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Marking or silencing the enemy?

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A sustained campaign of violence against a leading Tamil daily this week is part of Sinhala nationalist mobilisation in the run up to Presidential elections to be held this year, political analysts said.

But some observers also suggested the attacks on the Suderoli newspaper are part of Sinhala nationalists’ efforts to promote the political ambitions of the renegade LTTE commander, Karuna.

The Suderoli is the Colombo-based sister of the largest circulating Jaffna daily, Uthayan, and their editorial lines are close. The popular newspaper – unconfirmed industry figures suggest Suderoli’s circulation is about 25,000 daily and 28,000 for a weekly edition – is known for its strong Tamil nationalist stance.

Whilst all of Sri Lanka’s leading independent Tamil newspapers – the others being the Thinakkural and Virakesari –have firm Tamil nationalist stances, the Suderoli is considered by many to be the most vocally supportive of the Liberation Tigers, even though as an IANS feature pointed out in March this year, “today, in Sri Lanka, almost the entire Tamil media is brazenly pro-LTTE.”

''Suderoli has been targeted for several months by Sinhala nationalist groups that accuse the daily of supporting the Tamil Tigers'' - RSF

But, the leading Sinhala language papers, led by the Divaina, are strongly nationalistic also, using anti-LTTE and anti-Tamil language bordering on racism.

And the vernacular divide in Sri Lanka has meant the papers cater to their own communities, with little regard for sentiments in the other. Indeed, as

Which is why, some political analysts say, the recent rash of attacks in Colombo on Suderoli’s staff and offices is significant.

On Monday, unidentified attackers lobbed two grenades into the paper’s printing office at Madampitiya Road at. Grandpass. A security guard, Mr. David Selvaratnam, 50, who was injured in the attack, succumbed to his wounds at Colombo Hospital. A proof reader, a computer operator and a visitor from Deepam TV, a cable/satellite channel, were also injured in the attack, TamilNet reported.

Editorial staff working in the office at the time of attack escaped unhurt. But on Tuesday, two of the paper’s reporters were assaulted when they were waiting for a bus after covering a parliamentary session. One was seriously injured.

Two weeks ago, unidentified men lobbed two grenades into the branch office of the Suderoli in Wellawatte, a predominantly Tamil suburb of Colombo. The grenades did not explode.

A subsequent attack revealed possibly motives. One of Suderoli’s photojournalists, Yathurshan Premachchandran, was severely assaulted by a group of Janath Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) supporters when he went to cover the Marxist-cum-Sinhala nationalist party’s demonstration at the Colombo Fort railway premises.

After being handed over to the police by the JVP, Premachchandran was taken to the Colombo police station where members of the intelligence services came and questioned him about his supposed LTTE membership, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) said.

In a statement issued after last two incidents, RSF noted Suderoli “has been targeted for several months by nationalist groups that accuse the daily of supporting the Tamil Tigers.”

The JVP Parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa has denied involvement in the grenade attack and condemned it.

But political columnists, who largely agreed that if not JVP, certainly Sinhala nationalists were responsible, said the attacks were meant as a signal to the wider Tamil community; “to show who’s boss.”

The Suderoli which, which started out as a weekly only became a daily in the past few years, has been commercially successful, despite its difficulties in getting advertising from Sinhala customers, they said.

The paper’s success and unabashed pro-LTTE line inevitably invokes hostility. But the attacks are seen as part of a wider campaign to mobilise Sinhala nationalist sentiment amongst the electorate ahead of the Presidential election.

The race is primarily between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) Mahinda Rajapakse and the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Promising its support to the candidate that would adopt its hardline anti-LTTE, anti-Tamil policies, the JVP is this week signalling its affinity for Rajapakse, currently Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister.

Mr. Rajapakse has condemned the lethal attack on the Suderoli’s office, saying “this cowardly act is also an assault on the freedom of expression.”

But he has launched an election campaign which has Sinhala-Buddhism as a central plank and on Sunday appealed to the JVP to join him “to defeat reactionary forces in order to save the motherland,” and in an unmistakable move to court to the Sinhala right, he has launched a blunt attack on the Norwegian peace process, saying he wanted peace, “but not peace at any cost.”

But other analysts suggest the attacks on the Suderoli’s are part of a campaign of intimidation to assist the project of launching an anti-LTTE political party centred on the renegade LTTE commander Karuna.

Karuna, who defected to the Sri Lanka Army when his six-week rebellion against the LTTE in March-April 2004 collapsed over the Easter weekend, has been enthusiastically backed by the Sinhala right wing as a challenge, in their view, to the LTTE’s hegemony.

All Tamil newspapers drew Karuna’s ire during his rebellion and in the wake of his defeat, Tamil journalists have faced a wave of violence and intimidation.

In a lengthy interview to the JVP-run Lanka newspaper earlier this year, Karuna, in whose name Sri Lankan military intelligence is said to be waging a murderous shadow war against the LTTE, spoke of his ambitions to launch a political party. The JVP has practically attempted to support his efforts.

But Karuna has been vilified in the Tamil press. Though urging reconciliation between him and the LTTE in the early stages of this rebellion - amid their palpable shock and dismay – the Tamil papers quickly became strongly critical.

All Tamil newspapers drew Karuna’s ire during his rebellion, with their distribution being disrupted – the Thinnakural being banned outright – and in the wake of his defeat, Tamil journalists have faced a wave of violence and intimidation.

Karuna, and by implication, Sri Lankan military intelligence, have been implicated in the killings of Mr. Aiyathurai Nadesan of the Virakesari in May 2004 and of Mr. Dharmeratnam Sivaram in April 2005 and the intimidation of several others.

Mr. K. Rathnasingham, editor of the Suderoli, was defiant Monday. "Even if just one person remains, we will continue the newspaper," he told the Associated Press, "They will not silence us."

But many Tamil journalists, already jittery in the wake of previous threats and violence, have been alarmed by the attacks. The abduction and murder of Mr. Sivaram had already sparked a wave of asylum claims abroad, according to reporters.

And, given the suspected involvement of elements linked to Sri Lanka’s security forces, there is no reason to expect the violence against Sri Lanka’s Tamil press to stop.

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