Menik Farm refugee camp, Northern Sri Lanka.
LAST week at her bowls club, in a bucolic town in Victoria’s whitebread Western District, my mother mentioned to ‘the girls’ that I’d soon be in town for a school reunion.
Her bowling mates know that I’m a foreign correspondent, reporting from sometimes difficult places in that amorphous-overspiced-mysterious-brownskinned-not-quite-sure-about place called Asia. “Oh, where’s he coming from this time?” one of the girls, let’s call her Joy, inquired. “Sri Lanka,” my mother said. “He’s been inspecting the refugee camps up in the north. Eric said there are thousands of Tamil refugees interred there after the war.”
Joy considered this disturbing revelation. “Yeah, that’s the trouble,” she grimaced. “They just keep on breeding up there in Asia.” My mother said it came out as ‘breeeeeeding,’ offered as might a disgusted farmer of a rabbit infestation. Ever the diplomat one has to be to socially survive post-Hanson Middle Australia, my mother tactfully moved the discussion onto something safe and sporting.
As Kevin Rudd is quickly coming to divine, there hasn’t been much breeding in northern Sri Lanka in recent times. There’s been some industrial-scale slaughter, disease, malnutrition and probably torture but breeding? No, Voter Joy, that really hasn’t much happened, at least not at Menik Farm, which in May suddenly became a tent city of almost 300,000 people, the country’s fourth most populous settlement, when the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were vanquished after a 30 year civil war by government forces, who then decided to intern and interrogate near an entire ethnicity.
Menik Farm is a massive open prison hastily arranged over a flat and sweltering monsooned-soaked 570 hectares 300 km north of the capital, Colombo. Though that’s not how the government likes it described. To hear their spinners, Menik is virtually a Sri Lankan Club Med, a temporary ‘transitional facility’ to house the war’s ‘internally-displaced’ until Western aid agencies can clear battlefields of mines and the 160,000 people they claim remain there can get back to their villages and become normal Sri Lankans, whatever that means in this very confused and embittered country.
At Club Menik, there’s banks, shops, sporting fields, wifi, mobile phones, schools and vocational training and much of it self-administered – facilities, as camp commandant, Lanka’s formidable former police chief Chandra Fernando insists, better than what UN protocols demand. Menik housed near 300,000 at its chaotic peak but now it’s about half that, with the rest cleared ‘within six months, probably sooner,” says Fernando. Last week, 40,000 were released after the EU and US dangled economic sanctions at Colombo and threatened to withdraw aid support. With a good reason, inmates can come and go unescorted as they please, says Fernando; to a wedding, baptism or whatever. But life’s so good at Menik, Fernando says, many actually choose to stay here, guaranteed a free feed and shelter. Tamils screened and released get two weeks rations and about $A250 to start rebuilding their homes. Fernando claims that ‘Alex’ and friends, those terrified Tamil refugees appearing Australia-bound on our TV screens in boats off the coast of Indonesia, and sometimes sinking and dying there, aren’t refugees from Sinhalese persecution at Menik, “they’re Tamils from down south who can’t get a proper job. You can have them.”
Sri Lanka’s horrified Tamil diaspora, still devastated by their sainted Tigers’ sudden, somewhat pathetic capitulation and their dream of independence crushed, have a different view of Menik Farm. To them, its a concentration camp, a final solution of genocide, of disappearance and of many, many questions, a place where Colombo’s ongoing ‘screening’ process to de-Tigerise Tamils actually means to de-Tamilise the island of Sri Lanka, an ethnic cleansing on a parallel with anything Karadzic and Milosevic conceived. They claim as many as 50000 people have died at May’s end of fighting, by malice, malnutrition, maladministration and murder, and the rest have only been saved by media and diplomatic attention. As the Tigers’ defeated generation melt away, their heirs say what’s happening at Menik will prompt Colombo to handpass its massive refugee crisis for the likes of Australia to solve, and has radicalised a new generation of Tamil rebels. They say the war will go on, in Colombo lawsuits, in UN war crimes trials and likely the battlefield again. It’s just a matter of time.
