What Does It Look Like To Win a War on Terror?

In Sri Lanka, it’s fewer suicide bombers, a real estate boom, and hundreds of thousands of Tamils still packed into overcrowded camps.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka—As I almost dozed off admiring the verdant landscape—a lush tableau of thick jungle and terraced paddy fields that calls to mind Raiders of the Lost Ark—a soldier rapped his knuckles against the car window and ordered us to pull over. After a quick search, we were back on our way. Three or four military checkpoints later, we arrived at the port city of Trincomalee. Buddha statues and bell-shaped stupas gave way to gas stations displaying the visages of Vishnu and Jesus.

I traveled to this predominantly Tamil pocket of Sri Lanka out of curiosity: I wanted to see what victory in a war on terror looked like. After all, that is what the government claims to have accomplished in May. In fact, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is so confident of victory that he has already turned his attention to wiping out drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, just as he did the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

It was an elusive peace. Like other fronts in the war on terror—Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind—the war had been declared unwinnable. Numerous cease-fires and dialogue attempts failed. Even Mother Nature proved incapable of pacifying the island. The brief truce after the December 2004 tsunami never quite stuck. No, it took a major offensive that pinned down the LTTE’s top leadership before finally wiping them out, an attack that reached a crescendo in May 2009and also reportedly killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians in the process.

Sri Lanka may have been just one front against terrorism—a conflict driven more by ethnic nationalism than religious extremism—yet it represents a microcosm of the broader war on terror. A heavily armed transnational actor with a vast network of financial resources abroad? Check. A willingness to attack civilian populations? Check. Training camps to turn impressionable children into suicide bombers? Check. A charismatic, elusive leader at the top? Check.

There was no one cause of the war. After its independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority resented that the British colonialists had given minority Tamils, most of them scattered across the north, preferential treatment and higher-paying jobs. That bred ethnic nationalism and discriminatory practices, which fed into Tamil desires for self-rule. It also fueled the Tamil Tigers’ early 1980s campaign of terror against Sinhalese civilians and government outposts, with suicide bombings their signature trademark. All told, the 26-year war left more than 60,000 dead on both sides and many more displaced.

Back in Trinco, I saw no “Mission Accomplished” banners. The closest thing was a motivational slogan outside a Dutch fort that read: “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going.” Such a chirpy message might seem odd in a former war zone, but locals here are eager to put the war behind them and “get going,” as it were.

Outside a downtown clock tower shaped like a lighthouse, men in colorful sarongs and sandals flashed toothy grins. A dog missing one eye limped past. Flies swarmed over a basket of fish. “Trinco is famous for its flies,” said the fish seller, smiling.

A bombed out building in downtown Colombo is under reconstruction

Trinco is also famous for its natural harbor, one of the world’s largest. Where ships used to ferry in arms to the Tigers, wooden fishing vessels now bob along its tranquil waters. One of the island’s best-kept secrets, a narrow stretch of golden sand called Nilaveli Beach, can be found just north of here. A few guesthouses are popping up along its virgin coastline. “With the war over, Tamils are coming back and going into real estate,” A.S. Jayawardena, a former governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank, told me.

But the Eastern Province, of which Trinco is the capital, has a long way to go before developers, much less tourists, flock here. It is a bumpy checkpoint-filled eight-hour journey from Colombo, the capital. Even today, parts of the Eastern and Northern Provinces are still no-go zones for the media, human rights groups, and other outside monitors. There are no mass graves or memorials near Trinco, at least none that I could see. (Many Tamils, I’m told, bury their dead in their gardens, while the graveyards of most of the “martyrs” are in the Northern Province.) Upward of 200,000 Tamils remain corralled in overcrowded camps—sorry, “welfare villages”—north of here, a situation that is bound to get worse as monsoon season approaches and the risk of flooding rises. While Tamils appreciate that they can now relax on buses and trains and need no longer worry about suicide bombers, parts of the island remain in perpetual military lockdown mode.

“That is where the LTTE lived,” my soft-spoken driver, Sarath De Alwis, said, pointing to a thick patch of jungle in the distance. Sarath is a Christian Tamil—his cell phone display reads, “God Bless All”—who listens to nothing but American country music. The green brush along the road was cleared for several hundred feet to prevent Tamil Tigers from ambushing government convoys. There are bored-looking teenage soldiers clutching AK-47s every few hundred yards. Sarath tells me the Sri Lankan military never much cared for Westerners, because they suspected the outsiders were funneling aid to the LTTE.

We stopped for lunch at a “Chinese” restaurant, a converted garage with faded pink walls and a peculiar odor. It took little prodding to get the restaurant’s owner, a local Tamil, to launch into a tirade against the Tiger leadership.

“In the beginning, we had a lot of faith,” he said, pulling up a seat. “They would come and shout slogans in the street. The soldiers were so small, their rifle butts were touching the ground.” The owner blamed the LTTE for ruining his restaurant business. He opened three places with his brothers. Now he runs just one but barely stays afloat. Violence scared off customers. Like any respectable mafia, the LTTE skimmed 10 percent of his profits for protection. “It was a big business,” he said. “If there’s peace, there’s no money to be made.”

Then there were the victims. In India’s Chennai Airport, I met Grace, an ethnic Tamil who sought asylum in the United States in the mid-1980s after hunkering under a tree and watching Sinhalese soldiers burn down her house. Another Tamil who fled to Canada told me that both his parents lost their limbs after a landmine exploded. Most people here just want their jobs back, their livelihoods back, their lost loved ones back. The Sinhalese majority may find it difficult to win back Tamil hearts and minds. The war is over, but the root causes—ethnic discrimination, economic and political marginalization—remain (not to mention that a rich and vocal Tamil diaspora, embittered by the government’s handling of the war, still lobbies from abroad for Tamil rights; Britain-born Tamil singer M.I.A. is perhaps its most well-known member).

Yet Colombo has balked at outside pressure from the European Union, United Nations, and U.S. State Department to release its internally displaced Tamils or launch an inquiry into alleged war crimes. It claims the war-torn areas are still danger zones pocked with landmines and that the militaryneeds to first weed out former Tigers in the camps. When the authorities recently released a few thousand Tamils, the gesture came off as insincere, a PR move to blunt outside criticism that it was not moving fast enough to rehabilitate the displaced.

Sri Lanka may be a victim of its own success. That is to say, outside the north, despite military checkpoints and hagiographic billboards showing the president (“I am no king but guardian of the people!”), life appears deceptively normal. Beaches along the southern coast fill up each day with surfers and fishermen on stilts. Buses stuffed with Europeans flock to the hill country to gawk at tea planters and leaning Buddha statues. You can now buy Cialis in Sri Lanka’s main airport. A recent front-page headline in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror read, “Lindsay Back With Sam.” Perhaps the biggest headache for most Sinhalese was a recent petrol strike. Such are the banalities of peace.

The European Union has threatened to suspend an important trade concession unless the government investigates its conduct of the war and resettles more displaced Tamils. That would hit Sri Lanka’s garment industry, which employs roughly 270,000 workers, especially hard, since Europe buys more than half of the apparel made on the island.The Sri Lankan government complains that the allegations of human rights violations and war crimes are based on second-hand sources and come from British newspapers with an ax to grind (because their journalists were booted out of the country). They also say such criticism smacks of neocolonialism and hypocrisy, given the amount of civilian carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, five years after the tsunami and five months after the war came to an end, Sri Lanka looks poised to put this ugly chapter behind it. As Preshan Dissanayake, a hotelier who owns properties down south, told me: “Come back in two or three years. It will be a totally different country.”