Hamish McDonald Asia-Pacific Editor
January 31, 2009
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IT IS a strange feeling to look across a desk at a suave, articulate finance minister giving a highly competent rundown on his country's economy, and know that this same man was widely assumed by his citizens and resident diplomats to have run his own death squad.
This was the uneasy interview I held some years back in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where all too often the politicians you saw giving a speech one day were being scraped off footpaths the next.
The blame for this violence usually goes to the separatist Tamil Tigers and their now embattled leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who perfected the cult-like ideology and techniques of suicide bombing - the belt bombs and triggers - now widely used by al-Qaeda and its allies.
But murderous violence has been endemic among the Sinhalese majority for decades. The Tigers probably provided the convenient scapegoat for a number of political assassinations motivated by rivalry between the two mainstream political camps - the descendants of the Bandaranaike dynasty and their more conservative opponents.
Parallel with the Tamil insurgency - begun by the post-independence surge in Sinhalese nationalism and a drive to displace Tamils from civil service jobs they cornered under the British - was a class-based insurrection among Sinhalese, mounted by the Maoist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People's Liberation Front.
Recruiting impoverished youth, the JVP put the frighteners into the Colombo upper middle class, which runs its version of Eton and Harrow, following the cricket and drinking in exclusive clubs. The JVP's campaign of abductions and murders of supposed class enemies was met by a government one. The reputed death squad of this minister was part of it.
This is the background of a political establishment that wants the world to trust that it is conducting the massive onslaught on the remaining Tamil Tiger strongholds within the rules of war and with due concern for the civilian population.
Foreign and many domestic media correspondents have been barred from entering the conflict zones in the island's north ever since government forces opened their offensive more than a year ago with massive new firepower supplied by China and Pakistan. The United Nations and other relief agencies have also been excluded or had their operations severely restricted.
There have been contradictions between the military's denials that any substantial civilian casualties are occurring and the trickle of accounts suggesting large numbers have been killed and injured by bombing and artillery, some in buildings designated as safe refuges.
The UN has just brought out hundreds of severely wounded civilians - including 50 children - and warned that 250,000 others are trapped between advancing government forces and their targets. Apparently responding to international pressure, including a visit this week by the Indian foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is proposing a 48-hour ceasefire to let the civilians escape.
War is one thing. But Rajapaksa's drive to capture the glory of ancient warrior kings by reuniting the island has been accompanied by more murder in his own capital against dissident members of the Sinhalese elite.
This month's killing of the editor of the The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunga, who fingered his "friend" Rajapaksa in a posthumously published article, followed nearly a dozen killings of journalists over the past three years. Another editor, Upali Tennakoon, has since been stabbed by thugs on his way to work. About eight other senior journalists have just fled the country.
The army is pressing into the last Tigers hideouts, opening up their bunkers and secret facilities (including a midget-submarine factory) for propaganda purposes.
Whether Prabhakaran, 54, tries to continue an insurgency inside Sri Lanka or tries to shelter among India's 60 million Tamils is yet to be revealed.
He's not a man with many palatable options. If captured, he could face the same fate as the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera, who was promptly executed on capture in 1989. Presumably, he carries the same cyanide pill as his guerillas. In India he is a wanted man, blamed for instigating the 1991 suicide-bomb assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
But you have to wonder what military victory will do to the Sinhalese, how they will treat their Tamil and Muslim minorities and whether they can move beyond the sinister political culture that's been implanted by the reaction to rebellion.
This is the island that two centuries ago inspired an Anglican clergyman, Reginald Heber, to pen the lines in a hymn: "Where every prospect pleases / And only man is vile."