On a breezy Saturday afternoon last month, 150 or so Tamil supporters lined up along Washington’s Connecticut Avenue, waving homemade signs and urging passing motorists to honk their horns to protest Sri Lanka’s latest military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting for a separate homeland in the north for 25 years.
“Two, four, six, eight, Sri Lanka is a racist state!” chanted a college student with a megaphone. Others held up placards reading: “Genocide should not be a celebration” and “Stop censorship: Let journalists do their job.”
Less than a block away, D.C. police protected hundreds of diplomats, dignitaries, expatriates and others celebrating the 61st anniversary of Sri Lankan independence. One speaker after another, including the son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, paid tribute to the country’s “brave young soldiers fighting the terrorists,” while religious leaders representing Sri Lanka’s Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities solemnly prayed for national reconciliation.
No one even mentioned the noisy protesters down the street.
“We just ignore them,” says Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. “Most of these people don’t know why they’re standing there. They have never been to Sri Lanka. They’re being used by the terrorists.”
Nevertheless, Wickramasuriya admits he’s concerned. In late January, sympathizers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — which the State Department considers a terrorist group — picketed the Sri Lankan consulate in Chennai, India; up to 40 students were detained by police.
In Toronto, thousands of Tamils from across Canada formed a human chain stretching for several city blocks around the Sri Lankan consulate, protesting against what they call the genocide of the Tamil people in their homeland. And on Feb. 3, the night before Sri Lanka’s independence day, the country’s embassy in Berlin was attacked by unknown assailants who smashed heavy boulders through the mission’s double-glass windows. No injuries were reported, though the German mission is now under heavy police guard.
“We are fighting the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world,” Wickramasuriya told The Washington Diplomat in a lengthy interview last month. “Our government is facing a big problem right now. These terrorists are keeping innocent Tamils as human shields. And anybody who talks against them, even their own people, will be killed. In fact, the Tigers have killed more Tamils than Sinhalese.”
Since the early 1980s, the central government has been locked in battle with the LTTE, which claims to represent Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. According to the 2001 census, Tamils (who are predominantly Hindu) comprised 12 percent of the island’s 20 million inhabitants, while the Sinhalese (who are mostly Buddhist) made up 74 percent. The remaining 14 percent is divided among Muslims, Christians and other minorities.
Sri Lanka’s current bloodshed has its roots in the period immediately after the country’s 1948 independence from England, when the country was still known as Ceylon and dark-skinned Tamils found themselves routinely discriminated against by the Sinhalese-dominated government.
In 1949, the so-called “estate Tamils” of Indian origin — who had worked Sri Lanka’s tea plantations for generations — were stripped of their citizenship, leaving them stateless. Seven years later, the Sri Lankan Parliament made Sinhalese the official language, prompting widespread violence. Ethnic tensions were further aggravated by state-sponsored colonization schemes that sought to increase Sinhalese influence in the Eastern Province, which Tamil nationalists considered to be their traditional homeland.
Armed struggle against the central government in Colombo began in 1983 with the rise of the LTTE and other militant groups, though the Tigers eventually decimated rival groups. Even today, many Tamils complain of harassment, and it’s not uncommon for Sinhalese-speaking police officers to search and interrogate busloads of Tamil workers in the streets of Colombo, an ethnically mixed city.
The ambassador, who acknowledges past injustices against the Tamil minority, says the LTTE speaks for barely 1 percent of Sri Lanka’s Tamils — and he resents the news media’s use of the term “civil war” to describe what’s going on in his country.
“There is no civil war in Sri Lanka,” Wickramasuriya insists. “A civil war is between two ethnic communities. This is a war between terrorists and civilians. The LTTE is a terrorist organization similar to al-Qaeda, and their leader [Velupillai Prabhakaran] is like [Osama] bin Laden.”
In fact, many Sinhalese Sri Lankans are angry at what they say is hypocritical coverage and condemnation of the government’s punishing offensive against the Tamils, comparing it to the recent Israeli campaign in Gaza and arguing that Sri Lanka has just as much right to defend itself against terrorists as anyone else. Ironically, just as Israel drew fire for its assault on Gaza and the civilian suffering it caused, so too is the Colombo government being urged to exercise restraint. Likewise, the Tamil Tigers have been widely accused by human rights workers of using their fellow Tamil civilians as human shields — a charge lobbed at Hamas militants in Gaza.
Yet unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, until recently, neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tamil Tigers really made world headlines, despite the fact that more than 70,000 people have died in Asia’s longest-running conflict.
But lately, as the country’s armed forces make dramatic gains in their campaign to put the LTTE out of business, every day brings a new atrocity — with each suicide bombing or grenade attack bloodier than the last. It also brings constant announcements from Colombo that LTTE is on the verge of extinction, though so far the campaign drags on.
