Sri Lanka

Truth elusive as Sri Lanka slides deeper into war

By John Ruwitch

COLOMBO, April 19 (Reuters) - Near dusk, men with guns enter the village of Awaranthalawa in northern Sri Lanka, shoot and kill six women and a boy, and withdraw to the jungle.

After that April 12 incident Sri Lanka's military blamed the killings on Tamil Tiger rebels, fighting for an independent homeland for minority Tamils along the north and east of the teardrop-shaped island known as the "Pearl of the Indian Ocean".

The Tigers denied involvement, saying the government engineered the attack on non-combatants to make it look like the rebels did it and tarnish their reputation.

Proof may never emerge either way about the tragedy and many others like it, as they are drowned by a growing tide of bad news in a two-decade war that has intensified over the past 16 months.

Violence like the killings in remote Awaranthalawa highlights a worrying axiom of the worsening conflict.

"The more violent it is, the less likely you are to get a true account," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think-tank based in the capital, Colombo.

Since 1983, nearly 70,000 people have died in the fighting, including more than 4,000 since 2005 when a ceasefire began to unravel three years after it was signed.

Alongside almost daily land and sea battles, propaganda from both sides has proliferated.

"What we really see are two wars. One is the press release war in Colombo and the other is the military war with the rebels in the north and east," said defence analyst Iqbal Athas.

The escalation of violence and an official "state of emergency" have made it harder for journalists seeking independent verification to travel to conflict zones. After a suicide bomber tried to kill the president's brother in late 2006 the government further tightened restrictions.

TOUGH TO MONITOR

Even Nordic monitors of the tattered 2002 ceasefire, who enjoy unparallelled access to the war zones, say it is getting more difficult to determine the truth.

"Increasingly, they are blaming each other for the most significant incidents. In many of the cases we can, from our side, pinpoint who is the most likely perpetrator, but it is getting more and more difficult," said Thorfinnur Omarsson, of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

The execution-style killing of 17 tsunami aid workers last year was another case where the truth has remained elusive.

The SLMM blamed security forces, but the government has stringently denied that and promised a transparent investigation into the worst attack on humanitarian workers since the 2003 suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Yet little has come to light in the ensuing months and rights groups have said the probe was beset with shortcomings. No arrests have been made.

In the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated south and west, analysts say, the government is winning the information war.

A poll released this month by the Centre for Policy Initiatives found about 60 percent of Sinhalese backed a military solution to the conflict, while support for peace talks fell to 46 percent from 57 percent in November.

"The vast majority of people are fed government propaganda," Saravanamuttu said. "They have been fed on a diet of victory."

WE CAN WIN

Sunanda Deshapriya, convenor of the Free Media Movement, said: "The public is thinking that the government is winning. They think: 'We can win this war'."

That has worrying implications, some say.

Many analysts see no end in sight for the conflict and no clear advantage for ether side in the war, which has dragged on for decades.

The Tigers for their part run a well-oiled propaganda machine too. The rebel group is savvy in the workings of the international media, and pro-Tiger Web sites like Tamilnet are quick to post reports rebutting military claims.

After the attack in Awaranthalawa a spokesman for the rebels was prompt to call Reuters with their denial.

In areas under Tiger control, analysts say the rebels keep a tight grip on information through a mix of intimidation and propaganda.

The government has also been accused of threatening journalists.

"I don't think that in general people get the real picture," said Deshapriya.

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Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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