Many Lankan Tamils giving up on country

The assailants broke in after the fighting between ethnic rebels and the military erupted again into full-scale war,storming through his family's home and calling his name.

Written by Associated Press | Colombo | Published: March 3, 2009 3:02:26 pm

The assailants broke in after the fighting between ethnic rebels and the military erupted again into full-scale war,storming through his family’s home and calling his name.

Thanabalasingham Surendran,a member of Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority,fled to the capital,Colombo. But unknown “messengers from military intelligence” kept calling and demanding extortion money. So the shop owner paid a smuggler to get him out of Sri Lanka.

As the government claims it is coming close to winning a quarter-century war with the Tamil Tiger separatists,many ordinary Tamils are giving up on their country.

Hundreds of thousands have already left,and others are desperately trying to get abroad.

In his Independence Day speech earlier this month,President Mahinda Rajapaksa appealed for everyone who left to return home to the Indian Ocean island nation off the tip of India.

But after decades of war,harassment and economic hardship,many Tamils say Sri Lanka doesn’t feel like home.

Some 800,000 Tamils now live overseas and that figure is growing,especially among young men,analysts say.

“Their priority is to get out of the country,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu,a political analyst and executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

Many fear a military victory over the rebels will further embolden the nation’s mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and make life for the mostly Hindu Tamils even harder,Tamil parliamentarian Mano Ganesan said. Tamils make up about 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people.

“We feel more vulnerable now,” Ganesan said.

Many also fear other Tamil paramilitary groups will grow stronger after the rival Tamil Tigers are defeated,threatening locals,increasing their forcible conscription of young boys and demanding heavier extortion payments to fund their activities.

In the capital,armed guards pull over cars and taxis for security checks several times a day,searching for possible rebel suicide bombers. Main roads are routinely shut down for government convoys,and security cordons block areas with government offices and tourist hotels.

Few residents,Sinhalese or Tamil,are willing to talk openly,and those who do generally refuse to give their names. Tamils fear that any criticism of the country would mark them as rebel sympathizers.

“I want to live here in Sri Lanka,but I have no choice but to go overseas because of the security situation,” one Tamil man said.

“Many young men are in the same situation.” Mohan,a 28-year-old civil engineer living in Colombo,left the northern city of Jaffna in 2006 amid a wave of violence that closed key roads and shut down construction projects.

“We lost our jobs,so we came down here looking for work,” he said. “But there’s no work here,either.” Mohan,who like many others refused to give his surname,shares a room with a friend in Wellawatta,a Colombo neighborhood known as “Little Jaffna.” The tiny,spare room has just enough space at night for sleeping mats,and someone has taped up a map of the world.

Mohan said he avoids leaving Wellawatta for neighborhoods where he cannot read the Sinhalese street signs. If he needs to communicate with non-Tamils,he speaks English.

Every day is the same: “I eat,sleep,have a bath and go out looking for a job.” He hasn’t found work in more than a year. Residents say many are reluctant to hire Tamils from Jaffna for fear they could be rebels.

Occasionally,that fear is justified. A Tamil engineer from Jaffna recently was caught trying to plant a bomb along nearby train tracks.

Mohan said he is focusing on getting overseas – to Canada,where he has relatives,or London,where his sister lives – even if it means doing menial work.

Those who have made it overseas are seen as the lucky ones.

But Surendran,now living in Switzerland far from his wife and young sons,said life there isn’t easy. He was placed in temporary housing and given a small allowance for winter clothes and food.

More than a year later,his bid for asylum is pending.

“It’s lonely here; it’s really sad to live away from family,” Surendran,34,told The Associated Press in Chur,near Zurich.

Some overseas Tamils help bankroll the rebels in their war.

Others are caught up in the turmoil.

At least two overseas Tamils committed suicide in recent weeks by setting themselves on fire to protest violence against civilians in their homeland. A letter near one man’s body in Geneva identified him as a 26-year-old Tamil living in London,the pro-rebel Web site TamilNet said.

“I believe the flames over my body,heart and soul will help the world community to have a deep human look over the great sufferings of the Sri Lankan Tamils,” he wrote.

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