19 September 2006
Several Tamil traders and businessmen have fled Sri Lanka following a spate of killings and abductions that activists say has led to one of the most traumatic periods for the island's minority community.
The flight of the Tamils has been reported from the eastern port town of Trincomalee, a region that has seen terrible violence involving the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Many have made it to India.
The businessmen's hurried exit - quite different from the thousands of mainly poor Tamils who have reached Tamil Nadu - comes after the unprecedented mass displacement of Tamils and Muslims in the northeast.
Among the businessmen who have left Trincomalee after being threatened are the owners of a leading cycle store, another store that has existed in the town for 40 years, a business providing mobile services, three hardware stores, a centre dealing in aluminium fitters, a transport company and a hotel.
According to them, they had to take the threats seriously because some of their colleagues who ignored similar threats got killed later.
Trincomalee residents provided the names of the businesses but requested that they be not published. They said they feared that local authorities might end up taking action against the establishments for publicising their grievances.
A senior member of the chamber of commerce has also fled Trincomalee, locals told IANS. "We have information that a Sinhalese (extremist) gang has prepared a hit list of 40 prominent Tamils of Trincomalee," one Tamil source said.
And what is happening in Trincomalee has spilled over into Colombo in the form of threats, extortion and abductions directed at Tamil businessmen. Many of them are conveniently dubbed as LTTE sympathisers.
A Sri Lankan official admitted that many ordinary Tamils in the capital were gripped by a "fear psychosis" but claimed that the authorities were doing all they could to end a wave of targeted shootings and abductions for ransom.
But residents say there is no end in sight to the crime wave.
"The last six months have been the worst period for Tamils compared to any six months since militancy began (in 1983)," said one Tamil resident in Colombo.
The dominant fear among the businessmen in Trincomalee is death -- at the hands of gangs they allege are linked to security forces or anti-LTTE Tamil groups. The LTTE too has been blamed for many murders, turning the region into a killing field.
A worse situation prevails in the Jaffna peninsula, where fighting that erupted in August between the military and the LTTE has virtually cut off the sprawling region, leading to crippling shortages and long hours of curfew. The prices of essential commodities have soared. Some commodities are simply not available.
None of those who shared information with IANS was ready to be quoted by name.
International aid agencies have put the number of people displaced in Sri Lanka's northeast, the virtual war zone, at well over 200,000. Most of them are Tamils, although Muslims have also been hit hard in the east.
"Thousands of poor Tamils have fled Mutur East and Sampoor and moved into LTTE areas further south. Many are living under trees or have shifted into government territory," said a Tamil source.
Newspaper reports speak of gunmen in Colombo coming in vans or on motorcycles without number plates and grabbing people they want.
A few have been released after being abducted. Others have disappeared without a trace. In some cases the victims were murdered and the bodies dumped for families to find.
Several Tamil businessmen who were kidnapped from Colombo's roads were released reportedly after their families paid ransom running into millions of rupees.