As has always been in this nasty war, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
I was escorted to Kadirigamar camp at Menik last week, regarded by aid workers as the most comfortable of the seven camps. The Tamils say the government houses the more benign detainees at Kadirigamar, aka the closer one was captured to the Tigers’ murderous last stand on the beach north of Mullaitivu last May, the more suspicion one was LTTE, when just as likely you were the Tigers’ human shield, a hostage anxious to get on a boat for Australia and escape each horrible side. The camps are named after Tamil heroes – the ones acceptable to mostly Sinhalese Colombo. Lakshman Kadirigamar was then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ethnic Tamil foreign minister in her Sinhalese cabinet, until he was assassinated, supposedly, by the Tigers at his Colombo home in 2005. Chandra Fernando was the Lankan police chief then and Kadirigamar’s murderer was the one that got away from him. Lankans believe Kadirigamar, regarded by the Tigers as an Uncle Tom, was killed by the LTTE largely because then police chief Fernando told them to. The LTTE, who proudly fessed up to most of its many outrages, denied they killed him, but then they also claimed they didn’t kill Rajiv Gandhi too, in 1991. A ‘regretful incident’ was about as close as they came to responsibility there.
In trying to eradicate the 30 years of the Tigers’ personality cult around its pudgy and now dead leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, Colombo’s forced nationalism in naming the camps after government-acceptable Tamil champions is understandable. But as with many things about Sri Lanka, from its wobbly infrastructure to its wobblier propaganda and political allegiances, maintenance is the problem. Menik’s Sinhalese overlords, most of whom can’t speak Tamil, have taken to referencing their realm as ‘zones’ aka Zone 1 etc, to Zone 7. In the elective dictatorship Sri Lanka seems to be evolving into under the hugely popular President Mahinda Rajapakse and his three politician brothers Basil, Gotabaya and Chamal, Orwell couldn’t have put it better.
I was invited by Fernando to go wherever I wanted in Zone 3, talk to anyone, take photos, ask any question I liked. Which was fine except that didn’t much happen. I was rushed around Zone 3 embedded in a military convoy, seated next to Fernando and surrounded by armed bodyguards, my every move filmed by army photographers. Menik’s inmates seemed cheerful enough on my tour, inasmuch as one can be happy living bare-chested with three kids in a floorless 3X3m UNHCR canvas tent pitched directly to earth during one of the world’s wettest monsoons, with questionable sanitation. But no-one grizzled, no-one seemed emaciated, kids weren’t obviously diseased or squealing in pain, bellies weren’t distended by hunger and, yes, there were banks and blokes on mobiles and wives spending money in vegetable markets and young women learning how to use a loom to make a sari or a sarong, and earnest Westerners in Arafat-esque keffiyeh scarves rushing around in white 4WDs, refugee chic as the look is called. I’ve seen harsher refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, from which sprang the Taleban, and better ones in East Timor and Cambodia. But I’ve never before seen almost 200,000 people enclosed by razor wire and being told they’ve been liberated from tyranny by their captors.
After 45-odd minutes touring Zone 3 at Menik – “you’ve seen it all” said Fernando, who was keen to rush to a wedding in Colombo six hours drive away – I came away feeling its what one can’t see that’s more revealing than what one can. I put that to Fernando on our return to the capital. “Absolute nonsense,” he said. “You told me you want to write the facts. What you saw are the facts. You can either take a historian’s view, based on facts, or a lawyer’s view, manipulating information to suit your story.”
SRI LANKA is burdened by as fetid and ancient an ethnic divide as any suffered by the former Yugoslavia. I’ve witnessed grown highly-educated men, one a Tamil, the other a Sinhalese and articulate cricket lovers both and having traced their families back centuries, near come to blows over which ethnicity got to the island from India first. The Tigers’ name of Eelam for the Tamil lands is a stinging provocation to the Sinhalese – the term suggesting not just the Tamil-populated north and east but one for the entire island, and dating etymologically back millennia. Rather like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia and the Jews in Israel, the Buddhist Sinhalese are a religious and ethnic majority who’ve always felt like a minority, intimidated partly because lurking just offshore to the north is the vast enormity of Hindu-dominated India, and Tamil Nadu (the ‘Land of the Tamils’) in particular, casting themselves as an Aryan island in an archipelago of Dravidians.
