Situating Clarance’s Book: Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka and the UN Crisis

Michael Roberts, reprinted from South Asia, Sept 2008, 31: 394-96, a review of Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka and the UN Crisis (London: Pluto Press, and Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007), 296 pp.

This is an unusual book and essential reading for those interested in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. William Clarance was head of UNHCR’s relief mission in Sri Lanka from 1989 to 1992. He kept a diary and has waited until he had left the arena of international administration before recounting his riveting experiences in the field. 

aa-ethnic-warfare-in-sri-lanka-and-the-un-crisis  His brief in Sri Lanka was to cater to the needs of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India who had chosen to return to their homeland. In practice, however, the local UNHCR’s efforts also embraced some local refugees (IDPs, or ‘internally displaced people’), whether Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese, who were the flotsam and jetsam generated by the warring turmoil in the island. Clarance sets the pursuit of this venture within its historical context by outlining the temporal stages in the escalation of hostility between leading Tamil and Sinhalese political forces. This competent summary is complemented by a description of the Indian intervention in 1987 and a capsule survey of the events in the period 1987–89, the immediate background to the UNHCR relief efforts. 

Ethnic Warfare should, in fact, be read as the earnest outpourings of an ‘aid missionary’ (my term) advocating innovative programmes in support of refugees. As such, and appropriately, it ends by addressing the several bureaucratic and legal issues surrounding such activity. 

The focus of the book is largely Mannar District, though it occasionally ventures into other areas of the island. The temporal span is narrow—indeed, as I write in 2008, battles are raging continuously in the Mannar terrain traversed by Clarance and his team. Within this regional, and time, framework the book provides enthralling details about the daily activity of the UNHCR relief workers and their negotiations with contending forces. This specificity and the intensity of expression by the author capture dimensions of the human strife and mediatory problems that sweeping overviews hide. The details capture—in stark ‘nudity’—the extremely complex, volatile and turbulent situation of relief work within the confluence of war. Despite these insights, as one would expect, the account is one or two steps removed from the experiential world and miseries of the refugee victims.

Clarance’s engaged description also reveals a remarkable degree of flexibility, amidst sporadic stonewalling and hard-headed military tactics, among both LTTE and Sri Lankan Defence Service personnel at the battlelines. Further back in Colombo, leading members of the Premadasa administration, from Ranjan Wijeratne (Minister of Defence) to General Kobbekaduwa and such officials as Bradman Weerakoon and Charitha Ratwatte, are seen to be accommodating in their responses to the needs of these refugees, albeit within the constraints of the military goals of Eelam War Two. Such flexibility, however, was not across the board and there were several obdurate personnel, both civilian and military, on the government side.

As the book reveals at various moments (pp.101–4, 111ff, 121–3), and as those alive to the story of war in Sri Lanka are fully aware, one has to be careful in essaying generalisations. Conditions in the Eastern Province in the period 1989–92 were quite different from those of Mannar District: there were numerous atrocities from both sides as well as Tamil militant forces opposed to the LTTE.

Quite incidentally, the book will make non-specialists aware of a remarkable aspect of Sri Lanka’s complex situation, one known to all and sundry locally, but usually unmarked within international networks of knowledge. In a war pitting the Sri Lankan government against a rebel force—namely, the LTTE, that has controlled territory and run a de facto state since mid-1990—the economy of the latter has been propped up in partial ways by the salaried funds and various supplies (e.g. medical aid, however inadequate) provided by the Sri Lankan government. In effect two forces, A and B, are at war, but A also pays for some of B’s salaried personnel who take the money from Colombo but, by and large, take their orders from the LTTE. This is partly the product of humanist welfare orientations within Sri Lanka, but it is largely the outcome of the constitutional dilemma confronting the Sri Lankan government: such payments mark its claims to ‘sovereignty’ over the Tamil people and the regions they occupy.

Writing as a UN missionary, then, Clarance’s prose is as strong as it is lucid. There is a measure of redundancy in detail—arising in part from the recurrence of obstacles and practices, and perhaps also from the diary-keeping foundation of the book.

In Sri Lanka UNHCR was operating at the edge of its mandate and was bedevilled by limited funds. Clarance and his team were therefore subject to pressures and bureaucratic rigidity from within certain quarters in Geneva. Indeed, if there is an ‘enemy’ in this account, it was the UN bureaucrat afar who had no understanding of the human strife on the ground and the desires of dedicated relief workers striving to ease the pain. Clarance, it turns out, found the administrative hassles, whether in Colombo or Geneva, more mentally exacting than either the sweat of taking relief convoys through the jungle to Madhu and Mannar Island, or local negotiations at the coalface of war.  Clarance’s team was a motley mix of assistants with big hearts, among them Pipat Greigarn (Thai), Binod Sijapati (Nepalese), Danilo Bautisto (Filipino), Mahmud Hussein (Pakistani), Nihal de Zoysa (Sri Lankan), and Yvan Conoir (French). But one of the most significant dimensions of this book is the fact that it brings to light other ‘shining lights’: viz., those forgotten men, the Tamil government agents and other officials appointed by the government in Colombo but subject, whether directly or indirectly, to the dictates of the LTTE. Sandwiched in the middle between two forces engaged in war, these administrators trod a balancing tightwire. The epitome of such figures in Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka is S. Croos, the G.A. of Mannar, a committed Christian and dedicated worker. There are also incidental insights of great ethnographic value, such as the tale of Tamil villagers readily providing communal shramadana (labour) to dig out aid lorries stuck in the mud (pp.150–1) and the popular support for Heroes’ Week organised by the LTTE (p.164).

It is a measure of Clarance the man that his book says nought about the privations of arduous journeys or episodic sojourns in the jungle. Rather, it dwells on the beauty and tranquillity of the bush landscape and the upliftment derived from these hard-earned experiences of relief work. Saludo

Michael Roberts, Anthropology, University of Adelaide

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V. Suryanarayan:” UNHCR’s experience of protecting internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka,” The Hindu, 31 September 2007,








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