Troubled legacy of civil war in Sri Lanka

James Jupp, reviewing The Cage and Tamil Tigress  in the Australian Literary Review, July 2011, taken from

This controversial review of two controversial books is presented here for the benefit of Lankan aficianados. For some brief comments, see the end of article. Web Editor Roberts.

THE island of Sri Lanka is the same size as Tasmania and has the same population as Australia. As the dominion of Ceylon it gained full independence from Britain on February 4, 1948. It retained the monarchy until 1972, when it became a republic. Hailed by its elected leaders as “the Switzerland of Asia”, it enjoyed a degree of self-government with universal suffrage from 1931. Women gained the vote on the same basis as men only three years after Britain.  The island’s economy, based on plantation exports of tea and rubber, prospered with rising prices throughout the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. No former colonial society had a happier start. It was soon talking of itself as “the Singapore of the future”.  Everything started to go wrong a few years later. The society described in these two gripping books suffered 30 years of civil war, ending with a massacre of countless civilians, according to Gordon Weiss, who is an experienced journalist. He has written an accurate and depressing picture of the final slaughter that ended the struggle for an independent state by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, just as it ended the life of Tamil leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009.
The climax of the military conflict makes for disturbing reading. Weiss concludes, after an assessment of ”multiple confirmations from different army sources, senior and lower-ranking officers and enlisted men” that the Tigers’ leadership group, including wives and children, was massacred in cold blood after negotiating a surrender. They were last seen alive carrying a white flag across a stretch of no-man’s land on the east coast. Prabhakaran himself was killed a little later. Most likely, Weiss concludes, he was tortured and his 12-year-old son executed in front of him.
  Niromi de Zoysa was a schoolgirl who left home to join the Tigers and was wise enough to defect when she realised the group’s true nature. She does not narrate a long-term history of the Tamils because she was too young to witness most of it.
  An excellent novel that does weave history and fiction together is Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s Where Memory Dies (London, 1997). It leads us to the same conclusion as de Soyza: the Tigers had real grievances but were eventually poisoned by internal disputes and crazy leadership. Prabhakaran’s determination to wipe out all Tamil rivals in the end split the group in two, and the east coast leader Colonel Karuna (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) defected in 2009.
Both the Tigers and the Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front, or Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna, were exceptionally brutal in their treatment not only of politicians and officials, but also of the ordinary peasants who got in their way. De Zoysa emphasises this very clearly. A middle-class girl with a Christian background, de Zoysa escaped from Sri Lanka with her family and now lives in Sydney, lucky enough to be able to look back on her adventures.
It is still too early to get a reasoned debate in Sri Lanka about these dreadful events. Critical journalists and commentators continue to be kidnapped and killed. Reliable figures for the deaths and internments following the end of the war are scarce and contested by the Sri Lankan government. Weiss is a responsible critic of both sides. His account must be treated with respect.
Much of Weiss’s study concentrates on the final days of the battle of the ”cage” — the trap in which thousands of Tamil civilians were imprisoned. The Tigers tried to defend it against the largest and best-equipped army Sri Lanka has ever had. The outcome included mass internment of civilians and claims of mass shelling of women and children in what was supposed to be a protected zone. One undoubted outcome of the civil war was the brutalisation of both sides: leaving a troubled legacy for Sri Lanka’s future.
Sri Lanka had already suffered two youth risings in 1971 and 1978 by the JVP. These ended, as in the recent civil war, with the death of a charismatic leader. In the JVP revolt at least 70,000 young people and civilians were killed or interned, most of them Sinhalese. In contrast the Tamil population suffered in the civil war of the past 30 years. In this period many thousands of Tamils fled overseas, including 50,000 who came to Australia.
Sri Lanka is relatively poor, but with considerable potential. Its people are mostly literate in Sinhala or Tamil, languages derived from different bases and with different alphabets. At least one in 10 speaks English. Much politics, public administration and business are still conducted in English.
A poor country, where about 75 per cent live in villages and country towns and depend on agriculture, has only limited means of sustaining a good life and a reasonable future for children. These include land ownership, government employment, shops and small businesses, tourism and remittances from emigrants. Otherwise life depends on daily paid labouring or a myriad of odd jobs and family support.
While Sri Lanka has enjoyed free education and a modest welfare state, this is still a life of uncertainty, with youth unemployment particularly high. Most secure salaried jobs are either in public employment or in a limited number of corporations found mainly in the capital of Colombo. Many of these superior jobs depend on knowledge of English or of the official language of Sinhala. Language is not just an indicator of ethnicity, it is an essential asset worth fighting over. In practice English-speakers are usually favoured. Sinhala speakers have access to many state jobs, while Tamil speakers have gradually been squeezed out of skilled employment (except in the northern and eastern provinces).
Latest official estimates divide the population between Sinhalese (74.5 per cent), Sri Lankan Tamils (11.9 per cent), Indian Tamils (4.6 per cent), and Sri Lankan Moors (8.3 per cent). Of these the two Tamil groups and the Muslim Moors speak Tamil and amount to 25.1 per cent of the total.
