How the gem of the earth became a land scarred by savagery and violence

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The battle of Jaffna is a critical and bloody showdown in the war between the Lion and the Tiger. But it will not end it. Seventeen years of ferocious struggle have brewed hatred, brutality and fanaticism on a monstrous scale. It is hard to believe that Jaffna will mark the beginning of the end.

The battle of Jaffna is a critical and bloody showdown in the war between the Lion and the Tiger. But it will not end it. Seventeen years of ferocious struggle have brewed hatred, brutality and fanaticism on a monstrous scale. It is hard to believe that Jaffna will mark the beginning of the end.

Everyone who has observed the civil war in Sri Lanka has noted the particular viciousness and pitilessness of the fighting, even in this modern age of savage conflict.

The people of the island have witnessed, have taken part in, have been victims of, an extraordinary and instructive political failure exacerbated by cynical manipulation.

The paradoxes and ironies of this disaster make a dismal list. This is a green, fertile country, a democratic state with one of the Third World's highest literacy rates, "the very gem of the earth," according to one of the British histories of it.

Legend says that Sri Lanka was Eden, that Adam's Peak is marked by the footprint of Adam. Arab merchants called it Serendip, hence the happy word. And Lanka itself means resplendent. Its past is cultured, its appearance brilliant and enchanting. And in February 1948, when the British departed after ruling the country for 133 years, its prospects looked decidedly handsome.

But a poison lay within. In the 52 years of independence the chief characteristic of Sri Lankan politics has been violence. Organised thuggery became an important part of elections, the main instrument of dissent. Violence became not the last political option but the first.

Certain political leaders and intellectuals stirred the emotions of the island's two peoples, the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, so that suspicion and hostility grew between people who had, by and large, achieved a relative harmony in a co-existence that had lasted for many hundreds of years. On the whole they had remained separate communities. Intermarriage was rare, they had retained their different styles of life and and were devoted to their mutually incomprehensible languages.

There was no doubt that in independent Sri Lanka the shades and contradictions of society posed a singular test of the creative and conciliatory powers of leadership. The leaders, in a parliamentary, democratic system, failed it.

It is sometimes said that Sri Lanka's troubles lie in ancient rivalries. The Sinhalese - the word means People of the Lion - are mostly Buddhists who believe they are Aryan people who came from the north of India more than 2,500 years ago. They have drawn inspiration and a sense of destiny from the dying words of Buddha: "In Lanka, O Lord of gods, will my religion be established."

The Tamils, about a fifth of the population of 18 million, are thought to have arrived in waves from the second century BC to the ninth century AD. Although Sinhalese and Tamils fought from time to time and had their mutual fears, the modern conflict is rooted not in ancient history but in modern events and the invention of myths. The British ruled Ceylon as a single community and the Tamils prospered. They learnt English, thrived as businessmen, qualified as teachers and engineers and won a disproportionate share of jobs in the colonial civil service. These achievements bred resentment in the seventh-tenths Sinhalese majority.

The crucial year was 1956. To seize power from his political opponents, the Oxford-educated SWRD Bandaranaike played the race and resentment card and won the general election overwhelmingly, promising the Sinhalese that Sinhala would be the sole official language. The Tamils reflected bitterly that the downgrading of English undermined their economic chances. Teaching through the medium of English was stopped. University and public service entry was manipulated to provide more places for the Sinhalese.

The first rioting to disturb the country's peace occurred in 1956 and subsequent eruptions made reconciliation a priority. The Sinhalese were persuaded by their intellectuals and leaders that the Tamils were usurpers in a Sinhalese land, that "religion, language, nation" - as the politicians put it - made them the guardians of an ancient and beleaguered Buddhist tradition. More than that, Sinhalese were encouraged to see themselves as the true and pure Sri Lankans who should fear the supposed threat posed by the millions of Tamils in India, a few miles across the Palk Strait.

The Tamils, it was said, could always "go home." But the Sinhalese had only their island.

Tensions grew and then exploded in the early Eighties. In the Tamils' northern and eastern strongholds there was an angry response to a police rampage and hotheaded political speeches. The first calls were made for a separate Tamil state, a demand that infuriated Sinhalese determined that their country could never be divided. The Tamil Tigers had already been formed by the ruthless and utterly intractable Vellupillai Prabhakaran, a former Boy Scout and lover of Clint Eastwood videos, who had seen his uncle burnt to death in a riot.

In 1983 the trouble began to spiral out of control. The Tigers killed 13 soldiers in an ambush and in a reprisal more than 600 Tamils were murdered. Soon the ledger of horrors began to fill with massacres, explosions and assassinations. Sri Lanka's leaders vowed that there could only be a military solution.

In 1987 India sent troops in an ill-fated attempt to bring peace to Sri Lanka, an action that inflamed the atavistic fears of invasion shared by many Sinhalese. India lost more than 1,000 soldiers and in 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber. Such weapons, as well as the cyanide capsules worn by Tigers around their necks, have helped to make the Tigers feared. They are not guerrillas, a Sri Lankan officer said, they are a regular army.

In the Eighties, when the killings were just beginning, I talked to a Sri Lankan government official who sketched out for me the history of the quarrel. "The history points to the future," he said, tears welling in his eyes, "and I see only killing, killing... and no more peace in Sri Lanka."

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