As of press time, fierce fighting between the Tigers and government forces has trapped 250,000 civilians in the 61 square-mile sliver of land still controlled by the rebels — an area exactly the size of the District of Columbia. Until recently, the rebels occupied 5,600 square miles of territory.
So far, about 24,000 people have managed to flee the fighting in the jungles, with refugees describing horrific scenes of cruelty and suffering — at the hands of Tamils who won’t let civilians escape, as well as the massive government bombardment. For instance, military shelling has been blamed for killing scores of injured civilians in war-zone hospitals, while in mid-February, a female suicide bomber blew herself up and killed 30 people while pretending to be a refugee. (The Tamil Tiger rebels are accused of forcibly recruiting at least one member of each family in their de facto state.)
A spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the agency is “calling upon both the government and the LTTE to halt indiscriminate fighting in close proximity to large concentrations of innocent people in the so-called safe zone.”
Human Rights Watch goes even further, accusing the Rajapaksa administration of showing an “appalling disregard for the well-being of the civilian population” that remain stuck in the safe zones established by security forces.
“The Sri Lankan government knows full well that the civilians caught up in the current fighting are dangerously trapped,” said the organization’s Asia director, Brad Adams. “The government shows callous indifference by saying civilians should not expect the government to consider their safety and security.”
But it’s almost impossible to verify what’s going on in the conflict zone itself, because both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have kept reporters away from the fighting. In early January, one of the country’s best-known journalists, Lasantha Wickramatunga — editor of the Sunday Leader — was assassinated by gunmen on motorcycles as he drove to work. Wickramatunga, who had received numerous death threats throughout his career, had been highly critical of the government’s campaign against the Tigers, and in his last editorial accused the president of pursuing the war as a “recipe for electoral success” to stay in power.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the Rajapaksa government was to blame “because they incited hatred against Wickramatunga and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press.”
Yet Colombo’s man in Washington denies that his government practices censorship or intimidates journalists in any way. “We prevent journalists from going to the actual conflict area because we are worried about their safety,” says Ambassador Wickramasuriya, noting that eight American journalists have recently been issued visas to go to Sri Lanka and even accompany army troops on guided tours of the conflict zone.
Wickramasuriya also defends the Rajapaksa’s handling of the conflict since assuming the presidency in November 2005, which is when things really started heating up. Rajapaksa, who considered a 2002 truce between the government and rebel forces to be treasonous, launched an all-out war against the LTTE, eventually succeeding in recapturing about 95 percent of the territory under rebel control.
Wickramasuriya agrees with the president’s decision to scrap the 2002 peace treaty, arguing that the Tigers were simply using the accord to buy time to re-arm themselves. “For two years, they equipped themselves with weapons and land mines. The government lifted the ban on cement, and they built bunkers,” he charges. “The government was giving them everything; they even got planes during that time. We lost so many lives because of that peace accord.”
For a time though it looked like the peace agreement might hold despite several years of tit-for-tat low-level clashes. Both sides renewed their commitment to the agreement at talks in Geneva in February 2006, but things quickly fell apart after that.
There was a lull in violence until April 2006, when an explosion rocked a Sinhalese market in Trincomalee, followed by limited Sinhalese backlash against Tamils. Several days later, an LTTE suicide bomber attacked the main army compound in Colombo, followed by an LTTE suicide bomber killing a prominent army official.
Heavy fighting began in August 2006, with Colombo making steady military gains. The defection of top LTTE commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, known as Karuna, and the fall of Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ de facto capital, accelerated the LTTE’s losses and has further energized Sri Lankan nationalists who now talk about victory in a matter of weeks, not months or years.
President Rajapaksa, appearing last September before the U.N. General Assembly, called on the Tigers to renounce violence and engage in dialogue.
“Our government would only be ready to talk to this illegal armed group when it is ready to commit itself to decommissioning its illicit weapons and dismantling its military capability, and return to the democratic fold,” he said, noting that Tamils — including former LTTE members — now hold ministerial posts in his government. He added that efforts over the past quarter century to resolve the conflict “have been treated with contempt” by the LTTE, which he said indiscriminately targets civilians.
That’s a bunch of “absolute lies and nonsense,” retorts Jayantha Gnanakone, head of the nonprofit group Tamils for Justice. He claims that 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s Tamils support the Tigers, which is why it’s been so hard for the government to defeat them after all these years.
“There is no justification for the U.S. government to label the LTTE a terrorist group,” he told The Diplomat by phone from Los Angeles. “No American has ever been hurt. All the organizations on the [State Department] terrorist list were Muslim, so they needed to put some non-Muslim groups on there too, so it would be a mixed bag. The fact remains that the LTTE is recognized worldwide as the sole representative of the Tamils.”
Gnanakone says he knew Wickramasuriya when the ambassador was Sri Lanka’s consul-general in Los Angeles. But the LTTE supporter — who claims to speak for 50,000 Sri Lankan Tamils in the United States and another 330,000 in Canada — clearly doesn’t think much of the man.