The Sinhalese have a large and permanent majority which dominates every election and government. The majority of Sinhalese are Buddhists, with a Catholic minority along the coast north of Colombo.
The majority of Tamil-speakers are more fragmented, between the northern and eastern provinces, the tea plantations, the Muslims and a substantial community settled in Colombo. Many are also Christian, although the majority are Hindus.
Sri Lankan Buddhists are overwhelmingly Sinhalese. Buddhism is seen in Western countries as a quiet and contemplative religion, renouncing wealth and power. Yet several Buddhist countries have been highly and violently politicised, including Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Buddhism is monastic, with considerable properties held by monasteries for the benefit of monks. This gives the higher ranks an interest in maintaining their privileges and claiming obedience from their followers and tenants.
Many buddhists believe Sri Lanka has a special duty to protect the religion, which has been locally established for more than 2000 years. Before colonisation the central Kandyan kingdom established Buddhism as its own religion and the British agreed to maintain this position. The special role of Buddhism, not only as the largest religion but also as the protector of the Sinhalese people, their culture and their island, was the agreed policy of all Sinhalese politicians except for the Marxist Left (which has withered). The most virulent of the communalists are now the JVP, once seen as Marxist followers of Che Guevara.
Weiss traces the politicisation of Buddhism to the work of the Theosophists and the local sage Anagarika Dharmapala who lived from 1864 to 1933. Son of a rich Colombo merchant and educated at the best English-language schools, he was recruited by Henry Steel Olcott, the American founder of Theosophy.
Weiss is, I think, unfair to Anagarika in blaming him as the founder of militant Sinhalese nationalism. He certainly split with the Theosophists, who believed in universal religious principles. He inspired the reorganisation of local Buddhism, which modernised its structures and attitudes and made it more effective in competition with Christianity. He is widely respected in Sri Lanka. If his views led on to the blood-letting and chaos of recent years that is hardly his fault, although he became less tolerant with age.
Sri Lankan society was fractured by a combination of caste, class, language and religion. Democratic elections were held and governments changed, though not the ruling class. This was a factor in youth disquiet among the Sinhala in 1971 and 1987 and among the Tamils from the 1980s. Even today the dominant political family is the Rajapakses, who were allies of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, known as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, back in the 1950s. They occupy over a dozen of the most powerful state appointments.
Political independence from Britain came without violence. The last revolt of the Kandyan chiefs against the imperial power was in 1848. The only major communal outbreak, which Weiss details, was in 1915 — and the main victims were the Muslims. Yet two aspects of politics had changed by 1960. One was a shift from liberal democracy which respects minorities and individual rights, to majority democracy, which presses for the superior rights of the dominant community.
The other was the intrusion of mass violence around language issues in 1958 and the assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959. His death had nothing to do with religion or language. It was triggered by corruption within his own party. But it set a precedent. The assassination of political leaders became increasingly common.
Weiss surveys this trend well. He notes that the increasing risks of politics led to the legitimation of large groups of bodyguards, drawn from dubious backgrounds and prone to violence.
Both the Sinhalese JVP youth insurgents and the Tamil Tigers were led by men who can be charitably described as fanatics and uncharitably as psychotic, namely Rohana Wijeweera, of the JVP, and the Tamil Prabhakaran. Not only did they unleash terrorism on civilian targets, but they organised the murder of many from their own movements or their own side of politics. Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna lists more than 30 prominent Tamils between 1975 and 1997 who were killed by the Tigers (pioneers of suicide bombing). The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, in 1991, ended any possibility of Indian support for the Tigers or for a peaceful resolution of the struggle. It was an act of political insanity.
Three decades of civil war ended in 2009 in tragedy and controversy. A recent UN report found credible evidence of human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE, some of which may amount to war crimes. In the light of what he calls “Sri Lanka’s record of determined obfuscation” on the events of 2009, Weiss has called for a fully constituted international criminal investigation.
The immediate reaction to the massacre of the Tamil leadership, he reports in The Cage, was not encouraging. “In parliament, an exuberant President Rajapaksa declared that henceforth there would be `no more minorities’. There would be only two kinds of people, those who loved their country, and those who `have no love for the country of their birth’.” It was not a promising embrace of the diversity of Sri Lanka. Rather, as the Sunday Leader said of the celebrations that week, “the posters, the chants . . . the pagodas, the floats, the flags, the media coverage, the symbolism of the Buddhist flag entwined with the Lion Flag . . . the deification of the president, the blessings for violence and veneration of the armed forces by the Buddhist sanga clearly flag an underlying Sinhala Buddhist nationalism very much alive and pulsating with triumphalism’.”
Sri Lanka now is neither Switzerland nor Singapore. It looks more like the Burma of Asia, if still better off and formally democratic. The 30-year war has left it traumatised, unhappy, militarised and fractured.
Read these books about the Sri Lankan tragedy and think about them the next time a boatload of refugees arrives.