But there are more immediate jealousies. In the former Ceylon, regarded by London as almost a colonial afterthought during its three centuries of the Raj, the British favoured the Tamils as a merchant and administrative class, largely because of their willing embrace of English and Western education at a time when Ceylon was starting to develop a modern society. London ran Ceylon with a lightly-armed police force. It was a place for seaside summer holidays from the heat of India. One reason why the island’s voluptuous south coast was so devastated by the 2004 tsunami was that the coral cover was dynamited by British army officers to provide sandy beaches in front of their villas.
Ceylon enjoyed near a decade of post-independence harmony after 1948 where everyone was related to each other in an ethnic masala, an atmosphere charmingly described by Michael Ondaatje in his delightful 1982 memoir Running In The Family. But in 1955 the Oxford-educated lawyer Solomon Bandaranaike, still smarting at being overlooked as PM on independence, examined the ethnic map on which the Sinhalese comprised around a 75% majority and campaigned on a ‘Sinhala Only’ ticket, playing on probably correct Sinhalese suspicions that the minority Tamils were rich and privileged. Bandaranaike won power in 1956, founding a noxious dynasty that his wife Srimavo and daughter Chandrika would inherit on his assassination at his Colombo home – now a splendid boutique hotel – in 1959 by a Buddhist monk incensed that ‘Sinhala Only’ didn’t go far enough. (The current President Mahinda Rajapakse was a Chandrika protégé but now the two are said to hate each other).
Impoverished Sri Lanka could’ve been Malaysia, with its politics of ethnic coalition and today’s booming economy. But instead it became a South Asian Rwanda spawning a new generation of Tamil militants in the disenfranchised north, the origins of the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka is the country where the Muslim community, a Tamil-speaking merchant class comprising around 10% of the population deriving from Arab traders and Javanese exiled from Dutch Indonesia, are the moderates.
The civil war stunted healthy nationalism and community on the island, and the economy too. Today, the 22 million who crowd the island tend to identify themselves not as Sri Lankans but by ethnicity, religion and caste in a way that, say, Malaysians or Singaporeans with a similar recent history and racial-religious divisions rarely do. To Moet-swilling Westerners charmed by its beaches and tumbledown Raj-era architecture, Sri Lanka is still Ceylon with those alluring colonial whiffs, which remain mostly because the economy has been so devastated – Lankan GDP is an eighth that of Malaysia. There hasn’t been much meaningful development because few have invested in a poor country at war, where the best and brightest have emigrated, to places like Australia, and have generally done very well, while keeping the home fires burning and well-financed, often by force.
WAR is never funny, but it can be very amusing.
On the night Australia beat Sri Lanka to win the World Cricket Cup in Barbados in April 2007, I was in Colombo to profile the Fernando family’s tea company, Dilmah. Theirs was a genuine success story in a country where good news is rare. Merrill Fernando had built a $500 million business in spite of the war that had raged around his beautiful but benighted island, overcoming Tiger intimidation and woeful infrastructure to export his boutique teas to 100 countries. Dilmah sponsored the Lankan cricket team but I eschewed Fernando’s invitation to watch the final at his palatial Colombo home, preferring my room in the Galle Face Hotel, the colonial relic dilapidating by the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lankans were convinced Muralitharan and his teammates would repeat their 1996 triumph over Australia. President Rajapakse flew to Bridgetown, joining then Australian PM John Howard at the game, while at home the Ceylon Electricity Board added extra wattage for a night when near every Lankan TV would be on well into the morning, watching a game beamed in from 10 time zones away. With Muslims, Tamils, Sinhalese and Burghers in the rainbow team, the Tigers had also hinted at a ceasefire for an occasion which would transcend politics.
