by PHILIP GOUREVITCH
Issue of 2005-08-01; Posted 2005-07-25
There was talk in Sri Lanka, not long after the tsunami, of an expensive coffin heading north. The story appeared in the press and was passed on in conversation, unencumbered by any trace of verifiable reality: Did you hear . . . a coffin, very fancy . . . what to think? Perhaps such a coffin existed, perhaps not. More than thirty thousand people had been killed on the island in the space of a few minutes when the Indian Ocean rose up and surged ashore under a bright, cloudless sky on the morning after Christmas; and Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the secessionist Tamil Tigers, who control a sizable swath of northern Sri Lanka, had not been seen or heard from since. The coastal town of Mullaittivu, where Prabhakaran had his military headquarters in a network of underground bunkers, had been largely erased by the sea. An announcer on the state-owned radio, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, speculated hopefully that, if so much of Mullaittivu was gone, perhaps its most notorious resident might be, too. For thirty years, since he took up arms against the government, which is dominated by the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, Prabhakaran, the self-styled Sun God of the Tamil Hindu minority, has been the defining figure of Sri Lankan history—a wearying chronicle of civil war, assassination, and terror. For a country dumbfounded by the senseless loss of life along its coasts, the rumor of the northbound coffin attached to the mystery of his absence to suggest the possibility of a single meaningful death.
Prabhakaran, who turned fifty last year, is one of the most bloody-minded and effective warlords in today’s crowded field. Osama bin Laden is more infamous, on account of Al Qaeda’s global reach and sensational operations, but Prabhakaran and his Tigers, in their determination to carve out an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka, have been every bit as bold. The Tigers, whose extremist ethnic nationalism is essentially secular, are often credited with inventing suicide bombing, and although that claim is surely exaggerated, they did develop the sort of explosive suicide vests favored by Palestinian terrorists, and they refined the technique of using speedboats as bombs to ram large ships, which was employed in 2000 by Al Qaeda agents in Yemen against the U.S.S. Cole. In 1991, long before female suicide bombers became a fixture of Middle Eastern terrorism, the Tigers deployed the woman who blew up India’s Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. That was Prabhakaran’s most notorious hit, but his suicide squad of Black Tigers has claimed more than two hundred and sixty bombings in the last two decades—an average rate of nearly one a month—injuring and killing thousands of people, the great majority of them civilians. “Of course we use suicide bombers,” a Tiger official who was overseeing humanitarian relief for displaced tsunami survivors near Mullaittivu told me. “Because, as a revolutionary organization, we have limited resources.”
Prabhakaran depicts his struggle as a quest to reclaim his people’s historic homeland, but the idea of secession is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, a response to the government’s discriminatory policies and its complicity in communal violence against Tamils during the decades following Sri Lanka’s independence, in 1948, from British colonial rule. Until the early nineteen-eighties, most Tamils favored the establishment of a federal system that would grant them substantial local autonomy within a unified state; and, even as hope for a political solution gave way to Tamil militancy, armed struggle was widely seen as a means to force such an outcome. Prabhakaran, however, has always been hostile to the idea of power-sharing. He proclaims himself and his Tigers to be the only true representatives of Tamil political aspirations and has waged a systematic campaign—every bit as relentless as his war against the state—to eliminate Tamil rivals. Nevertheless, the Tigers have consistently had to resort to the forced recruitment of Tamil children, a practice barely distinguishable from outright abduction, to fill their fighting ranks and replenish their suicide brigades.
In Sinhalese, the name Sri Lanka means “blessed land,” and in its physical aspects the country is a tropical paradise, hemmed by palm-shaded beaches and, in its interior, fragrant with the florid vegetation of astonishingly varied landscapes—salt marshes and mountain lakes, mist-shrouded tea plantations, glimmering paddies, and mahogany jungles. The contrast between the island’s natural attractions and its repellently violent history was thrown into stark relief by the tsunami, which killed half as many people in one blow as three decades of war and terror had claimed. Yet this devastation was perfectly arbitrary, and it is a measure of the depth of Sri Lanka’s troubles that for this reason the tsunami was widely regarded there not only as a disaster but also as an occasion for hope.
The President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, articulated this unlikely optimism when she addressed the nation two days after the tsunami. Sri Lanka, she declared, had been “incredibly humbled” by the waves, which had dealt death and destruction to all ethnic groups indiscriminately. Never mind that Sinhalese, who count for nearly seventy-five per cent of the island’s twenty million inhabitants, outnumber Tamils by roughly four to one, and that Tamils, in turn, outnumber the next largest minority group, Muslims, by three to one. “Nature does not differentiate in the treatment of peoples,” the President said, and she urged Sri Lankans to follow nature’s example. In fact, many had responded to the disaster by rushing to the aid of the afflicted without regard for their identity. There were stories of Sinhalese soldiers risking—and losing—their lives in efforts to rescue Tamil civilians; of Tamil businessmen carting meals to displaced Sinhalese survivors; and of Muslims buying up clothes and medicines to hand out to Hindus and Buddhists. It was only later that Sri Lankans had time to register their surprise at their own unthinking decency, and their relief at this discovery was compounded by a sense that the tsunami had saved the country from an imminent return to war.
