Sri Lanka temple tackles reconciliation amid fresh fears of fighting

MATARA, Sri Lanka - At a temple in the heart of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese south, an unusual attempt at reconciliation is underway after decades of ethnic bloodshed, even as the government warns of fresh fighting.

Inside the white-washed temple, Hindu priests watch over metres-high statues of an estranged couple brought together to lift an age-old curse many blame for Sri Lanka's conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

"The country will never go back to war," priest Mani Srinivasa told AFP of the new spiritual effort at the temple in Matara, mainly used by the minority Tamil community, who are predominantly Hindus.

The temple was destroyed during violence 30 years ago between ethnic majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhists, and Tamils - but later rebuilt with the help of both communities.

"We know all this talk of unrest will fade away by the end of this year. It is written in the stars," Srinivasa said.

Five years after the separatist conflict ended, Sri Lanka is struggling with reconciliation amid international calls for an investigation into alleged war-time atrocities and claims rights abuses are still being committed.

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse has resisted pressure for an international probe, and denies claims his troops killed 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians in the final months of the decades-long war.

He says he needs more time to heal the wounds of the conflict that finally ended when the mainly Sinhalese military crushed Tamil rebels fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils.

But signs of government-led reconciliation are few, and in April the defence ministry warned fresh attempts were under way to revive the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group.

The warning came after the military said it shot dead three men during an operation against suspected Tamil rebels, in the first major confrontation since the end of the conflict in 2009.

No return to war

Experts have rubbished the government's warning, saying there was absolutely no appetite within Sri Lanka or among the Tamil diaspora abroad for another armed struggle.

"By claiming that there is a serious threat of the LTTE re-emerging, the government completely undermines its own claim of normalcy in the (former war zone of the) northeast," former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka told AFP.

"This is schizophrenia manifesting itself as official government policy."

Others question the timing of the government's announcement, which came just weeks after the UN's top rights body passed a resolution for a formal probe into Colombo's war record.

Western nations are pressing Colombo to lift draconian anti-insurgency laws that allow troops to hold suspects without charge for lengthy periods, and recall thousands of soldiers still patrolling former war zones.

Sri Lanka's human rights envoy to the UN has defended the measures, saying the recent shootings proved they were still needed.

"When we discussed (these issues) with Western nations, they asked us strongly to remove troops from those (former war zone) areas," Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters recently.

"But, after the latest (shooting) incident we can go to the international community and say that our decision to retain troops is right."

Priest Srinivasa also dismissed warnings of another conflict, saying the Sri Shiva Subramaniam temple, whose rebuilding started in 2006 and was completed last year, was a powerful sign of reconciliation. Besides, the curse has been lifted, making a return to war impossible, he said.

Miraculous powers

According to Sinhalese mythology, the curse dates back to the origins of the Sinhalese race. A wayward, playboy prince called Vijaya was banished by his parents from India to neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Vijaya later dumped his local island wife, demon princess Kuveni, and remarried an Indian princess. He became Sri Lanka's first king and started the Sinhala race which scorned princess Kuveni cursed.

Srinivasa says Vijaya and Kuveni have been reunited for the first time, with their statues placed together in February at the temple, located 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Colombo.

"This is the only Hindu temple anywhere with (statues of) Vijaya and Kuveni side by side."

"Lord Skanda (a statue of the Hindu deity believed to be a protector of the island) is looking over them and we know the powers of the temple will take away Kuveni's curse," said Srinivasa, whose actions are backed by Hindu priests in the former northern warzone of Jaffna.

Such mythological stories about Sri Lanka's history are common on the island, whose Sinhalese majority can trace their roots back to giant neighbour India, which also has a large Tamil population.

Sinhalese mobs destroyed the temple during nationwide anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed thousands of lives and marked an escalation in the already raging separatist war.

But years later, the main Buddhist temple in the area, Weherahena, started donating building materials to the demolished Hindu one. Buddhist monk Kegalle Rathanasara said its reconstruction showed ethnic tensions have dissolved.

"The kovil (temple) was rebuilt with the help of Buddhists," Rathanasara told AFP in Matara. "There is only a handful of Tamil (Hindu) families here, but they live peacefully among us."

Caretaker of the rebuilt temple, P. H. Dharmadasa, said both Sinhalese and Tamils who came to pray were welcome.

"This is a place with miraculous powers," he said.