COLOMBO: Luxmi Wellamma fled her home in Sri Lanka’s war-torn north for what she hoped would be a safer life in Colombo.
But the relative calm of the capital comes at a cost: as an ethnic Tamil from the rebel-dominated north, she is frisked and grilled by security forces whenever she moves about.
“Each time I go out, police ask lots of questions when they see my identity card,” the 54-year-old said, sitting inside a scruffy low-budget hostel in the Tamil-dominated Wellawatte area of Colombo.
“Often they tell us to go back. They say we are dangerous. They say we are LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) supporters,” said Wellamma, who fled the north along with her son 18 months ago.
Like thousands who have headed south as the war escalates, she says life for ordinary Tamils in Colombo is getting worse.
Tamils complain of frequent raids, arbitrary detentions and harassment by the police and army, which are dominated by the island’s ethnic Sinhalese majority.
Tamils, whose national identity cards are written in Tamil, are segregated at checkpoints for a lengthy grilling sometimes.
The Tigers have been blamed for a string of bomb attacks targeting the public transport network in recent months as the military has intensified pressure on the rebels’ de facto mini-state.
As Sri Lanka’s hawkish Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse said this week, “each and every Tamil is not a terrorist – but 99 per cent of the terrorists are Tamils.”
Tamil visitors to Colombo need to register with police, who are fearful of LTTE suicide bombers or assassins infiltrating the city of around 650,000 people.
Police also carried out a new census of Tamils living in Colombo on Sunday, concluding more than 36,000 had entered the city in the past five years.
Most members of the minority community complain that Sunday’s forced registration was unfair and unlawful.
“It’s nothing but harassment,” said P. Jesudasan, an IT executive from the northern district of Jaffna who has been living in the capital for nearly five years.
“I had already registered with the police. But I went for the census because I didn’t want to be harassed the next time police searched my house or stopped me at a checkpoint,” Jesudasan said.
Police have also begun asking Tamils living in hostels to return to their villages in the embattled north and east. The defence ministry recently said long-term visitors were a “security threat” to government forces.
Sri Lanka’s chief justice Sarath Silva on Monday said the forcible eviction was illegal, after a local rights group – the Centre for Policy Alternatives – brought it to his notice in court.
The Supreme Court last year criticised police for expelling 300 Tamils, and ordered authorities to bus them back to the city.
But for Tamil businessman M. Thavarasa, the recent crackdown is a part of a wider pattern of abuses his community has to endure.
Tamil-populated neighbourhoods in Colombo are often cordoned off and swept by security forces, and Tamils have complained of mass arrests.
“My shop is raided. Staff questioned. Police and army always ask us if we are LTTE sympathisers,” Thavarasa said. “We are not Tiger supporters. But they violate our basic human rights by asking us these questions.”