Magazine article The New Yorker

Tides of War; Letter from Sri Lanka

Magazine article The New Yorker

Tides of War; Letter from Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

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. …

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