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Sri Lanka’s Tamils pray for peace, political change

Bare-chested Tamil men push a chariot bearing a statue of Lord Vishnu through Sri Lanka’s tightly guarded capital, an annual religious event marked this year by an upsurge in the island’s ethnic war.

world Updated: May 07, 2009 10:48 IST

Bare-chested Tamil men push a chariot bearing a statue of Lord Vishnu through Sri Lanka’s tightly guarded capital, an annual religious event marked this year by an upsurge in the island’s ethnic war.

Members of the minority group lined up along the route of the statue of the Hindu preserver of peace, which was decked with flowers and fairy lights, and the focus of intense prayers for greater rights and an end to the bloodshed.

“We are just praying for peace,” said Vignesh, a trustee of the Vishnu temple in Colombo’s commercial hub of Pettah as the annual “ther,” or Chariot festival, was held this week.

As the chariot made its way through the crowded streets, priests accepted offerings of fruit, flowers and incense and blessed shopkeepers and bystanders in Colombo’s Tamil quarter.

Security in the city has been stepped up as government forces are in what the military says is the final phase of an offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels, now cornered in a small strip of coast in the island’s northeast.

“With the end of the war, we hope that things will be better. We need a political settlement,” said Rajah, a textile trader in Colombo.

The island’s ethnic war has its roots in its colonial past, with the Sinhalese majority, most of whom are Buddhists, believing that the mostly Hindu Tamils were favoured by the British in education and employment.

After Britain granted independence on February 4, 1948 the new Sinhalese-dominated regime moved to take over top government jobs by making their language the official one.

Ethnic tensions steadily worsened, with Tamils complaining they were being made second-class citizens.

The 1970s saw the emergence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, and a bloody campaign for a separate state that has left tens of thousands dead.

Government promises to address Tamil grievances were made, but real progress has been slow, with both sides of the divide taking up extreme positions.

With the Sinhalese nationalist government of President Mahinda Rajapakse now sniffing victory, the worry among many moderate Tamils not connected to the LTTE is that their long-standing demands for greater rights will also be crushed.

“A lot of Tamils fear that their legitimate demands would not be met,” said Dharmalingam Sithadthan, the head of the Democratic People’s Liberation Front, a moderate Tamil political group that broke away from the LTTE.

But Sithadthan said he hoped that if the LTTE is defeated, political progress could be possible by reviving a decades-old constitutional amendment which provides for devolution of central government powers to Sri Lanka’s nine provinces; including the north and the east where Tamils are concentrated.

“The LTTE was a good excuse for the Sinhalese governments because LTTE has never accepted any solution. The LTTE has killed a lot of moderate Tamil leaders. The Tigers were the worst enemy of the moderate Tamil community,” he said.

V. Anandasangari, president of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front, said Sri Lanka should look to its large neighbour India for inspiration.

“I suggested the Indian system, which is a union, a unity in diversity. We have to find a solution for political minorities,” Anandasangari said.

But he said he was “worried because the president is not doing it,” underscoring the view among many Tamils that Rajapakse may not be magnanimous in victory.

Rajapakse and his brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya, have discussed the need for a political solution, even while spearheading the island’s biggest-ever military campaign against the Tamil Tigers.

Sithadthan said the government would be making a mistake if it fails to follow up the war with real reforms.

First Published: May 07, 2009 10:19 IST