Editor’s blog: A Tiger by the tail

I first visited Sri Lanka sixteen years ago. On the morning of arrival, I was slumbering in my room at the colonial Galle Face hotel in Colombo, looking forward to a fortnight exploring the island Marco Polo described as ‘the finest in the world’, when I was roused by the loudest bang I’ve ever heard in my life. A sprint to the window revealed a plume of smoke rising from the other side of the road: a member of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam) with a large bomb in a rucksack had driven his moped into the limo of Admiral Wannakuwatta Waduge Erwin Clancy Fernando, an Admiral from the Sri Lankan fleet. The poor man’s plimsolls are probably still in orbit.

That was my first encounter with Tigers and I’ve tried to avoid getting up close and personal with them ever since. But when I was interviewing Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and he suggested I might like to meet Sivanesathurai Chandrakanth, aka Pillayan, I couldn’t say no. Pillayan – who is still only in his early 30s – was taken from his family aged 15 by the Tigers, and has spent all his adult life as a terrorist involved in a ferocious conflict that has claimed the lives of 70,000 since 1983. Until last year – when, after handing in his rocket-propelled grenade launcher and some extraordinary political manoeuvring, he was elected Chief Minister for Sri Lanka’s Eastern province. A bit like the Americans making Bin Laden mayor of the Windy City.

Interviewing was an odd experience, not least because my Tamil isn’t up to much. His right-hand-man (who looked way under 30) did the translation. Pillayan now has a price of millions of rupees on his head as one of the most notorious turncoats of the whole Tamil struggle (the bounty might well come from one of the credit card scams that the Tigers have been caught running in UK petrol stations).

He’s unrepentant about his conversion to the ballot box. ‘The Tamil people are completely fed up with war’, said Pillayan. ‘A separate country was their desired solution and it’s completely impossible to achieve that. Their leaders have missed their chances and a solution for our people is very important. A democratic way is the only way.’ Did he think an end to the military conflict was in sight? ‘For the first time now the Tigers are very loose and very weak. They’ve lost most of their important commanders and the Sri Lankan forces are going very well.’ The aim is now to annihilate the LTTE completely by military means.

As one of the world’s deadliest ongoing armed conflicts, the Sri Lankan civil war has caused enormous harm to the population, especially in the North and East, and severe damage to the country’s economy. Tourism has dropped off badly since resumption of fighting in 2005 and the effects of the Boxing day Tsunami on 2004, which killed about 35,000 people.

One suspects that the conflict is the single thing holding Sri Lanka back from what is potentially a bright economic future. Despite all its problems, it’s already got the highest per capita income in South Asia. Later, at a meeting with 50 of the country’s top business people, I realised that they see the future as a sort of off-shore powerhouse snuggling in under India’s coat-tails. They are an earnest and enthusiastic lot. And tourism? Well the sky is the limit. ‘Where in the world,’ demanded one businessman in the tourism game, ‘can you see the two largest animals on the planet in one national park in one day?’ Elephants and whales are free for inspection, within a few miles of each other, any time you wish to drop by. Best avoid the Tigers, though.

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    The conflict in Sri Lanka is not the desease, it is the symptom of several deseases that are prevalent in the country. As can be seen by the situation in Iraq, military might is not necessarily right and cannot solve the real problems. What is required are the 3 D’s – Discipline, Democracy and Duty. All 3 have to work for real solutions to emerge.

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    Wish you would have dug deeper.

    The new Chief Minister in the East won by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters with government backing.

    The model the president of Sri Lanka is using in the Eastern province and will soon use in the Northern province is akin to Kadyrov in Chechnya.

    “Disappearances”, rape a a weapon of war, and torture are some of the tools the Sinhalese dominated government is using to ethnically cleanse the Tamils in the NorthEast region of the island.

    The reason he wanted you to meet him is to help legitimize the regime.

    As for the tigers, formally known as the LTTE, they have never targeted foreign nationals so I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

    They are fighting for a independent state for the Tamil minority after several decades of failed attempts to solve the ethnic conflict with SL’s political system.

    Best avoid speaking out about human rights though, especially relating to the Tamils and other minorities. You may find yourself the back of white van being abducted by the Sri Lankan Army or “patriotic” Sinhalese.

    Cheers mate.

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    I totally agree with Priath Fernando’s comments. Everyone seems too busy trying to remedy the symptom and totally ignore the cause(es).

    May I add a few more D’s to your list; –

    Determination, Deliberation and Dedication instead of Destruction, Disappearances and Death.