This Indian Ocean city and its immense natural harbor have become a major hitch - both symbolic and substantive - to ending Sri Lanka's ethnic strife. At Trincomalee, the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists are locked in a test of strength. The Tamils hope to make Trinco, as it is popularly known, the capital of a separate Tamil homeland, to be known as Eelam. Trinco's location makes it an ideal link between the country's northern and eastern provinces - the area where the Tamils want to establish their separate state.
But the Sri Lankan government also prizes the district as a strategic asset - it is a premier naval base - and is fighting hard to keep Trinco under government control.
In northern Sri Lanka, largely inhabited by Tamils, the city of Jaffna has reportedly been in firm control of militants for about a year. But on the east coast, Tamil dominance is not so clear cut. Tamils share Trincomalee and other areas with the Buddhist Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's largest ethnic group, and Muslims. In Trinco, each group represents about a third of population. The Sinhalese and Muslims do not want to be part of a Tamil domain.
These competing claims have snagged efforts to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. Tamils say both the east and north are rightfully theirs since at one time the Tamils were in a majority. They charge that, since Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, Sinhalese-dominated governments have redrawn the east's ethnic map through controversial land and resettlement policies.
``In the east,'' says a Western diplomat in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, ``there is a very delicate ethnic balance. Trinco is its most important center and has a strategic significance beyond Sri Lanka.''
For hundreds of years, rivals have vied for control of Trincomalee. During the colonial era, the port was held by the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and British. They were drawn to the great blue bay which British naval hero Lord Nelson called the ``finest harbor in the world.''
Today, many here are convinced that the pro-Western government of President Junius Jayewardene plans to let the United States use Trincomalee. During last year's crisis in the Philippines, the Indian Ocean port was mentioned as a fallback for the US naval base at Subic Bay.
US officials deny having any designs on Trincomalee. Such a base, they say, is no longer needed in an era of nuclear-powered navies. But India, Sri Lanka's northern neighbor, remains suspicious of US intentions.
India has given refuge to some thousands of Tamils who have fled the ethnic violence since 1983. Tamil militants use the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu as a base for their war against the Sri Lankan government. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has tried unsuccessfully to mediate a settlement to the conflict.
The uneasy racial balance around Trincomalee has triggered sectarian violence and savage abuses on both sides. The east has become a major battleground as Tamil rebels have attempted to assert control over the area and also competed for power among themselves.
During a recent lull, military authorities claimed they had gained the upper hand around Trinco. Army officials say the militants have been driven from a lovely strip of beach north of the city where resort hotels have been abandoned or destroyed. Schools and clinics are reopening, and trains to Trincomalee are running again.
``You can see the normalcy. You can already see it coming,'' says Maj. Salia Kulatunga at the Army's fortified headquarters inside Trinco's old Navy dockyard.
But Trincomalee residents say that their city, like much of Sri Lanka, is divided by fear and mistrust. Several thousand refugees live in camps and even a calm in the violence cannot persuade them to return home.
Am Pius, a Christian Sinhalese fisherman, has been living with his wife and five children in a makeshift settlement of mud-and-thatch huts for a year and a half. They fled here, he says, with 700 other Sinhalese after Tamil militants attacked their villages and kidnapped 40 fishermen. He does not blame the Tamils for driving him from his home, but only a ``small group of terrorists.''
``We are fed up with staying in this place. We want to get back and lead normal lives but there is still fear.''
Just down the road, 1,700 Tamils have taken refuge is an old warehouse. They say they were driven there by killings and atrocities by the Army, police, and local Sinhalese ``home guards'' armed by authorities. The Tamils distrust official assurances that the offenders have been punished and better discipline imposed.
Tamils in Trincomalee tacitly support ``the boys,'' as the rebels are known. Even some Sinhalese say the militants can't be blamed totally for being embittered by past discrimination and violence against Tamils. Sri Lankan officials say the Tamils refuse to condemn the militants for their abuses because they fear reprisals.
While many Tamils do not support a separate state, they say that a semi-autonomous provincial government is needed to protect their rights. Diplomats in Colombo suggest that some quarters in government may be ready to accede to a quasi-autonomous northern province if militants compromise on east.
Yet Tamils and Sinhalese alike wonder if a political settlement can repair the deep divisions which have infected Trincomalee.