More than 2,000 years ago, a Sinhalese king named Dutugemunu saddled up his elephant and headed north to fight and kill Elara, an invading Tamil king from
The battle between the men is one of the most celebrated moments in Sri Lankan history, and the last time, until two months ago, that a Sri Lankan ruler won such a decisive victory over a mortal threat.
Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that fans of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka, have taken to calling him a modern-day incarnation of King Dutugemunu.
After all, he presided over the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, among the world’s most enduring and vicious guerrilla separatists, hardened fighters who have humiliated four presidents over nearly three decades.
Asked about this comparison earlier this month, Mr. Rajapaksa laughed it off, insisting that the legend was misunderstood as a triumph of one ethnicity over another.
After his victory, the story goes, Dutugemunu made peace with the Tamils and honored the memory of Elara, who was beloved by his people.
History will decide whether Mr. Rajapaksa will be remembered as a nationalist avenger or a unifying peacemaker.
But in a wide-ranging interview this month at Temple Trees, the former prime minister’s residence that now serves as the president’s office, Mr. Rajapaksa emerged as a man bent on total victory, no matter the cost, who was convinced that his government’s actions in crushing the Tamil Tiger insurgency after 26 years were not only justified but humane.
“All governments tried to discuss with them,” Mr. Rajapaksa said of the Tigers.
“All failed. Because when they are weak they came to talks. Within a few weeks they walk out of the talks, but better equipped and strengthened.”
Mr. Rajapaksa’s determination to vanquish the insurgency once and for all lifted him to the presidency in 2005, in the midst of an informal election boycott enforced by the Tigers.
Now, the stunning and total defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May, accomplished with an enormous loss of lives — tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians through the years — has made him a hero to many Sri Lankans.
His fleshy, mustachioed face beams down from billboards across the country.
Often his brothers, who control key portfolios in the government, flank him in these portraits.
One, Basil Rajapaksa, is a senior adviser who was the prime architect of the war strategy against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
His other brother, Gotabaya, is the powerful secretary of defense.
President Rajapaksa is careful to use conciliatory language and speak about the importance of winning the peace, not just the war.
In his speech to the nation after the Tigers’ fearsome leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was killed, he pointedly spoke in Tamil.
He has repeatedly invoked the maxim that the war was against the Tigers, not the Tamil people.
But so far talk of reconciliation has been just that, according to politicians, analysts and diplomats here, and there have been no concrete steps toward a lasting political solution to
The Tamil minority has suffered discrimination and violence at the hands of various Sinhalese-dominated governments through the decades.
Tamils have sought, first peacefully, then violently, the right to a measure of self-rule in Tamil-dominated areas.
While publicly pledging to seek a political solution, Mr. Rajapaksa has put off for the moment the question of how to share power with the Tamil minority, saying that any agreement would have to wait until after the next presidential election, scheduled for November.
“I was given a mandate to defeat terrorism; I have defeated them,” he said.
“Now I must go and tell them now I want a mandate to settle this problem forever, a political solution.”
Mr. Rajapaksa is all but certain to win a second term.
The opposition is fragmented.
Journalists and analysts have to choose their words carefully or risk arrest.
One popular astrologer was recently arrested after predicting that the president would be ejected from office.
Mr. Rajapaksa made it clear that he would tolerate only a limited amount of devolution, something that may poison negotiations right from the start.
“Federalism is out of the question,” he said. “It must be a homegrown solution.”
Most Tamil political leaders want a single, Tamil-speaking majority state in the north and east of the country that would have authority over most matters except foreign policy, trade and the military.
But this is a nonstarter for many of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist politicians who make up the core of Mr. Rajapaksa’s coalition government.
The most hard-line nationalist party has threatened to leave the coalition if even a watered-down law to share power is passed.
“Peace will require a more federal power-sharing arrangement,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonpartisan research and advocacy institution in
“But there has been this primordial fear that federalism is a precursor to seccession.”
But the opposite is true, he argued.
“It is the refusal to share power that has led to the armed conflict to begin with,” he said.
Understanding this refusal requires a reach back to the time of Dutugemunu and Elara, the Tamil king who came from
Just 20 miles off
The great size of India’s Tamil population — more than 50 million people — helps explain why the Sinhalese majority here may feel threatened, thinking and acting more like an endangered minority even though it makes up more than 70 percent of the Sri Lankan population.
Mr. Rajapaksa has pledged to get most of the displaced, who are living in closed, military-run camps in the north, back to their homes within six months.
Mr. Rajapaksa said he had taken a number of steps aimed at forging a sense of national unity and bringing minorities more fully into the fold.
The government is offering a one-time payment of about $250 to any civil servant who learns another Sri Lankan language, part of an effort to start requiring that officials and bureaucrats speak Tamil as well as Sinhala.
The president said he was also seeking ways to recruit more Tamils into the Sri Lankan military and the police force.
But the government’s mood since the end of the fighting in May has been one of triumphant victory.
Alongside the billboards of Mr. Rajapaksa and his brothers are huge, Rambo-style photographs of the bandolier-draped commandos who penetrated deep behind the Tamil Tigers’ lines to whittle at the rebel fighting force and weaken its resolve.
Many Sri Lankans see these soldiers as heroes, but given the controversy that remains over how many Tamil civilians were killed in the last weeks of the fighting, some people find the air of martial triumph unseemly.
“They are trying to get a great deal of political mileage from the fact that they militarily defeated” the Tamil Tigers, said Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, a member of Parliament for the Tamil National Alliance.
“We don’t see any movement toward ending the political conflict.”
Riding high on his big victory, Mr. Rajapaksa said he needed only one verdict on his leadership: that of the Sri Lankan people.
“I am not fool enough to call myself a king,” he said with a laugh.
Churchill, he mused, was thrown out of office after victory in World War II.
“If anyone doesn’t want me, I must not be the president of this country,” he said. “It is democracy.”