A beautiful island in the Indian Ocean and the genesis of evil

I love the island with a strange passion that even two decades have not diminished I guess the memories of youthful wandering leave a lifelong resonance. Sri Lanka, the emerald teardrop in the Indian Ocean.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Tue 31 Aug 2004, 9:32 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:55 AM

COLOMBO - I remember the windswept seafront promenades of the colonial Galle Face Hotel, the silhouette of medieval Dutch and Portuguese coastal fortresses, the mist-shrouded gold temples of Kandy, the wild orchids and Sussex cottages in the impossible Victorian hill station of Nowarilya, the terraced tea gardens and wild elephant sanctuaries, the ancient legends of Serendip, Tojo's submarines, the Chera kingdom, the smuggler coves of Minar, Sindbad's dhows, the abducted Sita and the Monkey Lord Hanuman.

I used the visit Anoradapura, the spiritual heart of Sinhalese Buddhism a place where life was held so sacred that our driver slammed the brakes and caused a traffic jam just so a solitary snake could safely cross the road. So imagine my horror when, a few years later, I saw pictures on BBC of massacred teenage monks crumpled like broken rag dolls on the streets of the same Anoradapura where the life of a road crossing snake was held sacred. Whatever had happened to the island my family loved to visit from Dubai? A twisted spirit had emerged from the forest; a miasma of evil had descended on Sri Lanka. Terror as theatre, terror as the grotesque nightmare of a pudgy Tamil killer whose inspiration came from Phantom cartoons and Clint Eastwood movies. Villupillai Prabahkaran of the LTTE. The psychopath arch-terrorist who ordered the death carnival of Anoradapura for pure theatre, no military objective.

Yet it was not the blood lust or megalomaniac veil of a terrorist that caused Sri Lanka's descent into a 22 year nightmare. The LTTE, as late as 1982, had no high-tech arms, no hard currency, barely 100 guerillas. Prabhakaran was a small time hood, not remotely the diabolical threat to the Sri Lankan state or the innocent island Tamils that he was later to pose. So what was the genesis of evil in the Sri Lankan civil war the variable that set off the ethnic holocaust? A Tamil Tiger ambush of a Sri Lankan Army patrol in Jaffna. The blood-splattered bodies of the twelve Sinhalese soldiers were deliberately flown down to Colombo where the funerals triggered off the most vicious anti-Tamil riots in the history of the island.

The riots escalated into a pogrom and the ruling elites let Tamils be lynched, raped, burnt alive or driven into makeshift refugee camps. This pogrom was a godsend to the LTTE. It also changed the calculus of power in thespian MGR's government in Tamil Nadu and Mrs. Gandhi in New Dehli. Besieged by insurgents in Punjab and Assam, Indira Gandhi needed MGR, the proconsul of Tamil Nadu politics and anti-Tamil riots in Colombo compelled Madras and MGR to embrace the Tiger's twisted vision of Eelam, a Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

So the die was cast and the game afoot. Indian intelligence trained the Tigers, arms shipments crossed the Palk Straits, the LTTE warlords roamed the corridors of power in Madras (now Chennai) and New Delhi. The arrogance of power in New Delhi allowed the LTTE to win the terrorist sweepstakes and Jaffna was the epicentre of Asia's most bloody ethnic insurrection Mrs. Gandhi played with fire when she sponsored the cause of the Tamil Tigers but Congress would have lost the vote bank of Tamil Nadu had she done nothing. Just as the ISI would later scramble to exploit the Kashmiri jihadis in 1990, India's arms and money lifeline allowed the LTTE to become the nightmare that has scared the soul of Sri Lanka even now. “Fire, fire, Tiger, Tiger, burning bright in the darkness of the night.”

Mrs. Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984 was a disaster for the LTTE. In Colombo, Sri Lankan soldiers would taunt the Tamil civilian with “Amma, enge?” (where is your mother?) Yet the logic of domestic politics compelled Rajiv Gandhi to continue with his flawed inheritance. Meanwhile, Prabakharan became a monstrous legend in the nether world of international terror, a Tamil Bhindranwale who killed on whim, whose twisted dreams of Eelam meant teenage guerillas with cyanide capsules, random murder of Sinhalese and Tamil moderates, whose suicide bombers were (before 9/11) the modern incarnations of the Assassins of Alamut, the maestro of death, in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Rajiv Gandhi and the Colombo government of President Jayawardene's games of real politik and diplomatic puppetry could not box the ruthless LTTE chieftain. So the 1987 peace accord was doomed from the moment Rajiv tried to use Indian peacekeeping troops to disarm the Tigers in Jaffna. The civil war escalated. The Tamil Tigers turned on the Indian Army with a vengeance, the Sri Lankan security forces turned Tamil Jaffna into a kill zone, Rajiv lost power to V.P. Singh, Serendip' morphed into Dante's inferno of hell. Then came that fateful tragic day in May 1991 when a Tamil Tiger woman with a sandlewood garland touched Rajiv Gandhi‘s feet and changed the course of history as her bomb sniffed out the life of Indira's eldest son. The LTTE chicken had come home to roost in the latest tragic pageant of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty once again, Prabakharan exacted his vengeance in blood.

The pain of Sri Lanka has festered over five decades. The Sinhalese establishment that inherited power from the British Raj bulldozed over the language and economic interests of the Tamil underclass. India used the Eelam cause as a political football to be sacrificed to Mrs. Gandhi's quest to stay in power and the ethnic politics of Tamil Nadu. When intelligence agencies make foreign policy in South Asia, the policy goes ballistic, Murphy's Law takes over with a vengeance, killings and massacres escalate, and demons like Osama, Bhindranwale and Prabhakaran emerge from the night. Something obscene happened to destroy the Sri Lanka I loved and 80,000 tortured ghosts haunt the island where once even a road-crossing snake's life was scared. What a shame! What a world!

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker


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