Sri Lanka mourns and fears for future: Ethnic tension mounts in Colombo as thousands pay their last respects to assassinated president

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The Independent Online
THE centre of Colombo has been turned into a vast funeral parlour as Sri Lanka mourns the death of its president. But as long lines of people filed past the remains of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber on Saturday, tension began to mount in the city, with fears of outbreaks of violence at his funeral procession tomorrow.

White streamers have been draped over the streets of Colombo, while loudspeakers around the president's residence broadcast messages of respect and Buddhist chants. White is the colour associated with death in Buddhism, the main religion of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese ethnic majority. The minority Tamils are mainly Hindu.

A queue several miles long stretched back from the president's residence and out along the sea-front as people waited for many hours for a chance to file past his coffin. Quietly and slowly they came, many wearing white clothes, a few shedding tears, but most of them blank-faced and mute. Security was tight in the city centre, with police and armed troops on the streets. Special army detachments have been brought into the city to provide security for the funeral.

Saturday's bombing, which killed 24 people, has released some complex emotions in Sri Lanka. Premadasa was not universally popular - his reputation for ruthlessness and his low-caste origins had alienated many Sinhalese. But his killing comes as the climax of a whole series of assassinations in the country which has left people with a deep sense of insecurity and fear for the future. Sri Lanka's sorry state, and not just the death of Premadasa as an individual, was on the minds of many of the mourners.

Death, which has claimed many thousands of victims in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war, has in the last two years been stalking some very senior military and political leaders. In March 1991 the defence minister, Ranjan Wijeratne, was killed by a powerful bomb in Colombo.

In August last year General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, in charge of the war against the Tamils in the north, was killed by a landmine. In November Vice-Admiral Clancy Fernando, the commander of the navy, was killed by a motorcycle bomber. And just a week before Premadasa's death his main rival, Lalith Athulathmudali, was shot dead at a political rally.

Tamil Tiger guerillas are suspected of being responsible for some, but not necessarily all, of these deaths. But by the time of Premadasa's assassination many Sri Lankans felt that the very basis of the state was being shaken.

'The last 10 days have completely destabilised the whole system,' said Neelan Tiruchelvam, a lawyer and noted political commentator. 'Two of the most dynamic, single-minded and determined politicians have been taken out. It was a dual body blow to the system, and it will take one generation to recover . . . It is a very sad time for Sri Lanka.'

As police investigations into the bombing continue, suspicions of Tamil Tiger involvement have increased. At one stage the police believed they had definitely identified the killer as a Tamil and had found out where he had been living in Colombo. Uncertainty still surrounds the affair, but Tamils living in the city have already become nervous that there will be a backlash against them.

Some Tamil-owned shops have closed down, at least until after the funeral is over, and many Tamils living in the working-class areas of the capital have decided to keep a very low profile on the streets.

(Photograph omitted)