Although a ceasefire between the government and the Tigers has held since early 2002, peace talks broke down the next year—with the Tigers demanding what amounts to self-rule, and the government refusing to grant it—and, in the unhappy deadlock that followed, both parties have been riven by internal disputes. On the government side, President Kumaratunga forged a new ruling coalition in April of last year with the People’s Liberation Front (known by its Sinhalese initials as the J.V.P.), a small but aggressively divisive Communist party, which spikes its Marxism with an extremist strain of Sinhalese nationalism and Buddhist supremacism, and regards concessions to the Tigers as tantamount to treason. Kumaratunga, who first allied with the J.V.P. in 2001, has acknowledged that her affiliation with the party was a devil’s bargain, made to retain power. This political realignment in Colombo, the capital, coincided with an armed revolt against Prabhakaran by one of his top commanders, a man known by the nom de guerre Colonel Karuna, who drew his support from his home area in eastern Sri Lanka, where Tamils had long felt exploited and ill served by the Tiger leadership. Karuna’s aim was to secure autonomy for eastern Tamils from both the Tigers and the government, and although he could not prevail militarily against Prabhakaran, he remains at large—in hiding, and probably in exile—and the Tigers have been unable to reëstablish dominion over large areas of the east. Karuna’s rebellion dramatized the threat that peace poses to Prabhakaran’s authority, and a month before the tsunami struck, when Prabhakaran delivered his annual Hero’s Day speech, he declared himself fed up with the stalemate.
The Hero’s Day oration, which is delivered at night, in a cemetery for martyred Tigers, lit by flaming torches, is often Prabhakaran’s only significant public utterance in the course of a year, and his pronouncements have come to be seen as oracular. “We are living in a political void, without war, without a stable peace, without the conditions of normalcy, without an interim or permanent solution to the ethnic conflict,” he began. He accused President Kumaratunga of rejecting the prospect of peace through her “unholy alliance” with the J.V.P. The Sinhalese and the Tamils, he said, were more polarized than ever—“two separate peoples with divergent and mutually incompatible ideologies, consciousness, and political goals”—and he concluded, ominously, “There are borderlines to patience and expectations. We have now reached the borderline.” In the weeks before Christmas, assassinations and attacks involving Prabhakaran’s forces and Karuna sympathizers escalated steadily in the east. Some Sri Lankans cancelled vacations in order to be at home if the war resumed; others made plans to leave the country.
“We were running at the rate of about a murder a day until the tsunami came along,” Father Harry Miller, an American Jesuit missionary in the devastated east-coast city of Batticaloa, told me. Batticaloa, and the surrounding province, which shares its name, was the epicenter of Karuna’s rebellion, a predominantly Tamil region where the ceasefire lines describe a confusing patchwork of government and Tiger territories. For dozens of miles before you reach Batticaloa city on the two-lane road that links it to Colombo—a slow, eight-hour drive away—the scrubby bush is punctuated by heavily fortified Army camps, and a pervasive military presence makes the government-controlled town feel like a place under occupation. Miller had heard the rumors that Prabhakaran might be dead, but he was not surprised when the Tiger leader reappeared in mid-January, without a word of consolation for his people’s losses. Miller did not share President Kumaratunga’s view of the tsunami as a cosmic corrective to what she called “a country where every aspect of life has been politicized,” much less as a providential opportunity. The prevailing sentiment in Batticaloa, he said, was “We are victims again. We’ve had flood, we’ve had wars, we’ve had drought, we’ve had a cyclone. Victims again.”
The defining catastrophe of post-colonial Sri Lankan history was an act of man, a law, promulgated in 1956, when the island was still called Ceylon. The law established Sinhalese as the sole official language (a status previously reserved for English). Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamils both trace their origins to migrations from India, and, despite their different languages and religions, their coexistence had previously been untroubled by ethnic violence. The 1956 law, however, effectively transformed the parliamentary democracy into an instrument of Sinhalese nationalism and excluded Tamils and other minorities from careers in public service, access to many educational opportunities, and other rights and privileges to which citizenship supposedly entitled them.
The man behind the law was President Kumaratunga’s father, Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the scion of a Sinhalese noble family, who was raised an Anglican and educated at Oxford. Although Bandaranaike had converted to Buddhism as a young man, he spoke English with greater ease than he did Sinhalese. In fact, he had to brush up on his native language before campaigning as a populist opposition leader, who mixed leftist rhetoric with nativism in order to tap the resentment of ordinary Sri Lankans toward the class from which he came, the British-educated élite. His Sinhalese-only policy coincided with celebrations in honor of the twenty-five-hundredth anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and scholars tend to regard Bandaranaike’s alienation of the Tamils as inadvertent. “He could just as well have included the Tamil poor in that anti-English campaign,” the human-rights lawyer Radhika Coomaraswamy told me in Colombo. Coomaraswamy is a Tamil, and she said, “I don’t see anti-Tamil sentiment at the core of the original Sinhalese nationalism. Tamils were just ignored, which may be an even greater insult.”