The game was dull and disappointing, a non-contest. Gilchrist had smacked a game-ending 149 and by midnight, it was clear Australia would win easily. I nodded off and the last thing remember noticing was the glow of a TV inside the gun emplacement on the tumbledown turret on the waterfront by the hotel; the young grunts in the tower were also watching the cricket. Around 2 am, I was jolted awake by what sounded like fireworks and some dull thuds. Had Sri Lanka fought back, and locals were celebrating? The telecast told me Sri Lanka were still battling, a long way behind, so no result there. I looked out the window for clues, just as the gun turret erupted in orange anti-aircraft fire. The much feared ‘Air Tigers’ were raiding Colombo – the fireworks were tracer fire, the thuds bombs. This was a jerry-built air force, two Zlin Z-143s, trainer aircraft known as Czech Cessnas often used to tow advertising banners. Plane parts had been smuggled into Sri Lanka over months by LTTE sympathisers, sometimes as inflight hand luggage, and assembled under a jungle canopy in Eelam. The ‘Air Tigers’ were, in truth, a flying Meccano set.
This was no concentrated ack-ack from the Galle Face turret. The soldiers randomly blazed away, hitting the hotel and spraying tracer into the street below. I recoiled from the window as bullets splayed past, this a long-coveted opportunity to loose off a few for real. An hour later, the lads tried to shoot down a plane high above the Colombo shoreline, imagining it to be more Air Tigers when it was actually an unsuspecting Malaysian Airlines commercial flight arriving from the Maldives. Fortunately for Sri Lanka’s international aviation reputation, Zlins can’t get so high up, but Sri Lankans soldiers don’t know such things, raised from illiterate rural villages and desperate for work. They blazed away regardless, because no-one stopped them.
Kafka continued into Sunday on the GFH’s breakfast terrace. The hubbub was louder than usual, after the night’s diversions. Regulars know that crows like to picnic on the buffet but are kept at bay by cummerbunded staff slinging pebbles at the stealthy invaders. It’s a sisyphean struggle and guests quipped to staff they’d need more than shanghais to shoot the Tigers down.
I wrote an eyewitness piece for Fortune Magazine describing the absurdity of it all, and in the week that followed, received around 100 emails from readers in co-ordinated barrages from both sides of the ethnic divide. Diaspora Tamils commended me for “finally telling the truth,” warning me not to be bought by the government, as they imagined journalists are. To non-Tamils, I was scum. A Roopa Chetty warned I was a ‘White Tiger” who would be killed. A Chandraguptha Mudannayake, writing from a US embassy state.gov domain, said I’d “brought shame upon himself and Fortune. We the people of Sri Lanka would appreciate if unethical reporters of this kind are kept away from our country.” A Don Subasinghe of Melbourne spat that “Eric Ellis is probably a man who likes to terrorise people and has no guts to do that by himself.” A Testa Delmone advised me to “please get your despicably biased Australian nose out of the Tiger terror ass and wash it off, mate, because it smells sooooo fucking bad.” My personal favourite was from a Sam Dias, emailing from Britain, who wrote “worst of all is the disgusting and unprofessional evaluation of Sri Lankan cricket team’s achievement in the World Cup.”
The Air Tigers inflicted little damage but it was a humiliating night for President Rajapakse. His team were thrashed in Barbados and half-way through the match, he was informed his faraway capital was under attack while he was junketing in the Caribbean. The Tigers had again penetrated Colombo after he’d assured residents the previous raid weeks earlier would be the last, and that his Israeli-trained and supplied air force would defend them.
Returning to Colombo, Rajapakse and his US green-card wielding brother Gotabaya, a former manager of a Californian 7-11 who Mahinda made the unelected Defence Secretary, got smarter and nastier. They started winning the propaganda war. They rounded people up in white vans, and people started disappearing. Journalists started getting intimidated, and sometimes killed. The Tigers were demonised and dehumanised, as the Rajapakses attacked their widely-held myth of invincibility which poisoned Lankan military morale. Defence spending grew to around 20% of the budget, one of the highest in the world, while aggressive diplomacy helped quell diaspora support networks, exploiting the same post 9-11 laws that had shut down Al-Qaeda cells in the West.
