Tigers caged but Tamils’ tale goes on

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Zubrzy­cki

ALL in­sur­gen­cies end in ne­go­ti­a­tions, ar­gue those in favour of talk­ing with the Tal­iban to end the con­flict in Afghanistan. Af­ter a decade of war and no sign of a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion, only a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment with mod­er­ate Tal­iban can achieve long-sought sta­bil­ity and pave the way for a with­drawal of West­ern troops.

But what hap­pens when there is no mid­dle ground, no mod­er­ates to ap­peal to and a bit­ter eth­nic di­vide driven by na­tion­al­is­tic chau­vin­ism on the one hand and an in­grained per­se­cu­tion com­plex on the other?

Sri Lanka en­dured 26 years of civil war and 70,000 deaths be­fore the army achieved what many thought im­pos­si­ble: it crushed the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam, one of the 20th cen­tury’s most tena­cious and vi­o­lent in­sur­gent groups. In May 2009, Tiger leader Velupil­lai Prab­hakaran and most of his top lieu­tenants were killed in a fi­nal bloody battle in the north­east of Sri Lanka. So proud was the gov­ern­ment of its achieve­ment that it held an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in Colombo ear­lier this month to show­case its mil­i­tary-led model for de­feat­ing in­sur­gen­cies.

But there is a down­side to us­ing force as a first and last re­sort, even when the en­emy as vi­o­lent and fa­nat­i­cal as the Tamil Tigers. In April, the UN re­leased a damn­ing re­port that out­lined sus­pected war crimes com­mit­ted against civil­ians by both sides in the con­flict. About 40,000 peo­ple were killed in the fi­nal months of the war as the Tigers herded thou­sands of civil­ians on to a nar­row strip of land bounded by the ocean on one side and a la­goon on the other where the guerilla group made its sui­ci­dal last stand. The Cage, as it be­came known, re­sem­bled a vast in­tern­ment camp for 330,000 des­per­ate civil­ians who en­dured a five-month-long siege. The UN re­port charged the Sri Lanka gov­ern­ment with re­peat­edly shelling safe zones set up to pro­tect civil­ians, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tals and food dis­tri­bu­tion lines. The Tamil Tigers were ac­cused of hold­ing civil­ians as hu­man shields, re­cruit­ing child sol­diers and fir­ing on those who tried to flee.

Gor­don Weiss’s The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers doc­u­ments in chill­ing de­tail the lead-up to this tragedy and its bru­tal af­ter­math. As the spokesman and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­viser to the UN mis­sion dur­ing the fi­nal years of the con­flict, Weiss, who is Aus­tralian, wit­nessed an un­fold­ing drama that would have far­reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for the re­gion. The present de­bate over asy­lum-seeker pol­icy was largely pro­voked by the sud­den rise in Tamil boat­peo­ple ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia in 2009 and 2010 to flee the con­flict and its af­ter­math. If any­one has any doubts about the push fac­tors driv­ing that spike in ar­rivals, this book is es­sen­tial read­ing. But Weiss’s study of the Tamil con­flict is also an ac­ces­si­ble and com­pelling nar­ra­tive of Sri Lanka’s of­ten vi­o­lent and tor­tured his­tory. Cey­lon, as it was known at the time, achieved in­de­pen­dence in 1948 with­out the blood­shed ex­pe­ri­enced by In­dia and Pak­istan. The first Sin­halese ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment un­der D. S. Se­nanayake was an en­light­ened ad­min­is­tra­tion that in­cor­po­rated the is­land’s mi­nor­ity groups, the Tamils, Burghers and Mus­lims.

But this golden era was short-lived. Sin­halese na­tion­al­ism that had been sim­mer­ing be­low the sur­face man­i­fested it­self po­lit­i­cally with the pass­ing of the Sin­hala Only Act in 1955. The act sparked ri­ots that left sev­eral hun­dred Tamils dead and was an omi­nous taste of a much blood­ier and drawnout con­flict. A new con­sti­tu­tion in­tro­duced in 1972 fur­ther re­stricted the rights of Tamils, who be­gan ag­i­tat­ing for an au­ton­o­mous home­land in the north and east of the coun­try through the Tamil United Lib­er­a­tion Front. Tamil youths, dis­il­lu­sioned with the fail­ure of peace­ful re­sis­tance, be­gan to take up arms.

In July 1983, af­ter the gov­ern­ment dis­played the bod­ies of 13 sol­diers killed by a land­mine, troops in Colombo went on the ram­page tar­get­ing Tamil homes and busi­nesses. Up to 3000 Tamils were killed and thou­sands more sought refuge in gov­ern­ment-con­trolled camps or fled abroad.

Aided by el­e­ments of this new di­as­pora, the Tamil Tigers grew to be­come one of the world’s most feared and ef­fec­tive guerilla groups. It was the Tigers who per­fected the tech­nique of sui­cide bomb­ing as a means of ter­ror­is­ing a pop­u­la­tion for po­lit­i­cal ends, count­ing among their vic­tims In­dia’s prime min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi, who had sent an ex­pe­di­tionary force to Sri Lanka in a failed bid to crush them. At the height of their in­sur­rec­tion, the Tigers had their own navy, a rudi­men­tary airforce us­ing spe­cially con­verted Cess­nas and small, highly ef­fec­tive sui­ci­dal pen­e­tra­tion teams.

Weiss pulls no punches in tack­ling the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Tigers. But he is equally scathing about the fail­ure of the suc­ces­sive Sri Lankan ad­min­is­tra­tions to deal with the as­pi­ra­tions of the Tamil mi­nor­ity and bru­tal tac­tics em­ployed by the Sri Lankan Army to quash the re­bel­lion. He also de­tails the des­per­ate at­tempts by a UN con­voy in the fi­nal weeks of the war to as­sist

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.