Bandaranaike was unprepared when outraged Tamils took to the streets to protest the law and were met with violence from Sinhalese inflamed by the jingoism he had preached. Tamils were beaten (some of them to death), their homes were set ablaze, and their businesses were ransacked. Bandaranaike could not undo the damage. In 1957, he negotiated a pact with Tamil federalists that met many of their demands for regional autonomy. Sinhalese hard-liners protested, and in 1958 he repudiated the pact, and the country was again swept by violence, of which Tamils were overwhelmingly the victims. A year and a half later, Bandaranaike was shot dead by an apparently deranged Buddhist monk.
Bandaranaike was succeeded, the following year, by his widow, Sirimavo—the world’s first female Prime Minister—who offered concessions to Tamil federalists and won their support during her campaign, then turned her back on them, triggering mass protests in the northern city of Jaffna. In 1962, the Army was sent in to quell the unrest, and although there was little violence between Sinhalese and Tamils during the next decade, the dispiriting effect of militarization in the north, coupled with official discrimination, was such that a generation of Tamils grew up with an acute sense of disenfranchisement. In the early nineteen-seventies, Sirimavo Bandaranaike hardened these feelings by elevating Buddhism to the equivalent of a state religion and by imposing harsh quotas on the number of Tamil students admitted to state universities. In the late sixties, half the students admitted to university programs in engineering and medicine were Tamils; by the end of the next decade, that number was closer to twenty per cent. In 1975, Velupillai Prabhakaran staged what he called his “first major military encounter,” when he shot and killed the mayor of Jaffna, a close associate of the Prime Minister’s, who had been on his way to pray at a Hindu temple.
Tamil militants had attempted to assassinate their politicians before, but none had succeeded, and Prabhakaran’s example inspired others to take up arms in the name of Tamil self-determination. Some joined his tiny band of Tigers, who supported themselves by robbing banks and smuggling weapons from India. Others enlisted with competing Tamil guerrilla factions, which began claiming credit for assassinations and ambushes of politicians, policemen, and soldiers. Sinhalese agitators set off a new wave of anti-Tamil riots in 1977, and again in 1981, when the Jaffna library—the major repository of Tamil literature and history—was burned to a shell. Then, in July of 1983, the Tigers staged a carefully planned ambush of government forces near Jaffna, massacring thirteen officers. As news of the slaughter spread, the country was convulsed by the most hideous pogrom in its history, a wave of anti-Tamil violence so extreme that observers reached back to the horrors that accompanied India’s partition, in 1947, for a fitting comparison.
As many as two thousand Tamils were hacked, bludgeoned, torched, or beaten and kicked to death by mobs. In Colombo, Sinhalese criminals in the high-security Welikade prison were allowed to slaughter dozens of Tamil political prisoners, and two days later another massacre of Tamils occurred in the same prison. Nearly eighty thousand Tamils fled their homes to hastily established refugee camps during those weeks, which became known as Black July; others piled into boats to seek asylum in India—the first great wave of an exodus that has, over the intervening decades of war, created a global diaspora of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils. Some Sinhalese were so disgusted by the horrors of 1983 that they, too, left the country. Johnny Attygale, a businessman whose father had served as Sri Lanka’s police commissioner in the sixties, told me that he had been driving to the beach when a couple of frenzied Tamils appeared in front of his car, pursued by a lynch mob. He packed the men into his trunk and drove them to safety, then packed up his family and moved to Australia. “Bodies on the road, people being burned in the street—how do you explain that to your kids?” he asked.
To Prabhakaran, Black July was an affirmation of the Tiger cause—proof that the only hope for Sri Lankan Tamils was to establish an independent homeland by force. “The July holocaust has united all sections of the Tamil masses,” he declared, and Tamil militants took to comparing their struggle to that of Palestinian nationalists and anti-apartheid South Africans. India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, faced with a flood of Sri Lankan refugees and with discontent among sympathetic Indian Tamils, decided to train and arm Sri Lanka’s Tamil militants (not only Tigers but a number of other factions as well). India’s support for the rebels inspired more young Tamils to join the separatist fight, and Sri Lankans date the beginning of civil war to 1983, the year when the state’s claim to be the representative government of all the island’s people appeared most thoroughly discredited. Yet, as with so many armed liberation movements, the more the Tigers pressed their advantages and consolidated their power as a military and political force, the more they came to resemble—and then to exceed—the most repellent aspects of their enemies. Thirty years after Prabhakaran shot and killed the mayor of Jaffna, he is probably the world’s most prolific political assassin. But the paradox of his monomaniacal pursuit of a Tamil homeland is that Tamils have borne the brunt of his violence.