The Cage
By Gordon Weiss
The Bodley Head, 384pp, $37.95

Tamil Tigress
By Niromi de Soyza
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $32.95

Web Editor’s Comment:

James Jupp was born in Croydon, Londonand educated at LSE. He had strong connections with the Trotskyite movement in Sri Lankathrough Anil Moonesinghe and others and is the author of Sri Lanka. Third World Democracy (Frank Cass, London 1978) — one of the best reviews of the island’s politics in that decade. Since then he has concentrated on Australian politics and has held the post of Director of the Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies in the Research School of Social Sciences at theAustralian National University for quite some time.

  To the best of my knowledge Jupp has not kept in intimate touch with Sri Lankan researches for a while. I normally hesitate to pinpoint minor mistakes of fact in a pedantic manner, but Jupp’s identification of Karuna’s defection as occurring in 2009 within the specific context of his argument must rate as a bloomer of the first order. As problematic is the facility with which he accepts Weiss’s allegation that Pirapāharan “was [probably] tortured and his 12-year-old son executed in front of him.”

  For scholars as well as journalists to rely on gossip in the networks of the Tamil migrant grapevine in such a facile manner is an incendiary activity of serious import. Jupp’s review is made public here so that those with deeper and greater familiarity with the complex stories that constitute what we know as Eelam War IV can comprehend how the educated public in Australia and the West is so easily misled and so simpleton in their assessment of this conflict. If a man of Jupp’s background calibre is so naïve, it is hardly surprising that the Milibands, Clintons and Kouchners of this world are out of their depth.

