Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Turns out the New Yorker piece on Sri Lanka I mentioned yesterday is posted online - Tides of War, by Philip Gourevitch.


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.


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.


There's also a tiny follow-up on the recent killing of Sri Lanka's foreign minister - here.

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