Father Miller came to Sri Lanka from his home parish of New Orleans in 1948. “It was a brand-new nation with a beautiful administrative structure,” he told me. “The British did a good job. They had trained people who knew how to keep accounts and write and type and file and everything else. There were people who’d studied in Oxford and Cambridge, and people trained at Sandhurst.” Tea, rubber, and coconut plantations sustained a developing economy; a reliable rail system served the entire island; and most of the country was electrified. “We used to call Bangladesh bad off,” Miller said. “We called them the basket case over the years. They never seemed to be able to get their act together. We’ve got to their stage now. They’ve gone forward, we’ve fallen back.”
Miller was an undergraduate at Springhill College, a Jesuit school in Mobile, Alabama, when he volunteered as a missionary, and he packed his bags knowing that he was committing himself for life. Except for a stint in India in the early fifties, to complete his theological training, and a few years in other parishes in Sri Lanka, he has made his home in Batticaloa, teaching primary and secondary school—and for a decade serving as rector—at St. Michael’s College, which is housed in a large Italianate building of ochre stucco and colonnaded terraces beneath red tile roofs, where he lives in a tower room, atop a steep and rickety wooden staircase. The office area of his L-shaped room is sparsely furnished, and the walls are barely adorned—a few pictures of Jesus hang on nails, along with a cross and a crude folk-art mask. His living quarters are even more ascetic: there is a narrow cot, a hot plate and washstand, and a clothesline, which, when I visited, was draped with a duplicate of the outfit he was wearing—a threadbare polo shirt and hiking shorts. Beneath his desk chair, a wooden prayer kneeler supported Miller’s sandalled feet. He is a small, vigorous man, with thick workman’s hands and a face that might fairly be called Roman on account of its sharp-featured, weathered intensity. Despite his Louisiana roots, he has a New England accent (a peculiarity he acknowledges yet cannot account for), but the most striking feature of his speech is the way he uses the first-person plural when describing the Batticaloa Tamil community, with which he has come to identify. “I’ve been here long enough,” he said. “I say ‘we’ when I talk locally.”
In the early days of the war, Miller told me, “one of the Sri Lankan colonels here gave me a nickname. I was a white Tiger, because I was always arguing the side of the Tamil people against the government.” At that time, in the early eighties, the fighting was all in the north. But the government regarded Batticaloa as enemy territory nonetheless, Miller said, “and they came in and started arresting people right and left, in great numbers.” Miller joined with other community leaders to document and contest instances of government abuse. In 1990, when the Tigers seized control of large areas of Batticaloa, Miller took to hounding them even more. “I object to both sides, and I’m talking on behalf of the people who are victims,” he said. He was particularly incensed by the Tigers’ forced conscription of Tamil children. “They had put in a rule,” he explained. “Each family must give one child. And they were exacting that.” He told me that when he went to the local Tiger commander to complain about a thirteen-year-old girl with a game leg and a fifteen-year-old boy with a terrible lung condition who had been taken from their families as recruits, the commander told him, “I don’t have time for these minor matters.”
Miller’s sympathy for Tamil grievances was equalled by his disdain for the Tigers. “That leader, Prabhakaran, is a megalomaniac, and in anybody’s books a mass murderer,” he said. “Let me tell you one story. Mother and father have about five kids—three of them are girls, boys are younger fellows—and the Tigers go to the house, and say, ‘You’ve got to give us one of the children.’ The mother says, ‘Never, never.’ The father says, ‘What are we going to do? We have to give them one of the children, that’s all—we don’t have a choice.’ One day when the woman was away from home, they came and he was there, and he let one of the girls go. And the mother came back and she said, ‘Where’s the kid?’ And he said, ‘Well, they came and took her.’ She said, ‘You gave her?’ He said, ‘Yeah, what?’ She said, ‘That’s not even your child.’ Now, they were not getting on well, and when she said, ‘That’s not even your child,’ he went out and committed suicide. That’s the level of pressure that they were able to put on people.”
The Tiger commander in Batticaloa was Colonel Karuna, and when he turned against Prabhakaran, last year, the recruitment of children in his zone stopped. His declaration of independence inspired a number of Batticaloans to take to the streets and show their support by setting fire to the portraits of Prabhakaran that Karuna’s men had, until the day before, required them to hang in their homes, and, before he went into hiding, Karuna disbanded the children’s brigades. “He sent them home,” Miller said. “The Tigers tried to get them back. They were going around in some of the villages with loudspeakers: ‘We’d like to talk to you again, we need to bring things up to date, at least come and have a discussion with us.’ ” The tactic didn’t work, but shortly after the tsunami unicef reported that Tiger recruiters were luring children from displaced-persons camps in the east.
Father Miller wasn’t surprised. “Deep down inside, people realize that we haven’t crossed that border yet to where we can say that there’s going to be peace,” he said. “We’re going to go on killing each other, and there may come some time when it becomes so totally desperate that we get some good sense. I’m an optimist.”
