Exhumed bones bring terror to Sri Lanka: Tim McGirk in Colombo finds parallels between security operations against Communists and Tamils

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WHILE politicians in most countries like to keep skeletons locked safely inside closets, in Sri Lanka the government and opposition parties have started rattling human bones at each other.

It began when leaders of the opposition Sri Lankan Freedom Party on 3 January unearthed three mass graves on a misty, isolated mountaintop. These 40ft-deep tombs contain as many as 300 bodies, including those of schoolchildren and Buddhist monks.

The graves are inside the perimeter of a police camp, and the victims are thought to have been among the 30,000 Sri Lankans who went missing during the security forces' brutal war in 1989-1990 against Communist insurgents. Only one English-language newspaper, the Island, defied government censorship and published news of this grisly discovery.

Then the counter-attack of skeletons began. One opposition politician, Dharmadasa Wanniarachi, who was involved in exhuming the mass graves, last Wednesday found a skull propped against his front door. He took it as a message that his own head might soon be off.

The bone battle escalated over the weekend, when armed gangs raided three cemeteries and carted off seven skeletons. One of them again ended up on the doorstep of the same shaken politician. Most Sri Lankans are horrified by these developments. The four years that have passed since the government's terror campaign against the Communists might as well be a century; they would like to forget it. One foreign aid worker said: 'It's as if the Sri Lankans had stored all the shame and horror in their memory on a hard disk and then thrown it away.'

Many of the army and police officers implicated in the disappearances now hold senior positions, and despite the opposition's outcries, few expect a serious inquiry to be conducted into who killed the schoolchildren found in the mass graves on Mount Sooriya and why.

More alarming still is that while the south of the island has been relatively calm, and the foreign tourists have returned to the miles of white sand beaches under coconut groves, there is evidence that the security forces are returning to their dirty habits. This time, however, they are targeting the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils living in Colombo, the capital. Unlike Sri Lanka's majority, who are Sinhalese Buddhists, most Tamils are Hindus. Many Tamils fled to Colombo to escape the civil war raging in the north and eastern parts of the island over the past 10 years between Tamil separatists and government troops.

Foreign diplomats and human rights activists stress that while the crackdown against Colombo's Tamils is nowhere near the same magnitude of viciousness displayed during the repression of Communist rebels, there are sinister parallels. Thousands of Tamils have been jailed and interrogated, often by men in unmarked cars and plain clothes, and police at roadblocks often demand 500 rupee (pounds 8) bribes to let Tamil youths travel through different parts of the city. More ominously, the corpses of 10 Tamils have been found since October, dumped in Colombo and at the Negombo beach resort, 20 miles north, a popular destination for British tourists.

Neelan Tiruchelvam, a lawyer who is a Tamil, explained: 'It's very disturbing. Tamils are being exposed to arbitrary and indiscriminate treatment. They're even rounding up women and old men.'

The current repression stems from the army and police's growing frustration over two bruising setbacks in the battle against Tamil Tiger separatists: the assassination of the late president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, last May by a Tamil suicide bomber, and the loss of a key army garrison on the Jaffna peninsula on 13 November in which more than 1,300 soldiers died in a 36-hour slaughter.

Fears of the current President, D B Wijetunga, that more Tamil assassins are hiding in Colombo are probably justified: the odds are high that he is on the Tigers' death list. A cult of martyrdom exists among the Tigers, and over the past three years, Tamil fanatics also killed off a defence minister, an admiral and the opposition leader, Lalith Athulathmudali. Police recently found a bomb harness in the Mount Lavinia resort, on the outskirts of Colombo, similar to ones used to blow up the late president and in 1991, the Indian former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, also an enemy of the Tamil Tigers.

Neither the Tamil separatists nor the Colombo government are willing to talk peace, even though the war is causing the island to sink economically. Mr Wijetunga refers to the Tigers as mere 'terrorists' and refuses to admit publicly that the conflict is an ethnic civil war.

No compromise will come from the Tigers. Their secretive and ruthless chief, Prabakharan, has kept under house arrest his three top commanders - all of whom participated in earlier truce negotiations with Colombo - and may soon execute them.