Andrew Buncombe: The sense of persecution driving the protesters

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For decades, Tamils living in Sri Lanka have complained about discrimination by the establishment. But in recent months, the fate of hundreds of thousands of civilians has become much more perilous.

Trapped in a war zone as the Sri Lankan army seeks to crush the rebel fighters of the once powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reports suggest that hundreds have been killed and wounded in recent months as fighting has intensified.

Just yesterday a senior health official said that at least 60 civilians trapped in a so-called no-fire zone had been killed by shelling in the last 24 hours alone. The army last night denied the claims.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, elected after a 2005 campaign that stressed taking a tough stance against the rebels, is determined to crush the LTTE, which has routinely used suicide bomb attacks on military and civilian targets in its long struggle for a separate Tamil homeland in the north of the country. The "war for peace" currently being fought is popular among most of the Sinhalese majority.

But critics of the government say that the intense security operation enforced by Mr Rajapaksa has highlighted not just his disdain for the LTTE but a disregard for the Tamil population as a whole. Human rights groups say Tamil civilians live in constant fear of the police and army. Journalists who highlight such concerns have faced intimidation, violence and death, although the government denies involvement in any such incidents.

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