“Ceylon—the radiant, incomparable East,” Mark Twain wrote when he paid a brief visit to the island in 1896, and his rhapsodic response to the place was typical of travellers’ accounts through the years:
All the requisites were present. The costumes were right; the black and brown exposures, unconscious of immodesty, were right; the juggler was there, with his basket, his snakes, his mongoose, and his arrangements for growing a tree from seed to foliage and ripe fruitage before one’s eyes; in sight were plants and flowers familiar to one in books but in no other way—celebrated, desirable, strange, but in production restricted to the hot belt of the equator; and out a little way in the country were the proper deadly snakes, and fierce beasts of prey, and the wild elephant and the monkey. And there was that swoon in the air which one associates with the tropics, and that smother of heat, heavy with odors of unknown flowers, and that sudden invasion of purple gloom fissured with lightnings—then the tumult of crashing thunder and the downpour—and presently all sunny and smiling again.
You could find much the same sort of gushing, albeit less memorably rendered, in most of the leading travel magazines last year: feature after feature touting Sri Lanka, post-ceasefire, as a hot (in every sense of the word) destination, where the suspended war provided a titillating whiff of adventure. Sri Lankans are prone to similar raptures about the Edenic luxuriance of their land. Their literature—heat-stunned and gin-soaked—is full of an aching auto-exoticism. Yet this fond self-regard contains a painful element of what another Southern writer, William Faulkner, called “a furious unreality,” and nowhere is it more furious or unreal than in the Tiger-controlled territory.
To get there, you must cross what amounts to an international frontier in the middle of the kilometre-wide no man’s land that bisects the island from coast to coast along the ceasefire line. Although the government of Sri Lanka refuses to recognize it, the Tigers have established their own state, with customs officials, a border control, a uniformed police force, and a full complement of ministries. The sheds on the Tiger side of the border crossing, where travel documents are examined, are plastered with posters celebrating the exploits of suicide bombers, and staffed by uniformed female cadres with braided pigtails looped and gathered on their heads, like helmets. The landscape on this side is indistinguishable from the rest of Sri Lanka, except that it is so sparsely populated as to seem abandoned, which in large stretches it is. The war damage is most striking in Kilinochchi, the political and economic capital of the Tiger zone. Three years ago, when the truce went into effect, there was hardly a roof left on any structure along Kilinochchi’s main drag, and even now, after a fever of reconstruction, largely funded by overseas Tamil supporters of the war they have fled, ruins are everywhere. There are few private cars on the road, and a good many of them are archaic Morris Minors, jerry-rigged to run on kerosene, at perilously slow speeds. At the center of town, a side street leads to a complex of ultramodern hotel-like buildings, which make up the various departments of the Tigers’ political commissariat. Here, the conspicuous absence of visible security measures—no guns or guards—signals the confidence of absolute authority.
Tiger apparatchiks are notoriously wary of the press. But after the tsunami they launched a charm offensive on foreign reporters, earning highly favorable reviews of the efficiency with which they orchestrated relief efforts. So, one evening, I was granted an audience with the head of the Tigers’ political wing, S. P. Tamilchelvan, a slight, heavily mustached man, who is considered to be second only to Prabhakaran in the hierarchy. Tamilchelvan walks with a limp and the help of a cane, on account of an old combat injury. He does not speak English, or pretends not to (he clearly understands it). He received me in a bitterly air-conditioned conference room and was accompanied by his translator, George, an elderly rail of a man, who was extravagantly groomed, with gray hair slicked fiercely back, and profusions of equally gray hair sprouting from his ears in carefully combed tufts several inches long. George’s English was as eccentric as his coiffure. When I posed a question—for instance, why had Prabhakaran failed to appear for weeks after the tsunami, giving rise to suspicions that he had been killed?—Tamilchelvan would answer at great length in Tamil, and then George would deliver his own baroque stem-winder:
This is a story that has been in the spin for quite some time, not just since the tsunami but for two decades. Disappearance of the national leader takes place so many times, and people kill him several times, and there is a concerted effort on the part of the media in Colombo, and some racial elements in Colombo, political elements who have a wishful thinking of that to happen. So these are all planted by interested parties. Now we must understand the structure of the Liberation Tigers organization, the efficacy of the structure. How did it happen for a guerilla movement to transform itself into such a conventional army and while at the same time maintain structures that have been formulated to meet the day-to-day requirements of the people in a void that was made by the government’s absence to do such things during the past twenty-five years? So efficacy of the structures is now indicated by the leader’s commands being taken into account immediately, and the response that came forward from all the units of the Liberation Tigers organization. And one walks into the street and sees how efficiently the mechanism is functioning. . . . Our leader never cares to pose for photographs in occasions, and show the world that he is living and he is distributing and he is participating in the effort. Those are all done within a framework that he himself has formulated. . . . A totally unprecedented contingency like this has been met squarely by the Tamil people and the Tamil Liberation Organization. So our leader never bothers much about this type of cynical reporting about the leader being conspicuously absent in places where he’s needed. He is there.
