M.R. Narayan Swamy: “Calling a Sri Lankan spade a spade,” in IANS, 22 June 2015 — a review of Sri Lanka: The New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji; Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India; Pages: 322; Price: Rs.499.
This is a book of courage. Padma Rao Sundarji, a versatile New Delhi-based journalist who covered the Sri Lanka conflict over the years, finds it disgusting that Western countries conveniently overlook the deaths of thousands they cause in countries like Iraq and Syria but keep berating Sri Lanka for what happened during its war against the LTTE. The way her own German editors edited the stories she filed on Sri Lanka to suit their mindset spurred her to write this gripping book, which is reportage at its best.
Padma makes it clear that she is not defending the charges of human rights abuses hurled at the Sri Lankan military, chiefly in the final stages of the long-drawn war that ended in May 2009 with the rout of the Tamil Tigers. But as she travels around a country that has come out of “the darkness of a long, murderous and frightening tunnel” she meets more and more Tamils angry over a senseless war the LTTE waged in their name, only to lose everything it had for nothing in return.
In Jaffna, Laxmi, a poor woman, laments that she lost her two sons to the conflict. One died in the fighting, the other was shot trying to run away from the LTTE. Her brother’s two sons were forcibly taken away by the LTTE. One was killed, and the family got the body. There was no news of the other ever. Another man complains that he and his brother slept in the forests at night to escape forcible recruitment by the LTTE until a viper claimed his brother’s life. She visits a LTTE ‘jail’ where cadres accused of betraying it were locked up before being finally executed. Fleeing Tamils were also imprisoned and shot dead. As the war became bitter, LTTE fighters went from house to house grabbing young Tamils to fight for them. Often students were abducted from outside schools. Every Tamil man has a horrific tale to relate.
In contrast, the LTTE leadership lived a life of hypocritical luxury. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s underground air-conditioned bunker had a swimming pool where he played with his kids while children from poor Tamil families went into battle – and got slaughtered. Today, in the north and east of Sri Lanka, the LTTE’s former guerrillas are not accepted by the Tamil society, both Tamils and military officials tell the author. “It will take a long time for ordinary Tamils to accept these people back into society.”
But the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora in the West lives in a different world, still dreaming about a mystical Tamil Eelam. This suits the Sri Lankan military. Senior army officials tell Padma that as long as the Diaspora (not every Tamil in the West is pro-LTTE though) keeps parroting the now dead LTTE ideology, the soldiers won’t quit the north and east of Sri Lanka. The LTTE’s former chief international financier and procurer of weapons, K. Pathmanathan or KP, admits the Diaspora is “the main problem” now. For this, the Diaspora dubs him a “traitor”.
A frequent visitor to Sri Lanka, Padma reports on the rapid development the country’s north – the main war theatre – has witnessed since the end of the LTTE. True, problems remain, including “rabid, intolerant Buddhists”. She is not happy the army destroyed the war memorials of LTTE fighters in Jaffna. But “when the time comes to move on and build a new future, it is best to erase a monstrous past.”
If you are interested in contemporary Sri Lanka, read this book.
M.R. Narayan Swamy is a Sri Lanka watcher and Executive Editor at IANS. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal. he is the author of several works on the Tamil Tigers …