Escalating Conflict Results in More Killings, Displacements, Abductions

Sri Lanka’s conflict continues to escalate, but typically receives precious little coverage in the Western media. That changed temporarily in late February, when the U.S. and Italian ambassadors were slightly injured in a mortar attack in eastern Sri Lanka. The envoys, Robert Blake and Pio Mariani, were to attend a development meeting in Batticaloa. Just a few days earlier, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission—which is supposed to monitor the country’s now ignored 2002 ceasefire—said that nearly 4,000 people had been killed during the previous 15 month period. The South Asia Terrorism Portal, by contrast, reckons that moer than 4,500 people were killed during the same period of time. As fighting between the government army and the Tamil Tiger rebels flared in early March, thousands of additional civilians fled their homes. The BBC reported some 10,000 families were seeking refuge.

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission reported nearly 100 abductions and disappearances in the first two months of the year. That comes on top of about 1,000 cases reported during 2006, although some observers say the real numbers are far higher. The Tamil Tigers have long been known to kidnap boys and young men and forcibly recruit them as fighters. But there is growing evidence that the so-called Karuna faction, a group that broke away from the Tigers in 2004, is also engaging in such practices. Human Rights Watch charged in late January that the Karuna group has abducted hundreds of children in the eastern part of the country, “with the complicity or willful blindness of the Sri Lankan government.”

In October 2006, it looked for a short while as though the major Sinhala political parties in Colombo would unite to pursue a negotiated end to the conflict. President Mahinda Rajapakse signed a memorandum of understanding with opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. The deal was supposed to sideline extremist parties, whose support Rajapakse needed to keep his minority government in power. Instead, 18 parliamentarians from the opposition United National Party crossed over to the government. And instead of peace negotiations, the President and military leaders have opted for defeating the Tamil Tigers.

The escalation of the conflict over the past 15 months has not only led to killings, displacements, and abductions, but has also stalled reconstruction after the tsunami. In the south of the country, unaffected by the fighting, up to 90 percent of housing construction has been accomplished. That compares with as little as 10 percent in the north.