Tamilchelvan sat expressionless during this outpouring, which went on for nearly five minutes. When I mentioned that most Americans think of the Tigers, if at all, as suicide bombers, George told me that Tamilchelvan said that this was “quite understandable,” since Americans “are not in a position to discern the truth of any equation, since they are not familiar with the political situation.” He urged me to consider that the government had deployed military personnel to attend to survivors of the tsunami in Tamil areas. “It is the very same military that was instrumental in hundreds of thousands of people being massacred overnight and end up in mass graves,” he said, in a fit of impassioned exaggeration, and he warned, “If the administrators in Colombo do not think of removing that mind-set—the majoritarian, the supremacist, the military mind-set—then the paradigm is of course very gloomy.” It was up to Colombo, he added, “to make a decision whether the Tamil people are again going to be asked to fight for their rights, or whether there is going to be accommodatingness in the center for devolving and sharing power.”
On the way out of the conference room, Tamilchelvan’s press officer wrote a letter for me in Tamil—a laissez passer—that gave me permission to visit Mullaittivu, Prabhakaran’s seaside stronghold. I drove there the next day. Standing at the epicenter of the devastation, I could see from the surrounding grid of streets where block upon block of houses had stood, but what remained was just crumbled chunks of concrete, with here and there an isolated vestige of human design: a staircase lifting to nowhere, an iron gate opening to nothing, a bicycle twisted like a paper clip tossed aside by nervous hands, and a grand church signified by an ornate façade. The silence of the place was broken only by the relentless cawing of crows.
A minivan pulled up to the wreckage of the church, and a party of clergymen in flowing white vestments emerged to inspect the damage. One of them, distinguished by a crimson sash as a bishop, stopped to chat with me. At the same moment, a barefoot, severely bow-legged man appeared, heading toward me. He wore an indigo sarong and a light cotton shirt, and his eyes were bright with madness. He did not stop until he was almost standing on my toes. He offered his hand, which was eerily limp and weightless, and began to speak. The sharp, sweet smell of palm toddy filled the narrow space between us. His voice was high and a little hoarse, and he went on at length, staring into my face. “He is disturbed,” the bishop explained. “He lost everything.” The man continued his address, but he sounded different. The bishop chuckled. “He is talking no language,” he said. “It’s just made-up sounds.” The madman smiled at me. I smiled back. Suddenly he reached up and felt my hair, then drew his hand back in a salute and, without another sound, wandered off into the ruins.
“People have a real psychosis now,” the bishop said. But who knew what that man’s story was? Perhaps his mind had been swamped by the tsunami, or perhaps he had always been mad, Mullaittivu’s village idiot. Still, meeting him there made George’s renditions of Tamilchelvan’s soliloquies seem less strange. Recalling Black July, the Tiger spokesman had said, “Just because we were Tamils, we were assaulted, killed, and made to feel humiliated. To call ourselves Tamils was a matter that we were ashamed of—we were made to feel so small. That made the youths of that day, in the year 1983, to decide that the pursuit of learning, education, for purposes of prospering in our personal lives has no meaning as long as our brethren get killed in this manner, at the hands of a cruel military.” He seemed to be saying that the Tigers had chosen to fight because they felt they had no alternative. They had agreed to the ceasefire for the same reason that the government had, because neither side could win the war. As I drove through the barricades and out of Tiger territory, it was almost impossible to imagine how Sri Lanka might be put back together again.
On my last day in Sri Lanka, I had lunch in Colombo with Dayan Jayatilleka, a Sinhalese political scientist and newspaper columnist. At one point, as he was telling me about himself, he smiled a little and said, “Oh, by the way, one thing I did over the last twenty years, I was indicted as a terrorist, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, during the Emergency.” This was in 1983, when Jayatilleka was twenty-five. The year before, he had been a doctoral student studying revolutionary political theory at suny-Binghamton, but Black July inspired him to turn his learning into action. “I not only had friends who died—close Tamil friends who were killed in the Welikade jail—I saw people killed on the street, and as a Sinhala I had a crisis of conscience,” he said.
Jayatilleka and his comrades got armed and trained “in a very amateurish way” and set out to become urban guerrillas. “The idea was that the non-Tiger groups among the Tamils and the non-J.V.P. groups among the Sinhalese could link up and prevent this terrible polarization of fundamentalism on both sides,” he said. “It was very utopian, and it didn’t work. Some of us died, some of us went underground—like me, I was three years underground—some of us did time. We were caught between the state and these fanatical movements, and we got crushed.” In 1986, when Jayatilleka was on the run from his terrorism indictment, he heard that Tigers were burning other Tamil militants in the streets of Jaffna, and that a Sinhalese student leader had been caught and murdered by J.V.P. thugs. “They cut his throat slowly. Apparently, they kept asking him where I was,” Jayatilleka said. The shock of such killings sapped his appetite for armed struggle. “When we started out, none of us ever thought we’d ever be killed by other liberation fighters,” he told me. “We thought we’d be killed by state forces, or tortured. We were all psyched up for that—that was the way the script was supposed to go. And then we were blindsided by the J.V.P. and the Tigers.”
