This article appeared on 2 August 1999 in the Australian Financial Review.
On September 25, 1959, the Prime Minister of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known), Mr Swrd Bandaranaike, was assassinated by a Buddhist monk at his home in Rosemead Place, Colombo. His wife, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was installed in his place, giving the modern world its first female head of government.
Forty years later the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is the same Mrs Bandaranaike, though executive power is now vested in the President, Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga. Mrs Kumaratunga, whose politician husband was assassinated in 1987, is the daughter of Mrs Bandaranaike.
If Mrs Bandaranaike was at home in Rosemead Place last Thursday morning she may have heard an explosion in the street outside. This was the assassination of lawyer and politician Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Dr Tiruchelvam was killed because he was a credible advocate of a political resolution of the conflict between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups. Specifically, he was lobbying for support for Mrs Kumaratunga's plan to devolve more power to Sri Lanka's provincial governments, which would have gone some way to resolving Tamil grievances. The devolution plan is set to go before Sri Lanka's Parliament. But a political resolution would put Mr Velupillai Prabakharan, the leader of the Tigers, out of a job. As a result the Tigers are bent on an unending war, so Dr Tiruchelvam had to go.
Some would argue Mrs Bandaranaike and her dead husband bear some historical responsibility for the conflict which killed Dr Tiruchelvam. Certainly the Tigers think so; their appointed place of Dr Tiruchelvam's execution outside Mrs Bandaranaike's home recalls the Red Brigades 1978 deposition of the corpse of ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro exactly half-way between the Rome headquarters of Italy's major political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Communists. Connoisseurs of terror, the Tigers will be savouring the symbolism.
It's conventional to date the beginnings of Sri Lanka's ethnic war to July 23, 1983, when the Tigers wiped out an army patrol on the Jaffna peninsula, the Tamil heartland in northern Sri Lanka. This triggered an anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo in which thousands of Tamil civilians died.
Since then the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has unsuccessfully attempted to crush the Tigers, the Indian army has occupied the island's north and east in an attempt to crush the Tigers (their erstwhile clients) but pulled out after a two year mauling, and the Tigers have wiped out all rival Tamil groups.
In a 1987-90 sideshow the Janata Vimuthki Peramuna, the Sinhalese ultra-nationalist ultra-left, incensed by what they regarded as Colombo's complicity in the Indian occupation of Sri Lanka's north and east, mounted an uprising against the government of President Ranasingha Premadasa. The JVP insurrection and its suppression took as many as 50,000 Sinhalese lives. Premadasa was assassinated by the Tigers in 1993. All this in a country the size of Tasmania.
But some argue the ethnic conflict began on Mr Bandaranaike's watch as Prime Minister. In a foretaste of 1983, in 1958 the hitherto deceptively peaceful Ceylon experienced the first serious Sinhalese-Tamil violence since independence from the British in 1947. Mr Bandaranaike made his political career out of strident Sinhalese nationalism. As the Sinhalese make up the majority of Sri Lanka's population (``a majority with a minority complex'', it is said), one path to electoral success in Sri Lanka is to pander to Sinhalese chauvinism. Mr Bandaranaike was accused of doing so at the expense of the Tamils.
It's clear that prior to the eruption of the current crisis in the 1980s, successive Sinhalese dominated governments in Colombo failed to deal equitably with the Tamils. It's equally clear that Prabhakaran's decision to fight on serves not the interests of the Tamil community as a whole, but his own. For the Tamil community, the continuing war is a disaster which dwarfs Kosovo.
Some blame the British, under whose colonial rule large scale irrigation settlements, populated by Sinhalese, were set up in the north centre of the island in the 1920s and '30s on land claimed to be historically Tamil. Others say this is taking far too short a view of the problem; they point to the second century BC wars against the Tamils by the Sinhalese hero-king Duttugemunu who gives his name to one of the SLA's elite units. Whichever way you look at it, Sri Lanka seems to produce more history than can be locally consumed.
The Tigers are the most effective terrorists in the world. Dr Tiruchelvam was killed by a man wearing a vest of explosives studded with ball bearings. The Tiger came up to Dr Tiruchelvam's car, walked around to the side in which he was sitting, lent against the window and detonated the bomb. According to a local press report ``a 10-metre circle around the area was strewn with human flesh, blood and glass from Dr Tiruchelvam's brand new car. One of the legs of the bomber was thrown over the car while his head went in the opposite direction and landed face-up on the kerb''.
The effect of Dr Tiruchelvam's assassination was felt beyond Sri Lanka.
The Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, paid tribute to Dr Tiruchelvam's human rights activism. US President Bill Clinton praised him for his work to bring about a peaceful resolution to Sri Lanka's conflict.
And watching particularly closely will be Mrs Sonia Gandhi, leader of India's Congress Party. Congress is the main rival to India's Bharatiya Janata Party government in national elections which will begin in September. Mrs Gandhi has a strong personal interest in the Tigers: her husband, former Prime Minister Mr Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated by them in southern India in 1991.
Some months back security for Mrs Gandhi was stepped up when authorities learnt of a Tiger plot to assassinate her. The Tigers fear that if Congress wins the elections and Mrs Gandhi becomes Prime Minister, she will go after them in revenge for the killing of her husband. They may well be right.