How Much to Tip the Terrorist?

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Crossing borders has been an arduous business since 9/11, and entering northern Sri Lanka is no different — if anything the delays are longer, the checks more thorough and the wait, outside a row of wooden sheds in a baking tropical sun, more grueling than arriving at Heathrow or JFK. In those places, of course, immigration officials are trying to keep terrorists out. Here, however, the officials are the terrorists.

The Tamil Tigers would dispute that tag, of course. Like other guerrillas and suicide bombers, they prefer the term freedom fighters. But the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (L.T.T.E.) are proscribed by the U.S. and the U.N. as terrorists, and even without that official sanction, their record in 22 years of civil war with the Sinhalese of southern Sri Lanka speaks for itself. They've assassinated the heads of several branches of the Sri Lankan armed forces, a president, and a former prime minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi); they've blown up half the national airline and held off two national armies (Sri Lanka and India); They are credited, if that's the correct term, with raising suicide bombing to an art form, with explosives strapped to the body, and cars and boats in ever more sophisticated fashion. And their prowess in guerrilla warfare and and arms smuggling has earned them a reputation as the world's most effective insurgent outfit. And that reputation has allowed them to turn the export of their expertise, weapons and assassins to other terror groups into a billion-dollar business.

After 9/11 the Tigers feared they would eventually fall foul of the new U.S. war on terror, and, partly to avoid that, quickly agreed a ceasefire with a new, more moderate government in Colombo, under which they opened up their territory (the north and east) to all except government troops. But since there was no question of giving up the dream of an independent homeland for which they had fought so long, they set up formidable new borders around "Eelam" to underscore the impression of sovereignty. Entering Tigerland today means a vehicle search, a bag search and a body search, three separate checkpoints, four immigration checks and interviews or checks with 11 separate officers. Once inside, the traveler finds the Tigers have stretched the idea of a separate nation as far as they can. They run their own courts, police and army, and their own hotels and restaurants. They build roads. They distribute tsunami aid (with far more efficiency than the government to the south). They even have their own traffic cops.

Once you finally clear the border and settle into the Tiger-owned A9 Guesthouse in the Tiger administrative capital Killinochchi, sip a Tiger-served beer and tuck into Tiger-grown rice and Tiger-cooked curry, it becomes impossible to think of your hosts only as rebels. Whether previously you saw them as mad bombers or brave martyrs, it becomes plain that the Tigers also have other identities: bureaucrats, firemen, nurses, farmers, restaurateurs and video store entrepreneurs. There are those who resist this complication. They say it humanizes evil and that if someone is a terrorist or supports terrorism, that's all you need to know. Such certainty may be appealing in a post-9/11 world. Then again, few people would prefer a suicide bomber over an officious border guard. And when a rebel becomes a teacher — when a sword turns into a plough-share — shouldn't we be grateful? These questions weigh heavily on Sri Lanka as it contemplates the November 17 presidential election, where the choice is between opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who began the original peace process, and prime minister Mahinda Rajapakse, backed by Sinhalese nationalists who, while not openly advocating war, oppose the current ceasefire. Whatever the answers, the residents of Tigerland say there is one unquestionable upside to the detente, as long as it lasts. With battle-hardened guerrillas for traffic cops, no one's yet been known been known to speed in Tamil Tiger territory.