n 2009, amidst the global financial meltdown and headlines dominated by events in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sri Lanka put an end to three decades of internal conflict with the Tamil Tigers. Gordon Weiss, an Australian foreign correspondent and former UN employee, investigates the events behind the headlines in his excellent book, The Cage: the fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers. An unfortunate fact of life is how familiar terrorism has become. The events of 9/11 have made it very clear that international terrorism is not something happening Over There, confined to the nightly news and Tom Clancy novels. In the process, the United States has had to contend with human rights issues and negotiating how much we, as a participatory democracy and open society, are willing to sacrifice to the ideal of domestic security. The small nation of Sri Lanka dealt with the very same issues when it struggled against the terror campaign of the Tamil Tigers. In the end, Sri Lanka became a very different society, deranged by three decades of war and dealing with two personalities all too willing to sacrifice democracy to attaining their political ends.
The book’s usefulness comes not from any high-minded finger pointing (although there is plenty of blame to go around for all participants) but in the questions it raises. The book chronicles the rise of two historical personalities. The first is Velupillai Prabakharan, the “Supreme Leader” of the Tamil Tigers until his death in 2009. The second is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, secretary of defense and commander of Sri Lanka’s various military and police forces. Like a Russian novel, the names take a little getting used to, but Weiss supplies the reader with a glossary, timeline, and lists of acronyms and notable personalities. Even when delving into ethnic factionalism, the history of international war crime standards, or the specificity of military campaigns, Weiss writes in a highly reader-friendly journalistic style. The necessity of the book arises from the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to whitewash their campaign against the Tamil Tigers.
Seen by the world as a human rights disaster on par with the Sudan or Rwanda, the Sri Lankan government insists the 2009 military campaign did not kill any civilians. The book gives credence to the line from the Buffalo Springfield song, “Nobody is right when everybody’s wrong.” In order to understand this calamity, one has to understand the history of Sri Lanka. Prior to its colonization, the island had several kingdoms and saw periodic conflicts between the two major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Under British colonial rule, the Tamils rose to occupy numerous civil servant positions. During this time, Henry Olcott, an American mystic and Theosophist, participated in a campaign to revive the island’s Buddhist heritage, a religion that went into decline due to the Christianization efforts of British and Portuguese missionaries. When British colonists left and Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the newly independent nation missed an opportunity to end ethnic violence when Sinhalese Buddhist fundamentalism began to take hold. Like Israel, Sri Lanka created a nationalist narrative from ancient sacred writings. In 1956, the government passed the Sinhalese Only Act, making Sinhala the official language of the island.* Another consequence was more stringent standards for Tamils to get into college and get jobs. (One is reminded of South Africa’s codification of apartheid into law during this similar time, or the current spate of anti-gay marriage laws seeking passage in the United States.)
A sense of existential despair darkens the story. On one side, the Tamil Tigers, supported by the ideology of national liberation, created a formidable fighting force. Their terror campaigns took the lives of Sinhalese civilians, the Sri Lankan president, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. They exploited the confluence of international trade, organized crime, and global terror networks. On September 11, the game changed, with the world reacting in revulsion from the atrocities of international terrorism. Standing against the Tamil Tigers was the Sri Lankan government, using the world’s goodwill to annihilate the Tigers once and for all.
Weiss excels at chronicling the changes in attitude of the post-9/11 world and the changing geopolitical landscape. While the US and Europe reacted in horror to Sri Lanka’s heavy-handed destruction of the Tigers, Sri Lanka used its newfound alliance with India, Pakistan, and China to block any UN intervention. China’s economic ascension has created a new geopolitical center of gravity in the fluid landscape following the Cold War. In its process of vanquishing the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka became hostage to the Rajapaksa family, political corruption on a monumental scale, and the erosion of a free press, an independent judiciary, and a functioning legislature. Now, despite accolades from places like the New York Times calling Sri Lanka a great vacation destination, ordinary Sri Lankans have to contend with a political family every bit as ruthless and power-hungry as the North Korean Kim family and an ascendant Buddhist fundamentalism whose puritanical tyranny bears an eerie resemblance to Iran’s unelected ayatollahs.
For those interested in this modern human rights tragedy and how basic political rights get shredded by both the government and the freedom fighters, then The Cage is a must read.
*In Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil are completely unrelated languages. The language difference only exacerbated the ethnic conflict.
Out of 10: 9.5