Though it was only a one-day news story in the United States, a momentous event occurred last spring, with worldwide military significance. After 26 years of heavy fighting, the Sri Lankan government decisively defeated an ethnic insurgency, killing all of its top leadership, whose bodies were displayed on national television. Massive victory parades followed.
The Tamil Tigers were no ordinary insurgency. Built on the ethnic hatred of the minority Hindu Tamils against the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, the movement was among the best organized and most ruthless to have emerged anywhere since the Second World War. The Tigers boasted their own air force and navy to go along with their unconventional ground troops. They helped pioneer the use of suicide bombers. (Recall that it was a female Tiger suicide bomber who killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.) They regularly embedded their fighters among noncombatants, using them as human sheilds. In other words, they were as organized and heartless as any insurgent group in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The Tamil Tigers, moreover, had a brilliant, charismatic leader by the name of Vellupilai Prabakharan, who was venerated by many ethnic Hindu Tamils to the same extent that radical Muslims have venerated Osama bin Laden. His following was cult-like and was largely responsible for the war that killed 70,000 people since 1983, in an island of only 22 million people. Compare that to the deaths of 3,000 in the World Trade Center out of a population of 300 million in the United States. So when the Sri Lankan government displayed Prabakharan's body on television last May, it represented the culmination of a counterinsurgency campaign that the U.S. could only dream about.