COLOMBO, May 30 (Reuters) - Placing a green coconut by a burning brass oil lamp on a desk doubling as a makeshift Hindu altar, the woman talked about the future with hope and fear.
"We're planning to get married," said the smiling 29-year-old with coffee brown skin, a vermilion dot on her forehead and her husband-to-be by her side. "But we are, together, planning to go to another country first ... Can you help?"
The pair, who requested their names not be used, are members of the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic group that the government says makes up an estimated 12 percent of the island's population of nearly 20 million, and, like many, they're finding life is getting harder.
"I can't go out without my I.D. card. If I do, and I get stopped, I will be detained," the man said, describing what could happen at any of the dozens of government check points in town.
She elaborated: "They ask: Where do you stay? What's your address? Do you support the LTTE?"
The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, have been at war for more than two decades with the government, which has rested for years almost entirely in the hands of the Sinhalese majority, who account for around 75 percent of the population.
The last government census in 2001 did not cover majority Tamil areas because of ongoing conflict, and so numbers are an approximation. Nor do they take into account hundreds of thousands of Tamils who have moved abroad.
Ethnic tension sparked the conflict in this island nation off the heel of India, and decades of war have etched deep dividing lines through society.
Both sides share the blame, but analysts say successive Sinhalese-dominated governments have marginalised other ethnicities and religious groups by insisting on the primacy of Buddhism and the Sinhalese language.
The ruling party of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's draft proposal on power devolution unveiled in May included a line effectively anointing Buddhism first among equals.
Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka are disenfranchised, too, but the Tamils seem to bear the brunt.
Tamils say they are often treated unfairly at roadside checkpoints where they are interrogated and held for long period of time, automatically suspected of being Tiger sympathisers.
Following a series of deadly roadside bomb blasts in the capital in recent months, Tamil populated neighbourhoods in Colombo are periodically cordoned and swept by security forces, and Tamils have complained of mass arrests, saying they are persecuted simply because of their ethnicity.
"It is like going back to the late 1980s and 90s. The culture of impunity is very similar," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an ethnic Tamil who heads the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank in Colombo.
Tamils have been a main target of a rash of kidnappings, disappearances and assassinations that are widely blamed on both sides of the conflict. The Tigers, meanwhile, have systematically killed any dissenting voices within the minority Tamil community they claim to fight for, analysts say.
This month, Britain decided to halt millions of dollars in aid to Sri Lanka citing concerns about human rights abuses, and a senior State Department official urged the government to rein in paramilitaries defence experts say are helping the military fight the Tigers.
The Tigers declare they are the sole voice of the Tamils. In reality, most ordinary Tamils Reuters has spoken to disagree with their violent methods. But they would like a greater say over their own affairs.
"The LTTE made use of the ceasefire to try to extend its influence," said one senior official in a Tamil political party who declined to be named for fear or reprisals.
"Had they behaved well, we wouldn't be having all these problems," he said, flipping through the pages of a list of scores of party members who have disappeared or been killed.
Rajapaksa has taken a hard line, his government vowing to destroy the Tamil Tigers militarily and pouring money into defence to the worry of the international community.
"The ethnic conflict is getting worse and more acute and the government is trying to solve the problem through a military solution, which makes it worse," said Neelakandar Kandasamy, a lawyer and rights activist.
Security forces are almost entirely Sinhalese and in most cases cannot communicate with the Tamil population in the north and east, which compounds division and distrust.
Many Tamils, like the engaged couple, avoid going out at night in Colombo, even though there is no curfew. Hindu priests at a temple in a Tamil neighbourhood in Colombo are afraid to talk about the situation with outsiders.
Many Tamils have moved abroad, and it is no coincidence that most of the Tamil Tigers' funding comes from overseas. The Tigers, too, are renowned for demanding contributions from expatriate business owners.
"It is a tragedy that the Sinhala government and the Sinhala leadership does not understand," Sivathamby said. "The Tigers are more the symptom than the cause," he said. "By trying to obliterate the symptom you are not obliterating the cause."
The Tamil couple, looking toward the future, are first looking for a way out.
"I don't want to stay here," said the husband-to-be. "I hate this place. I hate this government."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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