Why this man murdered the president: Raymond Whitaker on the latest atrocity to stain the turbulent history of Sri Lanka

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SRI LANKA is a prime example of the kind of 'earthly paradise' - another one in South Asia is Kashmir - where Westerners want to believe life is somehow better. How people can slaughter one another in the midst of such beauty and plenty baffles the romantics. They almost prefer not to know the details, but every now and then some atrocity like yesterday's assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa forces them to suppress their illusions, at least temporarily.

In fact Sri Lanka has been tearing itself apart for the best part of a decade, at the cost of some 17,000 lives. It is not simply a struggle between the Sinhalese, who comprise more than 80 per cent of the 16 million population, and the Tamil minority: some of the worst massacres have been within the Sinhalese community, and both sides have at one time or another persecuted the even smaller Muslim minority.

The position of the Sinhalese has sometimes been compared to that of the Protestants in Northern Ireland - in the majority within their own borders, but feeling that their identity is under threat from outside. Sri Lanka is the only Buddhist nation in South Asia, because the Sinhalese retained the faith while it was submerged by Hinduism in its native India. Like Northern Ireland's Catholics, the Hindu Tamils are able to look to their neighbours for support. In India there are more than 100 million Tamils, and at least 600 million Hindus.

When Tamil grievances in Sri Lanka erupted into armed conflict in the early 1980s, there was the usual struggle for power among liberation groups. India's disastrous attempt to intervene, which ended in 1990 after the loss of more than 1,000 peace-keeping troops, simply helped the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, to eliminate those within the Tamil community who opposed their demand for an independent state in the north and east of the island. The Tigers later had their revenge against the Indian Prime Minister responsible for the intervention, Rajiv Gandhi. He was killed near Madras in 1991 in a suicide bombing similar to the one which disposed of President Premadasa.

One reason for Mr Gandhi's decision to intervene was that the Sinhalese community was paralysed by the rise of the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which left southern and central Sri Lanka littered with corpses in the late 1980s. Once this threat had been eliminated - by the simple expedient of killing anyone connected with the movement - the military was free to return to the war in the north. Since India stopped aid reaching the Tamil Tigers, the movement has been in retreat, although its continuing ability to strike was shown by the deaths of the deputy defence minister and the navy commander in bombings.

Although he presided over so much killing, the chances of a peaceful settlement with the Tamils have diminished with the removal of Mr Premadasa. A former labour leader from a low caste who often had to endure the contempt of higher-born Sinhalese, he was able to understand why Tamils felt discriminated against. While he had dismissed the possibility of a military solution and argued for the pursuit of a negotiated settlement, his successors may see things differently.

(Photograph omitted)