Suddenly, governments were proscribing the LTTE as terrorists and a banned organisation, because it wasn’t a good look for Washington or Ottawa or London to be railing at Osama when Prabhakaran had taught him some of the same stuff (LTTE training manuals were found in the rubble of Al-Qaeda safehouses in Kabul and Kandahar). Rajapakse’s humiliation in Barbados reminded him that the Tigers were vermin to be eliminated – he’d been going after them since his election 18 months earlier after tearing up a Norway-sponsored peace accord – but as he told me in August in his Buddhist shrine of an office in central Colombo, he resolved never to have another day like that one.
And he didn’t.
Two years later, the Tigers were finished, militarily anyway, and Sri Lanka united. “I think all people underestimated me,” Rajapske said. “And that is a mistake.”
“I don’t want to just be The Liberator,” he said, “I want to be the leader who brings permanent peace and development to this country.” Reconciliation with the Tamils, he says, means providing basic needs long denied them by the Tigers: electricity, water, shelter, education. “They want to start their padi fields, go back to their farms.” Most Sri Lankans have known only ethnic conflict, but Rajapakse says the country has no need for a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission. Rather, he prefers a kind of national amnesia. “I don’t think it is healthy to start digging into the history, these problems. We must forget about the past and start a new life, new thinking.” He recommends Mahinda Chintana, his Mao-esque code for life, Mahinda Thought. Rajapakse’s musings are hard to avoid, plastered on hoardings along with the images of him and his brothers striding purposefully to a new Sri Lanka, along most every road and railway on the island. Menik Farm has many.
In January 2007, as I was trying to convince Tigers in Eelam, Sydney, London and Vancouver to get me an interview with the reclusive Prabhakaran, I met the LTTE’s 50 year-old boss for Britain, AC Shanthan, in a tapas bar in fashionable Hampstead that he said the Tigers owned. Shanthan had been in London for 25 years, was a British citizen and claimed to be a successful businessman (among other assets, the LTTE ran a chain of petrol stations in south London, vehicles for massive credit card scams). I asked him if the British authorities were aware of his, er, other job. Absolutely, he said, adding that so long as this ‘patriotic duty’ to Eelam didn’t impinge on the British state, the police tended to look the other way. In June that year, Shanthan was arrested under the UK Terrorism Act and in June this year, he received a two year gaol sentence for buying and sending bomb-making devices to Eelam. The Colombo press reported that British police claimed he had funnelled about $8 billion to the Tigers from Britain over recent years, about the same size as Sri Lanka’s economy today. In London too, I briefly met Adele Wilby, the so-called “White Tigress” nurse from Warragul who became the head of the LTTE’s female cadres, after she married the LTTE’s chief ideologue, the late Anton Balasingham. I went to her home in New Malden in London’s South-West soon after her husband’s death to speak to her, but she wouldn’t let me past the gate, concerned that I might be an assassin. I pondered that if I were there to kill her, which side does she imagine I’m from. She told me to leave. The ex-cop Chandra Fernando said Australia or Britain should arrest her, before she becomes the Tigers’ Sonia Gandhi figure. He described her as mad, and I’m inclined to agree.
SPEAKING of mad, if Wilson Tuckey believes there are ‘Tamil terrorists’ on Rudd’s Tampa in Indonesia then by his definition, he hasn’t gone far enough. They are already here, in massive paid-off homes in middle-class havens like Strathfield in Sydney and Melbourne’s Glen Waverley and have been for more than a generation, emigrating from their war-torn homeland to pursue the life’s opportunities denied them in Sri Lanka. They are also Australian citizens and, in many respects, exemplary immigrants, often self-made millionaires who could quite easily be your physician, your chief technology officer, your financial advisor, that nice family down at the club, though perhaps not the bowls club.
