August 7, 2002
Lessons From Sri Lanka
OLOMBO, Sri Lanka — It's often forgotten that while suicide bombing started in the Middle East, the people who perfected suicide as a weapon of war were the Tamil Tigers militia here in Sri Lanka, the island-state off the southern tip of India. In the last decade, Tamil suicide bombers, many of them women, killed some 1,500 people, including an Indian prime minister and a Sri Lankan president. And in a bizarre twist, the Tigers filmed many of their suicide bombings to show and motivate their troops.
But since last December a cease-fire between the Tigers — who have been militating for a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil Hindu minority in the northeast — and the government, which is dominated by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, has halted all suicide bombings. No one can be sure it will last, after 18 years of civil war. But it's still worth examining how suicide was defused here, and whether any of this might apply to Palestinians and Israelis.
To begin with, one of the key factors in halting Tamil suicide bombings was the Tamil diaspora, living in North America, Europe and India. This Tamil diaspora had been the main source of funding for the Tamil Tigers. But the Tamil diaspora is made up largely of middle-class merchants and professionals, and when in the late 1990's the U.S., Britain and India all declared the Tigers a "terrorist" group, not freedom fighters, the Tamil diaspora became embarrassed by them and started choking off their funds.
"The Tamil diaspora started out as a force encouraging Tamil radicalism, but eventually it evolved into a source for moderation," said Suresh Premachandran, head of a Tamil rights party in Sri Lanka. "Sept. 11 changed that even more. People here knew after that there would never be any sympathy for any suicide bombers."
Unfortunately, in the Middle East Arabs and Muslims continue to indulge, justify, praise or provide religious legitimation for Palestinian suicide bombers, even after 9/11. The Palestinians have convinced themselves, with the help of many Arabs and Europeans, that their grievance is so special, so enormous that it isn't bound by any limits of civilized behavior, and therefore they are entitled to do whatever they want to Israelis. And Israelis have convinced themselves that they are entitled to do virtually anything to stop it.
Second, Sri Lankans had to pay retail for their extremism. They had no oil or foreign powers to finance their war. And because so much domestic savings was diverted to the war, Sri Lanka's roads and infrastructure today are decrepit. It is not surprising, therefore, that the peace movement, which blossomed in the last two years, was led by the business community — particularly after the Tamil Tigers blew up Colombo's airport in July 2001 and sent the country into an economic tailspin.
"The business community finally said, `Enough is enough,' " said Mahesh Amalean, chairman of MAS Holdings, Sri Lanka's leading apparel maker. "That turned the tide. Our motto became `Sri Lanka first.' "
Israelis and Palestinians, by contrast, got to buy their extremism wholesale. Palestinians could engage in suicide bombings without becoming destitute because the Arab states are always ready to pass the hat for them. Israelis have been able to build insane settlements in the heart of the West Bank, because the U.S. was ready to provide aid with no limits attached.
Third, in Sri Lanka the government realized it had no military solution for suicide bombers — that the only way they could be stopped was if the Tigers themselves could be induced to turn them off. The Tigers, meanwhile, realized that while they could terrify the government with suicides, they couldn't even hold their own ethnic capital, Jaffna. So they both finally opted for negotiations. Unfortunately, the Palestinians abandoned a peace offer and opted instead for the delusion that suicide bombing will get them more, and Ariel Sharon has opted for a purely military response.
Finally, while Jews and Arabs have carried out their war with all the world watching — and often meddling in ways that prolonged the conflict — Sri Lankans have conducted their war, in which 64,000 people have died, with almost no coverage.
"Ours has been a forgotten war, and we've had to live with our mistakes and to find our own way out," said Milinda Moragoda, one of the government's peace negotiators. "It had its disadvantages, but also its advantages."