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 far-reaching 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 drawn-out 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 those civilians trapped in the Cage. Despite the government’s insistence that it was pursuing a policy of “zero civilian casualties” by honouring the no-fire-zone status of the enclave, Weiss presents sufficient evidence to quantify the charge that war crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan Army.
But the UN does not emerge unscathed. When the UN Human Rights Council was issuing numerous resolutions condemning Israel’s invasion of Gaza, it could barely muster one on Sri Lanka despite credible allegations of war crimes.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon failed to use the UN’s moral authority to denounce the tabulated killing of civilians, in the interests of keeping open channels of communication with the Sri Lankan government, and also of humanitarian access.
This proved to be a tragic mistake. As Weiss points out, the UN’s excuse that casualty reports could not be verified, unwittingly supported the deceptive “zero civilian casualties” narrative the Sri Lankan government maintained.
Could the civil war have been averted? If the grievances of Tamils had been addressed in the years after independence through constitutional safeguards as well as social and economic development, Weiss believes it could have. Even after the war started opportunities for a negotiated settlement were constantly stymied by inflexibility of the Sri Lankan state on the one hand and the violence and nihilism of Prabhakaran on the other.
The defeat of the Tigers, however, does not necessarily mean peace will prevail. Weiss’s depressing conclusion, backed by ample evidence, is that Tamil grievances are being addressed with government-backed tyranny as the state extends a hegemonic hold over all aspects of civil society.
Weiss’s book will not be popular with the government in Colombo, but there is nothing in it that will give succour to the Tamil cause as espoused by the Tigers.
Its value lies in its dispassionate analysis of the cause of Sri Lanka’s tragic civil war and how such conflicts can be avoided.
John Zubrzycki is a senior writer on The Australian. He covered South Asia for the paper from 1994 to 1998.