When President Chandrika Kumaratunga addressed the nation after winning reelection last month, her right eye swollen from a suicide bomber's assassination attempt, she seemed the epitome of a courageous democratic leader determined to bring peace to her violence-wracked island country.
"To all those who have ever doubted my resolve to lift the curse of hatred and death that has fallen upon our land, I offer the challenge to look into my face now," she said. "The very wounds I bear will answer them that there is no individual on this earth more determined than I am to end this country's wretched and mindless bloodshed."
But to many Sri Lankans, Kumaratunga's words rang depressingly hollow. After five years of effort, her government had come no closer to defeating Sri Lanka's Tamil insurgents on the battlefield or coaxing them to the negotiating table. And her near assassination Dec. 18 on the campaign trail--by a teenage girl strapped with explosives--seemed to mock the elections, the stalled peace process and the army's ineptitude.
Moreover, despite the president's narrow victory over opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, there seemed little for the government to celebrate. Analysts said many voters were disillusioned with the petty politicking and faltering peace initiatives of her first term, and she began the new one on a sour and suspicious note, accusing the media, the business community and other critics of a conspiracy against her.
"The bomb crystallized all her feelings of being under siege, that everyone is her enemy," said Wanuna Karunatilake, a founder of the national Free Media Movement, a civil rights group. "She started out with massive support in 1994, but since then she has lost a lot of credibility and people became disillusioned. Right now, she should be on top of the world, but instead she wants revenge."
Sri Lanka is rife with such ironies. It is a lush tropical paradise of 18 million people beset by one of the bloodiest insurgencies the modern world has known--a rebellion in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has been fighting since 1983 to create an autonomous Tamil homeland in the northeastern part of the country.
It is a society overwhelmingly dominated by one ethnic group, the Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up 75 percent of the population yet see themselves victimized by the Hindu Tamils, who account for 13 percent of the population. It is a small democracy that gained independence from Britain peacefully in 1948 and seemed ideally positioned for peaceful rule yet has been torn apart by ethnic violence for 16 years.
Perhaps the saddest irony of all is the ruthlessly "successful" military campaign by the rebel group, a reclusive and dictatorial movement that initially brought self-respect to Sri Lankan Tamils but has since managed only to make life miserable for many of them. At least 60,000 people have died in the fighting, and the rebels have executed scores of moderate Tamil leaders seen as competitors or sellouts for trying to work within the system.
Moreover, the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been torn apart by years of fighting and abuse during alternating periods of army and rebel rule in the north, especially in the city of Jaffna. Many fled to the capital, Colombo, where they support themselves as menial workers living in rented rooms, viewed with suspicion by the authorities, constantly frisked and questioned. Each time a rebel detonates another bomb in the city, the army and police crack down harder on the Tamils.
"In the past several years, serious violations of human rights have decreased, but the harassment of the Tamil community as a whole has gotten worse," said Maheswary Velautham, who heads a legal aid group called the Forum for Human Dignity. "Under the current government there is space for groups like ours to shout, but people are still scared. Some Tamil women have stopped wearing their potoos [traditional Hindu forehead dots] for fear of being identified at checkpoints."
Interviewed at urban "lodgings," or cheap rental dormitories in Tamil neighborhoods, many young men said they are afraid to return to their homes in the north but equally afraid to venture out at night in Colombo. Almost all said they had been detained by the army at least once on suspicion of being guerrillas.
One woman from Jaffna, Mahindra Rani, 57, recounted 13 years of loss, violence and uprooting--her house destroyed by bombs; a son shot dead by the army; a second son arrested and tortured until he vomited blood; and a third, a 27-year-old math tutor and telephone operator, reportedly picked up by security forces on Dec. 15.
Despite such tactics, Sri Lanka's security forces have made little headway against the rebel group, a small but highly trained and indoctrinated force of several thousand. In November, the rebels captured large portions of jungle; in the past year, they have detonated bombs in Colombo, culminating in the attack on Kumaratunga.
"The [rebels] are hellbent on the pursuit of power, and they are still calling the shots," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a research institute. "They are in no hurry to negotiate, and their logic is simple and brutal: Either you are with them or you are the enemy. They simply eliminate anyone they think is trying to find a solution that will deal them out of the game."
Critics said the government also has failed to make a credible effort at negotiating peace. When Kumaratunga was elected in 1994, she made peace and ethnic reconciliation her top priorities and proposed a package of constitutional reforms that would give Tamils political autonomy. But the package bogged down in parliament, and the peace talks never got beyond an exchange of letters with rebel leaders.
Officials blamed the recalcitrance of the political opposition in parliament, and the cynicism of the rebels. They said Kumaratunga, far more than her predecessors in office, has tried to solve the country's ethnic divisions as well as bring an end to the war and that she has suffered far more than she deserves as a result.
"She has gone much further than any other leader in Sri Lanka," said Lakshman Kiriella, the deputy foreign minister. "She has offered repeatedly to sit down with the [rebel leaders] and talk about anything except [giving them] a separate state, but they don't want to talk." As for Kumaratunga's business and media critics, he said, they are mostly "crony capitalists" whose agenda is to try to get access to government contracts and favors.
To a growing extent, the government is pinning its hopes for peace on outside countries and organizations. Kumaratunga has asked Norway about "facilitating" talks with the rebels, and her aides said they hope a new U.N. convention that bans fund-raising for terrorist groups will help choke off the group's financial lifeline from Tamil emigres, just as the rebels' violent reputation has begun eroding their once romantic image as freedom fighters.
But many Sri Lankans, numbed by years of ethnic violence and disappointed by a succession of governments that have failed to curb it, seem to have lost hope. Meanwhile, say refugees biding their time in Colombo, the Tamils remain trapped between two forces that purport to protect their interests.
"I want to go home to my wife and children, but I am afraid," said Anton Singayaga, 28, a laborer from Jaffna who lives in a rented cubicle in Colombo. "If the army doesn't arrest me, the [rebels] might think I am trying to be friendly to them, and they will threaten me too." Like many Tamils here, Singayaga said his only hope was to go abroad, perhaps to live with a relative in Europe. "I have a passport, but there is no way to leave," he said. "All I can do is hope and wait."
Sri Lanka at a Glance
Land area: 25,332 square miles; about twice the size of Maryland
Population: 18.9 million
Per capita income: $551 a year (comparison: India $465)
Life expectancy: 70 years for men; 75 for women
Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist) 75%
Tamils (mostly Hindu) 13%
The Civil War
1975: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam founded with aim of establishing a separate state in the north and east.
1983: Civil war begins, sparked by anti-Tamil riots in Colombo.
1987: India, which has a large Tamil population in the south, and Sri Lanka reach pact to end Tamil separatism; India sends peacekeeping troops.
1989: India pulls out troops.
1990: Tigers seize Jaffna and proclaim government for Tamil people.
1991: Former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi killed in southern India by Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.
1993: Tamil suicide bomber kills Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
1995: Sri Lankan army retakes Jaffna and later Kilinochchi.
1996: Government peace plan to give Tamils more power in some areas stalls. In July, 1,240 government soldiers killed when rebels overrun a garrison at Mullaittivu.
1997: Rebels attack Colombo city center; 18 killed.
1998: Former Tamil rebel groups win control of most local councils on Jaffna peninsula in first election in region in 15 years. But separatists keep fighting, assassinating Jaffna mayor in May and her successor in September.
Fighting has cost more than 60,000 lives.
SOURCES: U.N., World Almanac, Associated Press
CAPTION: Children play under campaign posters for Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was reelected after a Dec. 18 assassination attempt.