Sri Lankan rebels set to defend territory (Sri Lanka)
KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka - Every map in Sri Lanka is about one of two fantasies. The official one in the south shows an undivided nation, the picture-postcard tropical paradise of white-sand beaches and Buddhist shrines.
Up where the Tamil Tiger rebels reign, maps show the island's north, along with much of the west coast and all the east coast as "Tamil Eelam," the homeland of the Hindu Tamil minority.
It's a stretched reality, but not without some truth. In swaths of the north and east carved out during 18 years of fighting, the rebels have created a country part real and part imagined, one where women warriors stamp forms at border crossings while suicide bombers train at hidden bases.
Now they are readying for the possibility of renewed war.
"We must be prepared to protect ourselves," said Markanbu Anandan, a 48-year-old Tamil mason who, like many others in Kilinochchi, the de facto rebel capital, spent Tuesday in his dusty yard digging a bomb shelter, a six-foot-deep trench covered with wood planks and sandbags.
Here, school principals are lecturing students to be extra cautious, elderly women are learning to use weapons and international aid workers scurry into cement bunkers at the sound of fighter jets roaring overhead.
On the other side of the frontier, the Sri Lankan military is also shoring up its defenses. It is buying new weapons, strengthening military bunkers and recently recruited 5,000 Sinhalese villagers to help protect the area bordering Tiger territory.
Discrimination against the 3.2 million Tamils, most of whom are Hindu, led the Tigers to take up arms in 1983. The spark was anti-Tamil riots, and the resulting war on this island of 19 million people - nearly three-quarters Sinhalese, most of them Buddhist - left more than 65,000 people dead before a 2002 cease-fire.
But four years of uneasy calm have given way since April to a back-and-forth of bombings and shootings. Nearly 700 people have died and many say Sri Lanka is sliding back into ethnic conflict.
Both sides say they want peace. But their demands remain as far apart as their maps, leaving little hope for compromise.
"We want to live amicably," said Thramathy Sivasabranmaniam, a 35-year-old Tamil. "But we want a separate Tamil Eelam. The government does not want this."
The government made that clear Monday. There is not, it insisted, a de facto State of Tamil Eelam. "This remains a myth," a government statement said.
But facts on the ground are hard to dispute. And the facts say "state."
There is a border with immigration officials and customs officers who seize banned goods, such as pornography. There is a police force, an education system and tax collectors whose work, along with money raised from the Tamil diaspora, helps keep everything running.
At Tamil Eelam's heart lies Kilinochchi, a town that seems like it could be swallowed by the bush and forest that surrounds it. Mildew stains the sides of buildings, many of them pockmarked with bullet holes. The tallest building is four stories. Monuments to "martyrs" - Tigers killed in the war - dot the town.
The Tigers go to great lengths to show they are not running a lawless state. Ask to see Tiger soldiers, and you get a few minutes with traffic police who wield nothing more than a radar gun to catch speeders.
The conversation is banal, mostly talk of how the radar gun has helped control traffic in a town with one main road.
Even the Tigers' elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has gotten a makeover.
His picture is omnipresent in Tiger country, and in newer ones, he has traded in camouflage fatigues for civilian clothes.
As for soldiers, they are no where in sight. It's a stark contrast to the other side of the border, where troops are dug in behind sandbags, barbed wire and land mines.
For the most part, the image projected along Kilinochchi's single commercial strip is normalcy. There are uniformed schoolchildren, offices for government agencies like the Sports Council of Tamil Eelam, and the Bank of Tamil Eelam, which boasts a shiny new glass facade.
The rebels advertise it as a modern state, but it is governed with an old-time morality that borders on puritanical.
Adultery can mean jail time, and premarital sex is taboo. People are expected to take their lead from the Tigers, who don't drink or smoke.
"It's not part of our traditions, and our movement reflects Tamil traditions," said Daya Master, the rebel spokesman.
Tamils unhappy with the high taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are not willing to openly complain, an indication of the fear with which they regard the rebels - who have been known to torture and kill dissenters.
One woman in Kilinochchi said she did not want to live under Tiger rule because they are "mean." Still, she insisted the rebels "do nothing I can find to criticize."
But she did not want to give her name.
Von: 21.6.2006 MATTHEW ROSENBERG, www.mercurynews.com