Prabhakaran, who turned fifty last year, is one of the most bloody-minded and effective warlords in today’s crowded field. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
“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. 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.
He accused President Kumaratunga of rejecting the prospect of peace through her “unholy alliance” with the J. 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.
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.
was talk in Sri Lanka, not long after the tsunami, of an expensive coffin heading north.