A few months ago, a research scholar from a prominent think tank in India engaged me in an out of context debate on the issue of the last Eelam War (2006-09) in Sri Lanka. Her point was that the last Eelam War was the best way to bring the decades-old civil war to a conclusive end. Unfortunately, she is not alone in holding this view. There are many more around the world who call themselves defence, strategic or counter-insurgency experts who share her views about the genocide which took place in Sri Lanka that ended the question of minority rights and clearly established a fact: If the members of minority groups have to live in Sri Lanka, they have to accept their second-rate citizen status.
The book This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian is a result of his field visits and interactions with people affected by that war. The bone of contention between the two groups was devolution of power in Tamil majority areas, and the demand for equality of socio-cultural and linguistic status by northern Tamils. During his interactions with Tamils from northern areas of Sri Lanka, Samanth found out that the discrimination against them was institutional and had been carried out since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. To keep themselves out of harm’s way with the majority, Tamils with mixed ethnic genealogy started using their Sinhalese surnames. This led to the birth of the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE).
In almost all civil wars, people who are initially against guerilla forces start sympathizing with their causes after a while, often even joining them. There is also a reaction to the same: many sympathizers leave because of personal differences with the leadership, or they get tired of fighting, and end up accepting congenial terms and conditions put before them by the state. In this book Samantha has narrated the story of both. There were northern Tamils who were initially dead-set against the LTTE and their demands, but later on hosted Prabhakarn and other cadres because of the Sinhalese leadership’s politically renegade attitude. He also talks about the torture camps run by Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies, where journalists reporting anything against the political establishment were brought and tortured. During the course of the war a few journalists writing against state atrocities were even killed by those agencies. A chilling documentary by Channel 4 recorded the war crimes and brought them to the open. The height of cruelty was the cold-blooded murder of Prabhakarn’s eleven year-old son by the Sri Lankan Army. The United Nations has also passed a resolution against the government for its role during the war; yet the government does not care.
All this should not send a message that the LTTE was a sane group. It certainly wasn’t. The guerilla group sidelined and even killed political voices from within its community, murdered many innocent Sinhalese citizens, carried out political assassinations, and forcefully recruited children and women as soldiers. Samanth has discussed all these things in his book. Yet, between the two, the state is the main accused, because the political leadership of Sri Lanka never tried to address the concerns of the aggrieved party. Promises were made but never fulfilled.
Post-ethnic cleansing, a Reconciliation Commission was set up by the President, Mahinda Rajapakse in 2010, to look into post-war reconstruction work etc. Its report has drawn criticism from many civil rights organisations around the world.
The Sri Lankan state and the right wing Buddhist monks are busy turning the country into a Sinhala fiefdom. Samant has talked about the steps taken by the state and the monks to erase signs, symbols, and memories related to Tamils. Even the moors are being targeted because of their different religion. Buddhist monasteries are coming up in large numbers in northern areas. President Rajapakse, who administered the genocide, unstintingly accepts his comparison with King Dutugemunu – the Sinhala king who defeated the Chola king in 2nd century BCE. Taking benefit of his popularity among the right wing Sinhalese, President Mahinda Rajapakse‘s government amended the Sri Lankan constitution to give three terms, instead of two, to the President. In order to cling to power for another term, Rajapakse has recently declared that the next Presidential election is going to take place in January 2015, two years before the end of his second term.
Coming back to where I started, the experts may have their opinion about the last Eelam war but in the history of wars it will be recorded as a perfect example of a state brazenly using brute force against citizens belonging to an ethnic minority group. This conscientious work by Samant is an excellent effort to present this perspective of post-war Sri Lanka.