stand the odd Sinhalese shop, untouched, though now shuttered. The plan appears carefully laid.
It is incongruous to a visitor that all of this happened in only 10 days. Some areas resemble Beirut during its civil war in the mid-1970s. Colombo. Kandy. Trincomalee. Nuwara Eliya, in the heart of the central plantation area. Chilaw. Kalutara. And Matale. With the precision of a military bombing mission, Tamil shops, homes and businesses, all have been destroyed.
According to official figures, at least 300 died in the killing. Foreign diplomats say the figure should be doubled - and that that figure would still be conservative. An estimated 100,000 were left homeless. A large-scale movement of populations has already begun. The 4,000 Sinhalese Buddhists of the northern peninsula - heartland of the Hindu Tamils - have fled the area. At least 7,000 Tamils, from among the refugees, have now arrived in Jaffna, at Sri Lanka's northern tip.
Government miscalculation and inaction have contributed to the violence. So has a breakdown in discipline among the almost exclusively Sinhalese Army and police. (There is only one Tamil policeman in the country for every 100 Sinhalese.) And, in the view of Western officials, blame must also be shared by the ruling United National Party (UNP) of President Jayewardene.
For, although the President has been more conciliatory to the 20 percent Tamil minority than any previous government had been -proposing legislation to make Tamil an official language, giving Tamils equal opportunities in universities and jobs, attempting to give them a small measure of autonomy through elected district development councils - his right-wing political party has been one of the more chauvinistic Sinhalese voices in Sri Lanka's public life.
''He's under a lot of pressure,'' said one Western ambassador of the President whom Sri Lankans affectionately call ''J.R.''
''His own national popularity by no means extends to his party. There's a great deal of infighting going on. There are extreme camps who are saying he's been too pro-Tamil. He faces the same criticsm within the armed forces, and within his own Sinhalese constituency. . . . Thus, we saw a government that for nearly a week was impotent, did little, did not react. Now, by the simple laws of nature, it's bound to overreact.''
The overreaction took a sweeping form.
Three Marxist political parties were summarily banned. And the largest of the Tamil parties, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which is also the leader of the parliamentary opposition, has been proscribed forever by a new constitutional amendment, which prohibits any party advocating a separate Tamil state.
Strict censorship has been implemented. Politicians are being summarily arrested. Many have gone underground. And, with the former prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, already deprived of her political rights, the Buddhist-scholar-turned-president has, for all intents and purposes, eliminated all of his political opposition, including the most moderate voice.
For, despite its revolutionary-sounding name, the TULF is a moderate and serious political party, with 17 members of Parliament. Its leader, Appapilai Amritalingam, a longtime friend of President Jayewardene - the two having shared opposition together during Mrs. Bandaranaike's days - was a key buffer and negotiator between the government and the Tigers in the north. By banning the party, forcing Mr. Amritalingam and the TULF leadership to Jaffna, where they've gone underground, a dangerous void hangs over the Tamils' future. Political bridges have been burned.
Ironically TULF, before the violence, was moving away from separatism and had realized, according to members, that it was better served by merely seeking local autonomy.
''Now,'' said a Sinhalese judge who sympathizes with the Tamils, ''the TULF simply cannot compromise. They had realized the improbability of having a separate state. They knew it could only happen if there was another Bangladesh [ when India aided then East Pakistan in its 1971 independence war].''
''But,'' he continued, ''it is now as though we have entered our own independence war. Attitudes have hardened. Battle lines are drawn.''
Bewildering to the judge, and even to some of Mr. Jayewardene's aides, is that the President has not made a conciliatory, public statement to the Tamils; has offered no compensation; and done nothing to appease. Rightly or wrongly, this is being interpreted as a colossal show of weakness, indifference or isolation, by both Tamils and educated Sinhalese.
Rather, he has permitted his Cabinet members to flail on the ''involvement of foreign powers,'' a well-coordinated ''foreign plot.'' When such statements were received with annoyance, and some derision by Colombo's elite, the President himself spoke only of a Sri Lankan ''leftist plot.''
But, cautioned one skeptical Western official, the quintessential question is: what hat were the leftists wearing - that of a Marxist or that of a Sinhalese?
So obsessed was the government by ''foreign interference'' during the early days of the trouble that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent her foreign minister to Colombo to assure nervous officials that she would not intervene.
Half of the 4,100 Tamil shops in this once-gracious capital have been burnt to the ground. Seventeen major Tamil-owned textile factories have been gutted in Colombo alone. A estimated 150,000 or more people are now out of work.
The export-oriented tea industry of in the lush hills has, according to the finance minister, nearly disappeared.
For it was Sri Lanka's Tamils who were the entrepreneurial class. In the greater Colombo area, though they represent only 9 percent of the population, one-third of the capital's businesses and investments were in Tamil hands.