In 1988, Jayatilleka negotiated an amnesty, and joined the government as a minister for Batticaloa province. He resigned after six months. “We were doing atrocious things at the time to anyone suspected of Tiger associations,” he said. He described entering the provincial office one day and finding a teen-age boy, lying bound and beaten, face down on the floor. “I asked what he was doing there. They said, Oh, they were going to take him out to the swamp and shoot him in the back of the head. They didn’t have a case against him of any kind. I managed to get him released—but how many more like him were there?”
That year, Jayatilleka’s close friend and political comrade Vijaya Kumaratunga—a charismatic movie star, who had entered politics to promote a multi-ethnic, federalist policy for Sri Lanka—was shot in the face and killed in his driveway. Although no one was ever tried for the crime, the J.V.P. is widely assumed to have been responsible, which made it all the more shocking to many Sri Lankans when Vijaya’s widow, now President Kumaratunga, allied with the party. Three days before Kumaratunga was elected, in December, 1999, she survived a Tiger suicide attack, which killed twenty-two others, wounded more than a hundred, and mutilated one of her eyes, but Jayatilleka, who despises the Tigers’ barbarism, does not believe that personal animus to one extremist enemy can justify an alliance with another. “There is something that has been wrong for quite some time with the political system here,” he said, and added, “It’s a zero-sum game. Everybody here will ally with anyone else.”
Sri Lanka’s problem, as Jayatilleka sees it, is the absence of an overarching sense of national identity. Nobody in public life really talks about being Sri Lankan; there are only Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. By way of contrast, he cited India, a state held together by a political understanding of itself as secularist and federalist. “Unlike Nehru, who had an idea of India, we went the other way,” Jayatilleka said. “Our nationalism wasn’t national in the sense of pan-Sri Lankan. Our nationalism took a cultural form—cultural, ethnic, religious.” And, he said, “Anybody who looked like a true nationalist unifier got shot.”
When I left Jayatilleka, I had an appointment to visit the Minister of Hindu Religious Affairs, Douglas Devananda, at his home office, a fortified compound on a quiet residential byway in central Colombo. The entry to the street was guarded by soldiers, who tugged aside a metal barricade to let me pass through an elaborate roadblock. Devananda, who spent many years as a Tamil guerrilla before he renounced violence and entered parliament, is the only former Tamil fighter in the government, and he has survived more assassination attempts than Rasputin endured. His home was hidden behind high walls posted with watchtowers and an iron gate piled high with sandbags and blockaded by oil drums filled with concrete. As I approached on foot, a narrow shutter slid open in the gate, and two eyes and a nose appeared in the window. “American?” a voice asked, and I was admitted.
Jayatilleka, who had received arms training from Devananda in the early eighties, had told me that I would find the minister surrounded by “heavy iron,” and, sure enough, a half dozen fidgety young men wearing submachine guns were huddled in the entryway. One led me through a labyrinth of short hallways that switched this way and that at ninety-degree angles. There were more men with guns at every corner. Outside, rain was threatening, and the air in Devananda’s den was heavy with dampness. As we progressed, the smell of mildew grew stronger, and mold stains claimed ever larger patches of wall. We passed a screened-off antechamber filled with parakeets, an atrium with a blue-tiled carp pond, and a dim room filled with tropical vegetation, where a chattering monkey sat on a rock clutching a gnawed orange. Finally, we reached a door studded with deadbolts, which clicked open by remote control from within, and there, at the back of a long, wide, windowless room, cluttered with furniture and stacked with papers, Devananda sat behind a desk: a big, bearded man, in a loose white V-necked undershirt and a green floor-length sarong, clutching two telephones to his head, one at each ear, while talking to a man standing next to him in a booming voice.