   One can only wish that Jupp will sit down with individuals such as Rajasingham Narendran, Noel Nadesan, S. Vasudevan, Amjad Mohamed Saleem and others who have penned essays on the Sri Lankan scene on the one hand and on the other alternative path hand extend his information by delving into the representations by such personnel as Rajan Hoole of the UTHR, with MA Sumanthiran of the TNA or chatting with Tissa Vitharana of the old Trot-brigade, so that his further education on Sri Lankan affairs is freed from the tunnel-mentality of human rights extremists such as Gordon Weiss.

   I remain perpetually amazed that even knowledgeable Sri Lankans are not alive to the monumental significance of the LTTE’s act to deploying some 300,000-to-320,000 Tamil people – some willingly, some ambivalently and some unwillingly – as a human buffer, labour pool and political bargaining chip for some six months from December 2008 to May 2009.  To the best of my limited knowledge this is a world record, quite an awesome one.[1]

To fail to give this central backdrop primacy in any survey of the last stages of the war is an analytical fallacy that is as monumental a call as the LTTE’s policy was in foisting suffering on its supporters and its people of Thamililam.

 To stress this critical fact is not to excuse governmental excesses, but to place that stage of the war within its appropriate parameters. What is equally puzzling to me is the narrow focus on 2008-09 adopted by the present moral crusade. The personnel of the armed services working for the Sri Lankan governments were guilty of numerous atrocities from 1983 to 2002 during the three earlier wars. Perhaps the worst were those that occurred in the Eastern Province in 1990; but one can also cite the indiscriminate bombardments by air and sea that took place during Eelam Wars II and III. These stories have been partially documented by the UTHR (who have also documented LTTE atrocities and exposed their torture camps); while Ben Bavinck’s diaries from 1989-92 point towards many incidents as prima facie instances for further investigation. The contexts surrounding those events render those responsible for these acts, and the government leaders of those periods, far more culpable that the present regime because of the hostage situation carved out by the LTTE in 2008/09. Where the Rajapaksa regime’s record is grimy and bloody is in its failure to protect the local fourth estate… to the degree that any non-partisan observer is justified in thinking that they themselves are guilty by association if not in fact. Perhaps it is this unholy record in its relationship with the media that has inspired the Western media to concentrate purely on the present regime in the course of its symbolic crusade of war crimes to the neglect of those headed by Jayewardene, Premadasa, Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe.

However, any ethical campaign by media outlets that introduces fabricated pictorial material (for example, Channel Four’s Killing Fields quite definitely in some instances) and/or makes no effort to ascertain the authenticity of some material or relies on a shoddy survey that did not access a wide range of sources (e.g. the Darusman Report) loses credibility and shoots itself in the foot by undermining its own morality.

[1] “Then there is the documented story of Velupillai Prabhakaran herding nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians to serve as his human shield when he was retreating. In the last stages he shot the Tamils who were running away from him into the arms of the Sri Lankan forces who were commended or their humanitarian services by the Ban Ki-Moon’s expert panel and even by Gordon Weiss. Any Tamil who was in Prabhakaran’s human shield will tell you that the Sri Lankan force treated them [more] humanely than the LTTE cadres” Noel Nadesan in


Filed under australian media, cultural transmission, Fascism, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, Left politics, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, news fabrication, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil migration, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, war crimes, world events & processes

2 responses to “Troubled legacy of civil war in Sri Lanka

  1. Pingback: James Jupp answers Michael Roberts in measured and amiable tones | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Nalliah Thayabharan

    After the 1989 Batalanda mass murder, Ranil Wickremesinghe recruited a convicted killer and hardcore criminal Gonawala Sunil as his secretary. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s secretary Gonawala Sunil went around killing and intimidating people Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to be silenced. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s corruption in “LH Plantations” has been highlighted with excruciating details by his closest ally Mangala Samaraweera. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s very close family members own several newspapers, broadcasting and telecasting stations which promote Ranil Wickremesinghe and help to prolong his political survival.

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