Thursday, May 18, 2006

Farmers learn to fight from Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers by Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi

Tamil farmer Thuraichami Wardanayagam is happiest tending his aubergine and chilli crops, but war clouds hang over his native Sri Lanka and he has turned to Tamil Tiger rebels for combat training.

He has been running and doing star jumps in this village just outside the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) northern stronghold, and if all goes well he will learn how to handle a semi-automatic rifle and possibly even explosives.

The Tigers are offering men, women and youngsters training in the island's north and east as a spate of deadly attacks and military clashes between the rebels and the state threaten to rupture a 2002 truce that still technically holds.

"We don't consider this as training. This is vital to our lives," said 55-year-old Thuraichami Wardanayagam, doing physical training in a white and brown sarong and vest under the guidance of two rebels in Tiger-striped camouflage fatigues.

A spate of deadly attacks on Tamil civilians in the northern, army-held enclave of Jaffna which the rebels blame on the military and vice-versa have left many residents feeling too scared to venture out onto the streets.

Grenade attacks and shootings are now near daily occurrences in the town now controlled by Sri Lanka's majority-Sinhalese army and which Tamils regard as the cradle of their civilization.

Nordic truce monitors say they believe some troops are involved in extrajudicial killings of Tamil civilians.

On Wednesday, the latest in a string of mine ambushes by suspected Tigers killed two soldiers in the east, while a civilian was shot dead in Jaffna.

Some Tamils sympathetic to the Tigers' cause for a separate Tamil homeland want to learn to fight back if the time comes.

"So many things happened in and around Jaffna during the last four or five days. That means war has come," Wardanayagam said. "This is to protect us all, including our children, from war."


With more than 270 troops and civilians killed since early April -- including a fierce naval battle and aerial bombing raids just last week -- the violence looks just like periods of the two-decade civil war in which over 64,000 people died.

Truce monitors and the Tigers have both started referring to a "low intensity war". The government disagrees, saying the ceasefire holds and says it will limit itself to tactical bursts of retaliation if attacked.

The Tigers began training civilians since last year in parts of Sri Lanka's north and east they control as a precaution against any eventual return to a two-decade civil war that has already killed more than 64,000 people.

At the time, they said the civilians would be trained for their own safety and would not fight alongside them.

"The country is going towards war. That's why we're doing this training," said rebel media coordinator Daya Master. "In our controlled area, people in every village are getting self-defence training."

"If they want weapons training, we will give it to them," he added, saying several thousand people have been trained. "When the opportunity arises, they can join the LTTE if they want."

In Kilinochchi, the Tigers' nerve centre, heavily armed rebel fighters are visible on the streets. Some families have moved away from forward defence lines near government territory, arriving in the town on tractors with their worldly possessions.

The training lasts two hours each day, and comprises self-defence and physical exercise, first aid and finally weapons training for those deemed suitable.

"This training is very helpful for us to defend ourselves against the government's military forces," said one 60-year-old housewife, exercising in a green saree, her hair in a bun. She refused to give her name or be photographed for fear of being identified by the military.

"They always harrass us and our children. That is the reason I came to this training," she said.