COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – When saffron-clad Buddhists monks and Catholic priests and nuns in white are joined by Muslim and Hindu leaders in an interfaith rally for peace, the last thing anyone would expect is that their pacific efforts would end in fisticuffs.
Chanting “no war, no war” the marchers, on Thursday, wended their way to a public park in the capital where their speeches were rudely interrupted by a group of fiery pro-war Buddhist monks. The peace campaigners were told to take their banners and rally to the east of the island where fighting has been raging between Tamil separatist militants and the armed forces, for over a fortnight.
The unseemly scenes that followed, in which pro- and antiwar monks pushed and punched each other were, to many onlookers, of a piece with the mindlessness that has marked more than two decades of ethnic conflict that has pitted the majority Buddhist Sinhala community against the minority Tamils.
After the loss of 65,000 lives during that period, and with no end in sight to the conflict, most ordinary citizens seem to have resigned themselves to daily brutalities and rights violations.
In fact, after a four-year truce, Sri Lanka is once again on the verge of open civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse who was elected to office in November with support from hardline monks and ultra-nationalist, pro-Sinhala groups.
On Thursday, the Army said that it had killed at least 93 Tamil Tigers (as LTTE cadres are known) in fighting in the north. The Tigers have made matching claims.
But, as in the past, it is the civilians who are taking the brunt of the hostilities. Since December, when fighting resumed, of the more than 1,000 deaths reported some 600 were those of civilians, according to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) which oversees the truce, brokered by Norway in February 2002.
The list of deliberate attacks on unarmed civilians in the last eight months is long and frightening. Five Tamil youth were shot execution style in Trincomalee in January while 64 civilians were killed in a claymore mine attack in north-central Kapathigollawa in June. A week before that four members of a family were hacked to death in northwestern Mannar.
Verification of deaths and those responsible has been difficult in the wave of violence raging near the eastern port town of Trincomalee over the past fortnight. But 17 aid workers from the French charity Action Against Hunger were shot in the head in their own compound in Muttur town where the Sri Lankan military and the Tigers fought house-to-house battles three weeks ago. At least three dozen others died while fleeing the fighting.
“The time has come for us to think about how many more lives we are going to lose like this,” Kumar Illangasinghe, a Catholic priest, said at Thursday’s rally.
But the decades of warfare have only served to polarize the two main communities involved. Last week, the hard-line, pro-Sinhala, People’s Liberation Front (PLF) held its own rally calling for tough military action against the Tigers.
“I don’t think any one will advocate violence as the solution to this problem, if you love peace, you would not let militancy rise no one thought that better than Lord Buddha himself,” said Kumburugamuwe Vajira Thero, a Buddhist monk who is also a university academic, commenting on the pro-war rally.
However, enlightened interpretations of the message of the Buddha are becoming rare and isolated and there is in increasing support for the idea that it is pointless negotiating with the Tigers. “The answer to terrorism is terrorism itself. Where were all these peace merchants when our soldiers were killed? They only take to the streets when the terrorists are killed,” Gangodawatte Chanasara Thero, who led the group of monks from National Bikkhu Federation that disrupted Thursday’s rally.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya party supported by the Federation and represented in parliament by monks has, like the PLF, pledged support to the administration of President Rajapakse. Without the backing of at least one of the two parties, especially the PLF, Rajapakse runs the risk of having his government reduced to a minority.
Both the government and the Tigers have blamed the rising civilian casualty rate on each other. “The army simply cannot embrace a child soldier aiming a gun at them. They have to fight back,” Defense Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said following allegations earlier in the week by the Tigers that the Air Force had bombed a orphanage killing 61 adolescent girl students undergoing first aid training. The government alleges that the trainees were Tiger cadres.
But the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) has contradicted the government’s claim.
“UNICEF visited the site of the orphanage and four hospitals. UNICEF understands that the site was a former children’s home which was no longer functioning. Reportedly, school children aged mainly between 16-19 in Mullaithivu district and Kilinochchi district were attending a two-day first aid training course at the site. While visiting the hospitals, UNICEF observed more than one hundred children undergoing treatment,” UNICEF spokeswoman in Colombo Junko Mitani said.
Observers have called for tougher international involvement in Sri Lanka, a call that is likely to result in more criticism from the Sinhala hardliners in the south who have become increasingly suspicious of foreigners and of international NGOs.
Rajpakse won the election on a nationalist, pro-Sinhala mandate line and his campaign was best known for its strong, anti-West, and particularly anti-Norway, stance.
On the other hand, his victory was narrow and his rival Ranil Wickramesinghe, who had promoted a federalist plan with devolution of power to the Tamil minority claimed 48.43 percent of the votes, indicating that a significant section of the Sinhala majority wanted a peaceful, political solution to the conflict.
But, by December, the war drums were beating and the familiar cycle of brutalities by the armed forces in the north and east responded to by the Tigers with their trademark assassinations of top leaders in Colombo started up once again. Army chief Sarath Fonseka was seriously injured in an attempt on his life by a suicide bomber in April and his deputy Parami Kulatunge was assassinated in June.
Within hours of the bombing of the orphanage, the Tigers had threatened retaliatory attacks and this came in the shape of a suicide bombing in Colombo, killing seven people, three of them civilians. The others were commandos escorting the Pakistani high commissioner, Bashir Wali Mohammed, who had apparently become a target because the Tigers believe that Pakistan has been supplying arms to the Rajapakse government.
“The concept of the complete extermination of opponents is now embedded in Sri Lanka as a permissible conduct to end conflicts,” the Hong Kong-based rights watchdog, Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said in a release that urged immediate UN intervention as has happened in Nepal, which was faced with a bloodbath, earlier this year.
Norwegian mediators are still trying to get both sides to respect the ceasefire, but, after the Tigers declared, on the weekend, that it was pointless discussing peace with the Rajapakse government, the future of the ceasefire appeared dim. Also, the Tigers, after being proscribed by the European Union in May, have asked members from the EU countries in the SLMM to leave the island.
Civil rights activists who were at the rally had little faith in their leaders. ”What we see is that our citizens are so politicized that every decision is made on politics. Support for war and peace depends on what political parties say. We are not strong enough to take a stand, and that is what we have to change. We have to make our people realize that, unless they make a stand individually, politicians will decide our destiny,” said artist Jayathileke Bandara. But that was before the rally itself degenerated into a free for all.