FOUR years ago this week, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam announced that their struggle for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka had “reached its bitter end.” The group had been fighting on behalf of the Tamil people for more than a quarter-century, and its defeat was absolute.
Today, great sections of Tamil country are still a scene of devastation. The houses are either destroyed or brand-new; the land is uncultivated and overgrown; there are forests of decapitated Palmyra palms, damaged by heavy shelling. And then there are the relics of war — graveyards of L.T.T.E. vehicles rotting in the open air; the remains of a ship, its superstructure blown to pieces and in whose rusting starboard a gaping hole gives on to blue sea.
When I first arrived there last March, I saw the loss in primarily military terms. But the feeling of defeat among the Tamils of Sri Lanka goes far deeper than the material defeat of the rebels. It is a moral and psychological defeat.
In that forested country of red earth and lagoons, it is possible to visit the bunker of the leader of the Tigers, a torture chamber of a place that sinks three levels into the ground. There, in the fetid air, infused with the smell of urine and bat excrement, one senses the full futility and wretchedness of what the rebel movement became in the end.
For the truth is that the Tamil defeat has less to do with the vanquishing of the L.T.T.E. by the Sri Lankan Army and much more to do with the self-wounding (“suicidal” would not be too strong a word) character of the movement itself. The Tigers were for so long the custodians of the Tamil people’s hope of self-realization. But theirs was a deeply flawed organization. Under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers pioneered and perfected the use of the suicide bomber. This was not simply a mode of warfare, but almost a symbol, an expression of a self-annihilating spirit. And it was to self-annihilation that Mr. Prabhakaran committed the Tamils. He was a man who, like a modern-day Coriolanus, seemed to lack the imagination for peace. He took the Tamils on a journey of war without end, where no offer of compromise was ever enough, and where all forms of moderation were seen as betrayal.
Read more at The New York Times