We sat on a rattan living-room set, where an aide brought us orange soda. Jayatilleka had said of Devananda, “When I needed a submachine, he gave me one,” and, when I reminded Devananda of this, he let out a true belly laugh: “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha—those days!” He had gone for his own training as a fighter—in 1978, and again in 1984—to Lebanon. “P.L.O., Al Fatah, George Habash,” he said. Devananda had been a prisoner in the Tamil wards at the Welikade prison in 1983, when Sinhalese inmates began massacring his comrades with iron bars and blades and bludgeons. He survived by fighting off the attackers, hand to hand. Four years later, following his amnesty, when Devananda had become a government officer, he was asked by Tiger prisoners who were staging a hunger strike to come and talk to them. When he entered their cell, he was surrounded and attacked. A metal spike was driven into the back of his skull. A Sinhalese surgeon saved his life, but he describes himself as only eighty-five per cent recovered. At one point during my visit, an aide brought him a vial with a medicine dropper, which he used to lubricate his eyes. “This is unnatural tears,” he explained. “If I want to cry, I put this, then I can cry. Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
He laughed again when he told me how last summer, on a day when he opened his office to his constituents, a young Tamil woman had refused to let his guards search her above the waist. Devananda told them not to seize her, in case she was wired as a bomb. Instead, he had his men lead her to a police station, where she blew herself up, killing four officers. It was the first suicide bombing in Sri Lanka since the ceasefire, but Devananda wasn’t surprised. As a former guerrilla, he said, he knew Prabhakaran’s mind. “It takes a snake to know a snake,” he told me. He wriggled his hand through the air. “Prabhakaran doesn’t want peace, he wants p-i-e-c-e—a piece of land to rule as a dictator,” he said, and added, “I tell Tamils in my community that earlier, when we fought for liberation, we were in an iron handcuff. If tomorrow the Tigers lead, it’s a golden handcuff. The difference is iron or gold, but the handcuff is the same.”
Devananda claims that eighty per cent of Tamils want a federal solution but that most are too terrorized by the Tigers to say so. In last year’s parliamentary elections, the Tigers bullied every Tamil candidate in the areas where they have influence to swear allegiance to Prabhakaran’s policies, and even then they resorted to fraud to insure victory for their candidates. Devananda read aloud from a report by European Union monitors, which said, “If the election results in the north and east had been a critical factor in determining who formed the government, it would have raised questions about the legitimacy of the final outcome. The events that took place in this part of Sri Lanka during the course of this election are totally unacceptable and are the antithesis of democracy.”
Still, Devananda refused to call himself anti-Tiger. After all, he said, “If, tomorrow, Velupillai Prabhakaran genuinely comes for talks, I may give up politics.” But, in the next breath, he added, “The reality is he won’t come, and I also won’t give up.” Thinking as a snake who knows his kind, Devananda predicted that Sri Lanka would see a steady escalation of violence through the first half of this year, and so far he has not been wrong.
The killings began again in February, when a spate of tit-for-tat assassinations involving Tigers and Karuna’s faction in the east broke the post-tsunami lull. The Tigers organized angry street protests, accusing the government of colluding with Karuna’s cadres, and of failing to negotiate a mechanism for distributing aid to tsunami victims in Tiger areas. Throughout the spring, whenever President Kumaratunga declared herself ready to negotiate such an accord, the J.V.P. denounced her as a traitor; and when at last she succumbed to international pressure and agreed, in June, to an aid partnership with the Tigers, the J.V.P. quit the ruling coalition and persuaded the Supreme Court to suspend the pact, pending a review of its constitutionality. Meanwhile, in the north and the east, the killings have continued at a steadily intensifying rate—with a Tiger officer here, a couple of Karuna cadres there, and civilians inevitably picked off in the crossfire. Rather than bringing peace with unwanted force, the tsunami has become a new casus belli.
On the evening of April 28th, a prominent Tamil journalist named Dharmeratnam Sivaram—a founding editor of TamilNet, a widely read news Web site that is largely sympathetic to the Tigers—was accosted by four men outside a Colombo police station, bundled into a jeep, and driven away. The next day, policemen, responding to an anonymous tip, found his body in a high-security area behind the Sri Lankan parliament. Sivaram, who also wrote for the mainstream English-language newspaper, the Daily Mirror, had received death threats four years ago, after state media denounced him as a Tiger spy, and again last year, after he wrote about alleged ties between the government and Karuna. In May, 2004, his house had been ransacked by forty policemen, who claimed to be looking for arms. Sivaram’s last column had been critical of Karuna’s faction, and the stench of government collusion that clung to the circumstances of his murder further inflamed Tamils in Tiger areas. There has barely been a day since without violence.
“The fascist enemy cannot be fought by imitating him. He can be fought only by maintaining a moral and ethical superiority, as exemplified in an open, pluralistic society,” Dayan Jayatilleka wrote in his column, when he heard of Sivaram’s death. He counted the journalist as a friend, and his column concluded with an homage: “Sivaram challenged us with his writing. He was an uppity Tamil: confident, aware of Sinhala society and political trends, knowledgeable of international affairs. He held up a mirror before us. He was the Other in our midst. Now that he is dead, this is a lonelier place.”
In his next column, Jayatilleka lashed out at the “cowardice” of Sinhalese commentators, who derided Sivaram’s ideas after he was dead, but never “took him on in print when he was alive”—or did so only “in the safety of a language he couldn’t respond in because he did not know it.” Rather than blaming the dead journalist for failing to denounce the crimes of his side, Jayatilleka said, the Sinhalese should ask themselves what offenses they have chosen to ignore. He posed as “the final question” of his friend’s life a conundrum that belongs equally to every side in every ethnic-nationalist conflict on earth: “Had we been Tamil, are we sure we would not have been Sivarams?”