I started working the Tamil diaspora in 2003 to convince them to offer up Prabhakaran, arguing this was an opportunity to proclaim a genuine intent for peace as was claimed but which LTTE militancy frequently betrayed. Truth be told, I simply wanted a scoop. I was progressively handed up the LTTE’s Australian chain of command, as diaspora cadre quizzed me as to my true intention, to interview one of the three most elusive newsmakers in the world, after Osama bin Laden and North Korea’s loopy leader Kim Jong Il. In a smart café in the plaza at the MLC Centre in central Sydney, I was gently interrogated over latte by a besuited six-figure systems analyst for a major bank, who’s now a director of a public company. He described how factionalised the movement was, dividing between cocky pro-Prabhakaran hardliners who favoured a sharper confrontation with Colombo, spurning the then government’s offer of peace talks and striving for military-led independence for Eelam, and more moderate ‘diplomats’ who believed the autonomous federation deal promoted by Western peacebrokers was as good as it gets.
He handed me, Le Carre-like, to parties on both sides. I couldn’t contact them but was assured they would me, by blind SMS or phone, with secret passwords. And they did, over the course of a week. I met a wealthy LTTE donor in the Sydney Westin, who favoured the diplomatic route for the Tigers’ aspirations. I shared an excellent risotto alla Milanese with a millionairess – and take-no-prisoner hardliner – at a trendy restaurant in Newtown, and was eventually handed to a chap I believe was Shanthan’s equal in Australia, an elegant man who chatted over Perriers in a café in the bowels of Sydney’s Wynyard station, as his children sat politely with us. He couldn’t talk long, he apologised, because he was taking his kids to soccer.
All said there was very good chance I would get to see ‘Praba’, that he knew of my request and viewed it favourably. It was just a matter of timing. I had apparently passed the test, whatever it was but I presumed that, unlike most Australians they’d encountered, I had an interest in Sri Lankan politics and knew the difference between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Lanka, Sinhalese and Tamil. Theirs was a hearts and minds campaign, involving journalists, local members and, eventually, recognition or at least advocacy in Canberra and beyond.
They advised me to stand by my phone and advise them when I would be visiting Lanka. I waited and waited, occasionally sending reminders to my handlers. Be patient, they counselled, it will come. I waited some more. I came and went to Lanka several times, but never north of Colombo. The ceasefire started to crumble. The Tigers and their proxy Tamil National Alliance were seen as kingmakers between Chandrika’s appointed successor, Mahinda Rajapakse, a bluff but cunning nationalist lawyer from the Sinhalese heartland south who positioned himself as the champion of the semi-literate rural poor, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, a limp political aristocratic backed by the arrogant Colombo elite and playing footsies with the Tigers, who were playing him off a break. Diplomats in Colombo, including Australians, tended to back Ranil, and also seemed to nurse a secret sympathy with the Tamils, no matter how murderous the Tigers, if only because peace is always rhetorically better than war and Ranil already had a workable understanding with the Tigers, or so it seemed. I asked the Norwegians sponsoring and monitoring the peace process why they did it. With Scandinavian candour, they said that the $50 million they’d spent on the diplomacy was better than the $1 billion Oslo had budgeted to accommodate the plane and boat loads of Tamil refugees to its frozen shores.
Shanthan’s legal predicament in London may explain why Australia’s LTTE supporters in Strathfield and Glen Waverley are suddenly rather circumspect about their secret lives, now that their hero Prabhakaran is dead and the movement near fatally wounded. Or maybe they realise they backed the wrong horse.
In 2005, Prabhakaran made a fatal mistake, one which in the blizzard of propaganda and hatred on all sides of this putrid conflict, is about the only thing everyone seems to agree on. He ordered Tamil voters to boycott Sri Lanka’s presidential elections. To disobey that edict hazarded death. A co-operative LTTE would’ve guaranteed Ranil the Tamil vote – around 15 %. In the end, Rajapakse won by 1.5% and immediately set after the Tigers, tearing up the ceasefire, ratcheting up military budgets and finessing Mahinda Chintana. The boycott was the beginning of the end for the LTTE. It convinced those prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt that as genuine democratic peace-seekers with a great deal for the taking that would’ve given the Tigers a designated homeland and possibly Prabhakaran the national vice-presidency or prime ministership, his Tigers and its massive martyr complex, Eelam’s Stalinist absolutism were in truth a death cult. The interview would never happen.
