As the events unfold in Sri Lanka and newer areas in the troubled nation are drawn into the conflict zone, it is fairly certain that the uneasy, fragile peace has been shattered. With the cricket tri-series and the SAF Games in jeopardy, the coming days will tell how tourists respond to the violence in the island-state.

Rasheeda Bhagat

With the bomb blast that killed seven people in Colombo on Monday, and which had the signature of the LTTE on it, it is now certain that the period of fragile peace in the island-nation is finally over. The blast was apparently targeted at the Pakistani High Commissioner, Mr Bashir Wali Mohamed, who was returning from a function to celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day, on August 14.

While terrorist activities of all shades have to be condemned, many Indians would have read with a pinch of scepticism the Pakistan envoy's statement after the attack that "Pakistan does not condone any terrorism." While Mr Mohamed, a retired colonel and former director of Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau, had a narrow escape, his security vehicle carrying Sri Lankan soldiers bore the brunt of the attack, which killed four soldiers.

The reason why a Pakistani diplomat in Sri Lanka would be targeted in an attack attributed to the Tigers is not far to seek. The relationship between Pakistan and Sri Lanka has always been cordial and long years before Indian tourists could get "visas on arrival", Pakistani nationals enjoyed this privilege. Of course, today, Indian tourists far outnumber Pakistani visitors in Sri Lanka and are warmly welcomed by the travel and tourism industry as they have deeper pockets.

Pakistan is a major supplier of arms to the Sri Lankan government, and would naturally be on the hate-list of any organisation against which those weapons are used. The attack, carried out in the heart of Colombo, barely two km from the Taj Samudra, where the Indian cricket team is staying, is a clear signal from the Tamil Tigers that they are spoiling for war. But in Colombo, the speculation on the street, as pointed out by Mr Jehan Perera, Media Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, in a telephonic interview, was that the "bomb was meant for someone else", perhaps the EPDP leader and Minister for Social Services, Mr Douglas Devananda. But the LTTE would also have enough reason to target a Pakistani envoy, he said. "Pakistan is one of the main suppliers of arms and weapons to Sri Lanka and the multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL) supplied by Pakistan are credited with enabling the Sri Lankan armed forces to turn back the LTTE from the entrance to Jaffna in 2000," he said. The MBRLs are also being used in the present military conflict in the east and the north.

`Conspiracy' theory

As for the whispers that the targeting of a Pakistani diplomat was related to the present standoff between orthodox Christianity and radical Islam, and the church using the LTTE to target an Islamic country's envoy, he said: "There has been a long-standing suspicion in the south that there is a Christian conspiracy to destabilise Sri Lanka. That is because the Christian churches have been sympathetic to the Tamil cause and struggle."

During my recent visit to Colombo, more than one person had mentioned that the LTTE was back in the business of armed conflict "thanks to the support it is receiving from some European churches".

The concern in some quarters of southern Sri Lanka is that proselytisation is on the agenda of Catholic churches. When asked if Sri Lankan Tamils were being converted to Christianity, Mr Perera said the LTTE had indeed received such complaints "but it doesn't seem to be interested in taking action".

Mr P. Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, confirmed that "the Catholic conspiracy theory is indeed popular in some Sinhalese quarters here", but he does not subscribe to it. On the attempt to kill the Pakistan High Commissioner, he said this was because "Pakistan is seen to be helping the Sri Lankan government by giving it military supplies, which were being used in the north and the east."

Phase of war begins

He said Sri Lanka had entered "a phase of war which would be fought to a point where one of the sides wins, or both sides think they've had enough, or the two sides feel secure enough to think it's time to talk to each other."

Mr Perera, however, believes that "war has not actually broken out. I'd say we're in a war-like situation because neither side has officially declared a war or said it is withdrawing from the Ceasefire Agreement.

"So far the engagement is not total, and there is intense fighting only in pockets. Till the CFA holds, even if only on paper, my hope is that both sides will realise that the cost of a military conflict is going to be too high and resume dialogue. But this will depend on a stalemate being reached".

At the moment, no stalemate is discernible. Following the spat over the blocking of the waterway by the LTTE and the associated military engagement, on Tuesday, the Tigers accused the Sri Lankan Air Force of having bombed an orphanage in the LTTE-controlled Mullaithivu district and killing 61 school-children as they were undergoing a first-aid training course.

Mr Perera said that while the Government maintained that the youngsters were LTTE recruits who were receiving military training and the Tigers said they were receiving first-aid lessons, "the more probable story doing the rounds is that these children were forced by the LTTE to undergo military training. Even if the children were undergoing military training, the humanitarian thing to do was to make all efforts to get them out of such a situation rather than drop a bomb and kill them. But the Government seems to be sticking to its justification."

Growing threat

As the events unfold in Sri Lanka and newer areas in the tiny, troubled nation are drawn into the conflict zone, it is fairly certain that the uneasy, fragile peace has been shattered.

The cricket tri-series is in jeopardy, the forthcoming SAF Games will be conducted under heavy security, and the coming days will unfold how tourists respond to the latest bout of violence in Sri Lanka.

Will they shrug off the threat from terrorist attacks? After all, this is today a threat that is dogging travellers in every corner of the world, as proved by the latest diabolic plot to blow up planes flying from the UK to the US, using liquid explosives. Thanks to the alertness of the British intelligence and security systems, the plot was foiled. But the terror networks have succeeded in petrifying travellers and overstretching security measures to ridiculous levels.

One has always admired parents travelling with infants and toddlers across thousands of miles, a trying experience at the best of times. But today, we have reached a stage when parents will have to taste the milk carried for their babies for the flight in front of the security personnel. Can there be a more pitiable statement on the times we live in?

(Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 16, 2006)
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