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Sri Lanka's War on Terrorism. (The Last Word).

A few months ago I returned to the United States after nine months of research in Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island nation off India's southeast coast plagued with terrorism, poverty, and civil war. Sri Lanka has fought three civil wars in the last 30 years, against Communist insurgents and between rival ethnic groups. The current conflict has dragged on for 18 years, taken more than 60,000 lives, impoverished a once-prosperous land, and created a permanent state of "emergency" rule. Because the combat zone itself is in the rural northern and eastern areas, those who live in Colombo, the capital, only experience indirect effects of the battles that rage intermittently: the military transport planes and fighter bombers passing overhead; and the wailing of ambulances as the dead and dying are flown in from the front and conveyed to the hospitals.

The war has another, much more visible effect throughout the country, though: the ubiquitous military presence. Everywhere are military checkpoints, soldiers toting automatic rifles, accordion-wire barricades, and sandbagged machine guns and bazookas. Buses, cars, and trucks are routinely stopped and inspected; anyone caught without his I.D. card is subject to arrest and imprisonment. Some check points, particularly in Colombo, aren't safe after dark, because drunken soldiers are known to detain and rape single women.

All of this has been brought about by Sri Lanka's 18-year war on terrorism. Technically speaking, the conflict is a civil war between the Tamil Tiger rebel army, who are fighting for an independent homeland, and majority Sinhalese government forces. But the Tamil Tigers, outnumbered on the battlefield, have resorted to terrorist attacks against civilian, political, and economic targets far from the actual battlefront in order to create psychological, political, and economic pressure. Elite commandos known as "Black Tigers" routinely infiltrate Colombo in spite of the checkpoints and carry out suicide and package bombings at political rallies, on public transportation, and at shopping and financial centers. Colombo's own World Trade Center, twin towers inspired by the Manhattan structures of the same name, have been bombed twice, with a huge loss of life. And despite years of arbitrary arrests, crackdowns, and a succession of governments promising to end the war, the terror continues unabated. Just a few week s before September 11th, Tamil Tiger suicide commandos attacked the heavily guarded national airport and destroyed a number of military planes and Sri Lankan Airlines passenger jets. The ensuing firefight spilled into the terminal area, with terrified civilians fleeing for their lives amid gunfire and exploding grenades.

What's it like to live in a country whose entire system is defined by an endless war on terrorism? It's being stopped and questioned by police officers armed with automatic weapons, anytime they happen to feel curious about you. It's having bus trips repeatedly interrupted by checkpoint officials, who require all passengers to get off the bus, then board themselves to minutely inspect every nook and cranny. It's arbitrary curfews, imposed whenever the government judges the situation to be too unstable to allow people on the streets. It's death squads, assassinations, and disappearances, as well as financial instability and crippling state controls on industry.

On a more personal level, it's having a female passenger sitting beside you on the bus arrested at a check point for being Tamil and behaving suspiciously -- and then having your own effects searched by officers with merciless faces, because you happened to be sitting next to her. It's visiting the grave of a young man killed in the war, who enlisted because the military was the best career option he could find. It's trying to persuade belligerently drunken policemen armed with assault rifles not to arrest your visiting American friend just because his wife happens to be Japanese. It's seeing the capital city transformed into a ghost town during elections, due to universal fear of mobs and suicide bombers. It's being told by men with guns that you can't leave your apartment, because your street has been sealed off by the military to allow some politician and his entourage to pass. It's negotiating mazes of checkpoints and barricades, all heavily armed and on hair-trigger alert, to travel just about anywhere.

The people of Sri Lanka manage as best they can, under the circumstances. They continue to harvest coconuts and tea, to marry and bear children, and to worship their gods. But they do so under the vigilant eye of the state, in the fear that, at any time, the government death squads or the terrorists may come calling.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I suppose that, only weeks after returning to the United States, my own country would become entangled in a war on terrorism. Never could I have pictured military checkpoints and patrols around American airports and larger cities, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and the prospect of a war without end for elusive peace. Suddenly, these seeds of despotism, so typical of third-world nations, are taking root here at home. And we must accept this "new reality," we are told incessantly by the courtier press, because we can never go back to a pre-September 11th world that no longer exists.

Unfortunately, there's nothing really new about a war on terrorism or its consequences. Just ask any Sri Lankan.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Bonta, Steve
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Dec 31, 2001
Previous Article:Correction, Please!
Next Article:Shedding Light on Kinkade. (Letters to the Editor).

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