AS THE Sri Lankan government twists and turns and manouevres in order to try and prevent a war crimes investigation being ordered by the United Nations into its conduct during the war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the first definitive account of the conflict has emerged.
Former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, has written a book titled The Cage which gives a detailed and powerful account of the tragedy as it unfolded.
Weiss had to tread a difficult path as he wrote the book; given the oath that he took as an UN employee, he was unable to divulge any material that came to him in that capacity. Despite this very difficult obstacle in his path, he has done an extremely credible job in tracing the history of Sri Lanka that has a bearing on the country’s current position.
The Tamil Tigers, formed in the early 1970s, became the most powerful of the groups fighting for a separate state for their people and were known for the reign of terror that they imposed. They killed anyone standing in their way and massacred both Sinhalese and Muslims to enforce their writ. They were also not loath to kill their own people, if those people happened to be standing in the way of their supreme leader, Velupillai Pirapaharan and his ruthless ambitions.
The Tigers made a number of miscalculations. They reasoned that no state would resort to the type of bloodthirsty and ruthless tactics they employed, no government would indulge in the kind of indiscriminate killing that they carried out. The Tigers forgot that the state had twice put down rebellions, by Sinhalese youth in the shape of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, in 1971 and again in 1989, in a singularly, bloody-minded manner, killing all and sundry and in a pretty gory manner too.
The Tigers also thought that India would act as a bulwark if things became really bad – after all, the main powerbroker in the Indian Ocean had broken a siege of the Tamils in the 1980s, at a stage when the Sri Lankan army had them cornered. India, of course, has a Tamil population to which it has to cater, given that the main Tamil party in India is in coalition with the ruling party at the federal level. And finally, the Tigers failed to realise that in the post-2001 world, countries are less inclined to regard breakaway groups as romantically as they did in the past.
Sri Lanka ensured that India would not act as an obstacle this time by bringing China into the picture very cleverly. The Sri Lankans first asked India if it would be interested in constructing a port in the southern Hambantota area; when India declined, realising that it might be obligated to Sri Lanka if it accepted, the Sri Lankans asked the Chinese who gratefully accepted. The contract was then expanded to include a naval base; when Sri Lanka went to China to seek weapons and influence at the UN level for its pursuit of the Tigers, Beijing was only too happy to oblige.
When India realised that China was cutting in on its normal sphere of influence, it agreed to provide Sri Lanka with intelligence that led to the destruction of many of the Tiger arms re-supply craft, thus depriving the Tigers of fresh stocks of arms. By doing this, the Indians once again hoped to get back into Sri Lanka’s good books.
In 2002, the Sri Lankan government had signed a ceasefire with the Tigers; at that point, the Tamil group controlled something less than the one-third of the island which was its maximalist demand for its own state. At this point, Pirapaharan could well have bargained and got at least two-thirds of what he had set down as his ambit claim. But he refused to budge and in 2003 announced that the Tigers were withdrawing from the ceasefire.
In 2005, the current president, Mahinda Rajapakse, came to power. A year later, having put his brother, Gotabaya, in charge of defence, the war began to eliminate the Tigers. Gotabaya was promised that political considerations would not interfere with this goal; in the 1980s, when India made food drops to the besieged Tamils, Gotabaya was a member of the armed forces and that memory remained with him.
The Rajapakses kept to their word. They massacred the Tigers and shot a number of leaders of the movement in cold blood as they were trying to surrender. They did not mind if there was collateral damage in the form of about 40,000 civilians killed by both sides. They had a goal and they were as bloodthirsty as Pirapaharan in their determination to achieve it, come hell or high water. They had a regular well-paid army which was not asked to fight with one arm tied behind; the Tigers did not have the number of troops to match as several of their hardened fighters had left the movement in 2002, confident that the struggle was over.
While the low-level war began in 2006, the government only formally abrogated the ceasefire in 2008. By May 19 the following year, it was able to declare victory and show Pirapaharan’s body on television. His twisted dream had come to an end, a lesson to all those fighting for separate states that one needs to compromise in order to achieve at least a part of one’s objectives.