An exhaustive treatment, in the manner of a grim travelogue, of the ongoing Sri Lankan civil war. Free-lance journalist McGowan begins with his return to Sri Lanka in 1987, in the fifth year of ethnic strife between Sinhalese (Buddhist) and Tamil (Hindu) separatists. News of just how bloody this affair is, McGowan explains, hasn't quite struck a chord in the US: At least 30,000 have died, most of them civilians, while 100,000 Tamils have fled to the Indian mainland and an equal number of Sinhalese are living in camps. And war seems particularly obscene in a land otherwise so sweetly mystical; legend has it that Buddha designated it as his ``seat of wisdom.'' Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon, of course, the languorous British colony of tea and elephants. McGowan fills us in on the British legacy, which was democratic and orderly but failed to account for deep-seated rivalries of caste. In gentler passages, the author joins a safari of sorts and offers a lovely, thunderous description of elephants mating. Yet the war overshadows everything: The Tamils, squeezed out of India, want to make a sort of free-trade zone, like Hong Kong or Singapore, or Trincomalee, which Lord Nelson called ``the finest harbor in the world.'' India, which has sought to broker peace, seems not quite an honest broker; it also covets Trincomalee. Meanwhile, the Sinhalese, occupying the southern part of the island and dominating the government, see themselves as racially superior and the guardians of the Buddhist faith. While radical Tamils have been particularly ruthless in their attacks on buses, the Sinhalese Tigers are hardly less merciless. A Moslem minority has also been drawn into the war, making it at least a three-sided affair and catching still more minorities in the cross- fire. The introduction of Indian troops has, to date, not been entirely successful. McGowan has done his homework, offering instructive insights into Third World politics gone mad.