- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

In 2006, Tasha Manoranjan decided to take a year off from school for an unusual reason. The 20-year-old Ohioan had read that violence had been escalating in northern Sri Lanka, the home of her Tamil ancestors, where she had spent the summer two years earlier.

Concerned, Ms. Manoranjan decided to return. She spent the next year traveling through northern Sri Lanka and teaching in group homes for girls, many of which had been bombed out and lacked electricity and plumbing.

Ms. Manoranjan found herself trapped in a cycle of violence that had raged for nearly 30 years between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Today, government soldiers have Tiger fighters cornered in the northeast with their backs to the coast. Sri Lankan forces anticipate an end to a seemingly interminable war. But Ms. Manoranjan says that peace is unlikely to come.

“I think it´s unreasonable to think the war will end because the government has nominal control over there. It is not winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil people,” she said.

The Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for the secession of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil north, have been classified a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department since 1997. Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they were considered the world´s leader in suicide bombings.

Yet the Sri Lankan government, in its campaign to root out the Tigers, has also been criticized for inflicting civilian casualties during battle.

Ms. Manoranjan says the government carpet-bombed the north every day, forcing her and her students into underground bunkers as Sri Lankan jets roared overhead.

In August 2006, an orphanage in Sencholai that Ms. Manoranjan called home two years earlier, was destroyed by a bomb, killing 61 schoolgirls, most of them 17 to 19 years old.

“It was so tragic because, if they had been born in America, like I had, their lives would have been totally different. They could have been happy and lived in peace,” Ms. Manoranjan said.

The Tigers were established in the 1970s by rebel-leader Velupillai Prabhakaran after decades of discriminatory measures against the Tamils by Sri Lanka´s Sinhalese majority.

The Tigers used conventional tactics at first, but in 1987 they created the elite Black Tiger suicide squad. The first suicide bombing, carried out against a Sri Lankan army camp, killed 40 people.

A 2002 cease-fire between the government and Tigers began to unravel with a series of Tamil attacks three years later, and in 2008, the government officially ended attempts to negotiate peace.

With their backs against the sea, the Tigers last month appealed for a cease-fire, which the government rejected.

“Instead of surrendering as the entire international community and the Sri Lankan government has called them to do, [the rebels] are calling [on] the very people who have asked them to surrender, to save their miserable skins,” said Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, according to the Associated Press.

With fighting continuing on a daily basis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on Monday that the United Nations deplores the increasing civilian casualty toll, and that the two sides must resume peace talks.

Robert Pape, a terrorism specialist at the University of Chicago, said the Tamil Tigers carried out 127 suicide attacks between 1987 and 2003, more than al Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad combined.

The bombs have claimed the lives of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. An attack on the Central Bank in the capital of Colombo in 1996 killed 91 and left more than 1,400 injured.

Another coordinated attack in 2000 on the Air Force base in Katunayake and the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, killed 12, destroyed more than a dozen aircraft and crippled the Sri Lankan air force.

The Tigers have spent millions of dollars on propaganda and infrastructure, establishing both a naval and air force wing. The insurgents received training from the Palestine Liberation Organization and aid from the African nation of Eritrea, according to a 2006 State Department report.

Ms. Manoranjan says many Tamils think that they would have been wiped out years ago if not for the insurgency. Some of Ms. Manoranjan´s older students had approached her and expressed a desire to join the Tigers because they had nothing else, she said.

The situation looks different from the Sinhalese side.

Sena Basnayake, a Sri Lankan lawyer who practices in Washington and frequently returns to Colombo to visit with family, said the Tigers “must lay down their arms” and called their founder, Mr. Prabhakaran, “one of the most ruthless leaders the world has ever known.”

“Tamils have grievances just like the Sinhalese. But terrorism is something that is not a tool. It cannot be tolerated,” he said.

Mr. Basnayake said he was particularly shaken by two attacks on Buddhist holy sites. One left 16 dead at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, which he said was the equivalent of the Vatican for Buddhists. His wife´s family had served as priests at the temple.

The second attack occurred near the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, which Buddhists believe is more than 2,250 years old. It left 107 dead. The tree is said to have been grown from a cutting off the original Bodhi tree where Buddha gained enlightenment.

Sri Lankan Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist while the Tamils are predominantly Hindu, though the Tigers have attacked Muslim mosques as well. Mr. Basnayake said the Sri Lankan conflict was not religious in nature.

Rebel-leader Mr. Prabhakaran is neither anti-Buddhist nor anti-Muslim; he’s “anti-civilization,” Mr. Basnayake said.

Mr. Basnayake said it was not his intention to implicate the Tamil people, with whom he thinks the Sinhalese people can coexist peacefully.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented abuses by both sides, which they say have failed to discriminate between civilian and military targets. Concern has mounted in recent weeks that the cornered insurgents are using civilians as human shields, shooting civilians attempting to flee, and using child soldiers.

Last week, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid called for both sides to allow humanitarian aid into the northern parts of Sri Lanka.

“The situation is of concern,” he said. “People do need supplies. Internally displaced people need to be allowed to leave conflict zone should they wish to do so, and that should be facilitated by both sides. We call on both sides in the conflict to respect the rights of noncombatants to allow humanitarian aid to flow freely to those who need it.”

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