“There is no earthly purpose in even discussing the war with him, because his input is zero,” Gnanakone said. “He’s a tea merchant, a newcomer to this game, and the only qualification is that he’s a close relative of the president. This is all about cronyism and nepotism.”
Indeed, the 48-year-old Wickramasuriya makes for an unlikely ambassador. Born and raised in Weeraketiya, a small village in southern Sri Lanka, he’s a former tea taster and a relative of Rajapaksa. He sometimes comes across more like a corporate executive than a diplomat.
“I have a great staff here, so my idea is to run this embassy like a CEO,” he told us during our interview at the four-story Sri Lankan Embassy, which fronts Wyoming Avenue. “We have nine diplomats. I train them like the senior management of a company, and I direct them with my expertise of Sri Lanka. I think it’s more interesting than doing it the traditional way.”
Wickramasuriya began his professional career at the age of 18, when tea industry veteran Merrill J. Fernando hired him as a management trainee. Fernando’s company, Dilmah, would one day rank among the world’s largest tea exporting firms. Wickramasuriya still considers Fernando his guru, crediting the entrepreneur with giving him the confidence to work in the tea business anywhere in the world.
“At that time, there were tea tasters, but not many tea experts. We were exporting only bulk, loose tea, with no value added,” Wickramasuriya explains. “In 1980, Fernando imported the first tea-bagging machine into Sri Lanka.”
Wickramasuriya worked at Dilmah for 20 years, eventually starting his own company, Ceylon Royal Tea, which markets top-quality tea under the brand name Chami.
“I did something different from those other companies,” he says. “All of them are selling tea for tea drinkers. I thought I should market my tea to coffee drinkers, so I started with North America. That’s how I came to the United States. In the U.S., there are 300 tea companies, most of them traders or brokers. Our success in the U.S. was that we are Sri Lankan, we have our own facility in Sri Lanka, and we go directly to the buyer with no third parties involved.”
Ceylon Royal Tea exports its products to Target, Wal-Mart and other large U.S. chains through an Atlanta-based subsidiary set up by Wickramasuriya during one of his many dozens of trips to the United States.
“I’m promoting Ceylon tea as the best in the world,” he says. “In fact, we’re thinking of opening a couple of tea houses in the United States — especially New York and Los Angeles. There are a lot of tea drinkers here.”
But now that he’s ambassador, Wickramasuriya has very little time for tea — so his brother Prasanna is running the family business, leaving him more time to focus on the war and how Sri Lanka will heal itself whenever the fighting finally stops.
Wickramasuriya, a Sinhalese Buddhist, says he has no personal grudges against the Tamil minority; one of his cousins is married to a Tamil, and his sister is married to a Muslim. He says his priority right now is actually to protect Sri Lanka’s Tamils from the LTTE.
“Our main concern is getting the civilians out of there,” he says. “If the international community pressures LTTE to release the civilians from their clutches, this could be finished in two weeks. But since we’re worried about civilians, it will take longer. Our president has given strict instructions to the armed forces not to injure even one civilian.”
He added: “Anybody who is coming to our side is treated like a civilian. Many ran to our area when they started firing, and a lot of them got killed.” The increasing number of suicide bombings against civilians, he says, “means the terrorists are angry with the civilians who have escaped.”
On Feb. 12, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the Tamil Foundation, a Maryland-based charity accused of funneling money to the LTTE. Treasury official Adam Szubin said the Tigers have “relied on so-called charities to raise funds and advance its violent aims.” But the foundation’s owner, a kidney specialist named Nagaratnam Ranjithan, says his private charity has nothing to do with the Tigers and is only interested in improving the lives of Sri Lanka’s beleaguered Tamil population.
Meanwhile, Gnanakone, whose Tamils for Justice group is aimed at “exposing human rights violations and bringing war criminals to justice,” has hired conservative Washington lawyer Bruce Fein to publicize what he calls the Sri Lankan government’s sinister attempts at ethnic cleansing.
“The Sri Lankan government has a secret plan to militarize the Mullaittivu district and install a huge army base, bring in Sinhalese and colonize the area,” he claimed. “That’s why they’re trying to remove all the civilians from that area and push them into internment camps,” he added, referring to government plans to create long-term “welfare villages,” where civil war refugees would live for up to three years — the amount of time Colombo says it needs to clear mines and wrap up the fighting.
One thing both sides can agree on is that the suffering has been tremendous — and that Asia’s longest-running conflict still won’t be ending anytime soon.
“In the short term, it will be a bloody mess, and in the worst-case scenario for the Tamils, there will be intense guerrilla warfare,” predicts Gnanakone. “And they will give it back as hard as they get it.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. He recently spent eight days in November 2008 on assignment in Sri Lanka.