Partition looms as Sri Lanka faces losing Jaffna to Tigers

After seizing the Elephant Pass two weeks ago, the Tamil Tigers are poised to seize control of the northern Jaffna Peninsula this weekend, thereby cutting Sri Lanka in two.

Last week the island nation went on a war footing, taking sweeping emergency powers and cancelling spending projects to pour money into the military effort. Most believe it is too late, however, to save the peninsula from being retaken by the guerrillas, four years after they were driven out.

That in turn raises the possibility of the partition of Sri Lanka, but the fact that this evokes hardly any sympathy in the outside world is largely the fault of the government.

The Sri Lankan state is far from perfect. More than 40 years ago discrimination against the Tamil minority, who were treated with favouritism during the British colonial period, became institutionalised. Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese majority, was made the official language. Later Buddhism, the religion of most Sinhalese (most Tamils are Hindus), was effectively made the state religion. The favoured status of Tamils in higher education and the civil service was eroded.

The state has since repaired some of these mistakes. Tamil was given the status of a "national language". But by then it was too late: the war of secession, which began following bloody attacks by Sinhalese on Tamils in 1983, was too far advanced to be easily quelled.

In south Asian terms, Sri Lanka is a remarkable success. The first state in the region to begin liberalising its economy, its people are prosperous, industrious and well-educated. Its democracy has the familiar south Asian vices - allegations of electoral corruption - but it has managed to hang on during the war years.

The island remains beautiful and friendly enough to have continued to attract hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists to its long beaches and pretty towns, despite the endless war.

And despite the efforts of Sinhalese chauvinists, it is not a chauvinistic state. Large minorities of Hindus, Muslims and Christians rub shoulders with the majority Buddhists. It is not fanciful to suppose that as it matures, Sri Lanka will develop into a genuinely plural, secularist nation.

There is only one thing preventing that: the Tamil Tigers, or formally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Eelam is the proposed name of the Tamil state the guerrillas are fighting to establish in the Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the island. If the Tigers seize control of Jaffna again, the island's partition could be permanent.

The Sri Lankan state and the LTTE cannot be seen as morally equivalent. Against the flawed but not failed secularism of the Sri Lankan state is ranged a "liberation" army which can fairly be described as demonic. It is led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, who began his career by lobbing bombs at moderate Tamil politicians while still a teenager.

Like other "armies of national liberation" the LTTE retains a certain romantic appeal in the West, but it has fully justified its description by an Indian journalist as "annihilationist". The most characteristic Tigers attack of recent months was not the sweep through Elephant Pass - an impressive military achievement - but the attempt to assassinate President Chandrika Kumaratunga by a suicide bombing attack on the eve of the presidential election in December. She lost an eye, but survived.

The LTTE's success is founded on fanaticism and ruthlessness. Its contribution to contemporary civilisation has been the fine-tuning of the suicide attack as a weapon of terror. An indication of how an LTTE regime would perform if peace was obtained is the way it gave Jaffna's 40,000-strong Muslim population 24 hours to clear out the last time the Tigers took control of the peninsula. Now they are rolling towards Jaffna town with a long list of Tamil "collaborators" and no one doubts that all those whom they find will be executed. With similar decisiveness, they have murdered all moderate political voices within the Tamil community.

The Sri Lankan government deserves the support and sympathy of the world in its fight against this demonic enemy. But it is not getting it. For years the government has banned reporters from travelling to the war zone and writing about the realities, and this week a draconian regime of censorship was imposed on foreign correspondents in Sri Lanka.

As a result the outside world has only the haziest idea about the struggle being waged for Sri Lanka's soul. And out of sight being out of mind, the outside world could hardly care less.

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