THE END OF V I OLENCE THE CAGE: THE FIGHT FOR SRI LANKA AND
who had followed the LTTE’s retreat from advancing gover nment forces. Mixed up with LTTE f ighter s (though less so than the army would claim), men and women, old and young, were subject to a ‘siege of epic proportions as the insurgents fell back on a small pocket of land on the island’s north east coast to make a final stand’. This was the cage. The LTTE pressed ‘cohorts of untested boys and girls, some barely into their teens, into the lines of battle’. The army shelled with little if any attempt to avoid civilians. Under the late spr ing sun, with shortages of food, water and medicine, casualties mounted fast. A United Nations expert panel concluded that up to 40,000 may have died. Weiss, a veteran journalist and long-serving UN official, had the misfortune to be the spokesman for the organisation in Colombo as the casualties mounted. His instincts as a reporter and a humanitarian clashed with the diplomatic complexities of his job. This book is in part born of that tension. It is, one feels, a result of a great feeling of having let down those who died.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE TAMIL TIGERS
By Gordon Weiss (The Bodley Head 352pp £14.99)
IN MARCH 2010, almost twelve months after the hostilities in northern Sri Lanka that had caught the world’s attention had finished, I drove up the road from the town of Vavuniya to Kilinochchi, the former headquarters of the Tamil Tigers. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the violent and dictatorial leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was dead; he had been shot in the last days of the civil war waged for nearly three decades between the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government, which he bore at least some of the blame for perpetuating. The LTTE had been dispersed and, though an army officer told me that some of their fighters still remained at liberty, most had been killed or inter ned. The conflict was clearly over.
In fact it was not Weiss who betrayed anybody but the organisation he worked for. Those who died on the beaches of Mullaitivu were effectively sacrificed for what is seen by common consensus as the greater good, in other words the deep and f requent compromises by which some degree of global cohabitation is maintained. The reason Weiss could not, as the UN spokesman, have taken a more aggressive stand against the appalling events occurring only a day’s drive in a big white Landcruiser from where he and his fellow
It had taken some time to get permission for the drive – my dispatch from Kilinochchi for The Guardian ended up being the first published from the town – and the actual journey from Vavuniya was a lmost d i s appointingly straightforward. The road had been resurfaced and was in excellent condition, a rare occurrence anywhere in South Asia, and there was almost no other traffic. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the populist politician from the south of the island whose power was buttressed by support among rural communities from the Sinhalese majority, had publicly said he was banking on economic development to heal the wounds of war. Except for a large billboard advertising a bank, there was little sign of any obvious wealth generation in the bleak, scrubby, depopulated plains of the Vanni as I drove across them. The military presence was, in contrast, very evident, with small fortified posts, many on stilts, among the half-cleared minefields either side of the road.
Those wounds of war, as Gordon Weiss makes clear in this comprehensive, fair and well-written work, were widened and deepened in the last days of Sri Lanka’s long conflict. The book’s title is a reference to the trap that formed around hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians inter national diplomats sat in their air-conditioned offices, was that China, Russia and a range of other powers lined up to protect Sri Lanka from the strident and almost exclusively Western concern at what was happening. The same states have more recently blocked calls for a genuine UN inquiry.
In response to the criticism, Rajapaksa – or rather the Rajapaksas, since the military operation was largely run by the president’s defence s ecretar y and brother, Gotabhaya – was to argue that, first, the LTTE were terrorists and that this was how terrorists should be dealt with and had been dealt with by other states over the previous decade; and that, secondly, no country had the right to intervene in another’s affairs. In both, the influence of the actions of the Bush administration could be seen. Weiss – who has an eye for an apposite quote – cites General Sarath Fonseka, military commander of the Sri Lankan forces, arguing in April 2009 that no foreign
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011