A MONTH or so before the Tamil Tigers immolated, by design or by idiocy, at the bloody hands of the Sinhalese-led Sri Lankan Army on a beach in devastated north-east, I received an invitation to a buddy up on a social networking website with a man called Seevaratnam Puleedevan.
I was sitting in a villa in Sri Lanka’s gorgeous south on a tourist visa when the Facebook invite dropped into my inbox. The Colombo papers were full of triumphant stories about the imminent last stand of this once-feared separatist rebel movement. Kilinochchi, the Tiger’s inland redoubt, had fallen, as had Elephant Pass, the isthmus connecting Eelam to the government-held Jaffna peninsula. The international media were sending firemen hacks into sleepy Colombo, who reminded us that it was the insurgent Tigers who’d literally written the handbook on how to wage assymetrical warfare to humiliate a notionally more powerful enemy, which they’d done quite effectively over 30 years as anyone who’s been stopped at the seven checkpoints on the way into town from the airport could attest. “The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka are undoubtedly one of the most organized, effective and brutal terrorist groups in the world,” breathlessly noted the Time magazine in my villa’s library. I noticed various TV war correspondents swaggering around the Cinnamon Grand Hotel lobby, 400km from a front the government had banned journalists from going anywhere near, “to guarantee safety’ as it implausibly insisted, and inclined to expel any that tried.
Pulee, as he was known, seemed a pleasant man. Colombo regarded him as a terrorist and a killer, and perhaps he was but I knew him as the always-smiling and ever-accommodating secretary-general of the Tiger’s ‘peace secretariat,’ the civilian wing set up in 2002-05 when Colombo and the Tigers were observing an Oslo-brokered peace. One could visit Eelam then, crossing a Red Cross-administered border into a swampy broken-down land that nobody recognised. I’d flown in 2003 from Colombo to Jaffna, and taken a car south across Elephant Pass on the pot-holed and pock-marked A-9 highway that connected the Sinhalese royal capital, Kandy, with its similarly regal Tamil sister, Jaffna – and 100km of it through the heart of the phony Tiger state. Approaching Kilinochchi, I was pulled over by a humourless Tiger policewoman who curtly explained I was doing 10km over the ‘government limit.’ There was no resisting; she wielded a brand-new Bushnell radar monitor with print-out, and wrote me a $US25 speeding ticket with instructions of where to pay it in town, into ‘consolidated revenue.’ She made it clear that Eelam was unlike no other place in Asia save, perhaps, Singapore, where one could slip the officer a quiet fiver and be on your way. The merest suggestion of a backhander invited a more serious crime than simply speeding. The Tigers had a reputation of incorruptible puritanism – smoking and drinking was banned, and corruption was a capital offence. I paid my fine to the Tigers’ central Bank of Tamil Eelam, which governor claimed had $100 million in reserves. My Sinhalese driver, no fan of his compatriot Tamils he, rued that Lanka’s notoriously corrupt and louche south could use some of the LTTE’s discipline.
A month after Facebooking me, Pulee was dead, apparently shot as he was trying to surrender. His death was reported soon after Sri Lankan state TV, Rupavhini, interrupted its normal diet of tortuous soaps and Bollywood to parade Prabhakaran’s bullet-riddled body on air to the tune of Star Wars, to convince Lankans that this mythical Tiger supremo was simply that, mythical and very, very mortal. I didn’t respond to Pulee’s Facebook invite. Pulee was tech-obsessed, I imagined he must he despatched it via satphone as shells fell around him on that hideous charnel house of a beach. His page still sits there online, with just 28 ‘friends.’ Pulee’s broad smile beams out of the website, as Tiger cadres line up regimentally behind him, a true believer to the end of a deeply flawed cause, but one still being fought in the blameless suburbs of Australia.