Word Pictures in Deciphering Sri Lankan History, Politics, War

Jonathon Riley, reviewing Michael Naseby: Sri Lanka. Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained, 2020, London, Unicorn

Sri Lanka, Ceylon – geographically so close to the Indian sub-continent and yet with a culture and history that has been for many centuries distinct. What a difference a few miles of water make – as we in England know well. I recall visiting Sri Lanka in 1993 and, on the anniversary of independence in 1948, and reading a leader in the newspaper that suggested maybe it would have been a good idea to have stayed with Britain a few years longer. A brave sentiment indeed and one which, after more than twenty years, makes much more sense having read Michael Naseby’s book.

The internal struggles between Tamils and the majority Sinhala are bewildering in their ferocity to outsiders, even those of us who have seen at close quarters the butchery in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa. Certainly, from the mid-1980s, Sri Lanka and its sorrows was never out of the news, even though it remained a popular tourist destination – not surprising given its beauty and diversity – and a major exporter of tea (of course). As if war were not enough, natural disasters also took their toll. Very few writers could chart a course through this turbulence, but Michael Naseby is one of those few. His experience must be unique in the true sense of that word: in the commercial sphere with Reckitt and Coleman, as an electoral observer and as a politician. This is both a comprehensive survey of the cultural, political, military and social landscape of the country and also a highly personal account of his experience. As well as charting the course of the war with the Tamil Tigers, he also provides an in-depth and hopeful look at the post-war state of the island nation.

Michael Naseby’s style is easy and fluent and his word pictures positively glow – whether describing the people, the scenery or an encounter with a leading figure. I would urge anyone thinking of visiting Sri Lanka to take this book as a travelling companion; but more widely, anyone with an interest in the Indian sub-continent will greatly enjoy the read. Finally I must say that as a professional military officer of forty years’ service, much of which was concerned with insurgency and counter-insurgency, this book gave me a valuable insight into a campaign that is little studied, both from the point of view of the insurgents and that of the government – not to mention the Indian intervention.

Jonathon Riley, March 2020


A NOTE from The Editor, Thuppahi, 26 March 2020

Jonathon Riley did not flag his military background when presenting himself up-front; but his eventual note and the further details I have extricated via Google compound the import of this experience within his review. A vital strand in the issues clarified in Lord Michael Naseby’s biographical recounting is the complex terrain of battlefield and its casualties. Numerous intellectuals and administrators have essayed conclusions on this front without any awareness of their limitations in this terrain – in effect displaying a conceit that is an affront to intelligence.

It has been Sri Lanka’s good fortune that the issues associated with Eelam War IV have now had commentary from gentlemen with a military background via National Service recruitment (the late Desmond de Silva and Michael Morris aka Lord Naseby) or regular employment, viz, Major-General John Holmes and now Lieutenant-General Jonathon Peter Riley.

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On Sir Desmond de Silva, see


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