Sri Lankan Tamils in fear amid Colombo crackdown

Sunday June 10, AFP
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COLOMBO (AFP) - Every time 16-year-old Suresh Subramanium steps out of his home in Sri Lanka's heavily-guarded capital, his father says a silent prayer for his son's safe return.

The Subramaniums are ethnic Tamils, and run a grocery store in Colombo. They have lived in the city all their lives, and have little connection to the north and east where government troops are fighting Tamil Tiger rebels.

But they say life for ordinary Tamils in Colombo is getting worse -- with the community caught in the middle of a once again escalating ethnic war between the island's Sinhalese-dominated authorities and the rebels.

"I can't step out of the house without my identity card and police papers. If I don't have them, I will be detained," Suresh said.

Tamils, whose national identity cards are written in Tamil, are instantly segregated at check points for a sometimes lengthy grilling. Members of the majority Sinhalese community have an easier time from the Sinhalese-dominated security forces.

Tamil visitors to Colombo also need to register with police, who are fearful of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bombers or assassins infiltrating the city of around 650,000 people.

The collapse of a 2002 ceasefire agreement over the past 18 months has also brought with it a spate of unsolved abductions and murders. International rights groups have said that more than 1,000 people, almost all Tamils, have "disappeared" in the past year.

"There is a climate of fear hanging in the air, we seem to be sliding into lawlessness," said 30-year old Joseph Sunderalingam, a financial analyst and ethnic Tamil who works in the city.

"My parents feel things are getting worse and they would like me to leave."

Tensions reached a head on Thursday, when armed police swooped on low-budget hostels in an operation that saw hundreds of Tamils expelled back to the war-torn north.

Rights groups and opposition politicians said the move was tantamount to dealing out "collective punishment" to Tamils.

Although authorities have backed down in the face of stiff international criticism, community members said Thursday's operation was merely a small part of a wider pattern of abuses they have to endure.

"I'm often asked if I support the LTTE, when people realise I am a Tamil," said 23-year-old Krishnan, who only gave his first name.

Krishnan shares a cramped room with three others on the outskirts of the city in Ratmalana while he works as a cleaner.

The night raids have got worse, he said, since nine people were killed in and around Colombo in two blasts last month by suspected Tamil rebels. The government says the bombings are hatched in low-budget hostels.

Tamil populated neighbourhoods in Colombo are also periodically cordoned off and swept by security forces, and Tamils have complained of mass arrests.

"It's like going back in time to the late 1980s and the 1990s," says S. Subramanium, a lodge owner in Colombo.

"Tamils and some Muslims have been the main target of recent kidnappings, disappearances and assassinations. People are scared."

Still, many Tamils from the embattled northern and eastern regions look likely to continue to pour into Colombo -- a stepping stone out of a country where they either face Tamil Tiger extortion and forced recruitment in the north or state intimidation in the south.

Sharing a tiny room with his parents, S. Yogananthan, 27, from besieged Jaffna peninsula in the far north, sips tea as he counts the days to emigrate to Canada and get married there.
Yogananthan has been living in Colombo for the past seven months, was expelled in the sweep but has returned again to try to sort out his immigration papers.

"Write something about our plight so that the Canadian embassy will process my papers quickly," he pleaded. "I can't live like this."