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Washington Post

Jason Burke


The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers
By Gordon Weiss (The Bodley Head 384pp 14.99)
Tiger cubs

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 interned. The conflict was clearly over.

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 almost disappointingly 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 who had followed the LTTE's retreat from advancing government forces. Mixed up with LTTE fighters (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 spring 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 spokesmen 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.

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 frequent 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 international 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 secretary 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 force would obstruct the army from 'marching forward to liberate the innocent civilians' in what would be 'the world's largest hostage rescue operation'.

There is currently serious discussion among analysts of the 'Sri Lankan model' of counterinsurgency. This is seen as a repudiation of all the fashionable liberal 'hearts and minds' thinking of recent years and a return to the good old-fashioned 'kill enough of them to make them stop' strategy. The LTTE famously helped popularise suicide bombing and, until the quantum leap in terrorism on 9/11, were seen as the most effective organisation using the tactic. Between 1987 and May 2009, the LTTE despatched 273 attackers, of whom forty-seven were women, on 137 missions. One sure consequence of the end of the war is that these have now stopped.

However, one of the strengths of this book is that, unlike much of the reporting at the time of the crisis in 2009, it unpicks the roots of the problem that led to the emergence of the effective, aggressive, innovatory and very ugly organisation that was the LTTE. This goes much further than a simple account of tensions between Tamils and Sinhala or Hindus and Buddhists, delving deep into Sri Lanka's tradition of maximalist politics and the role of the violence in Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s in forming the worldview of its current leaders. One minor criticism of The Cage is that Weiss could have stressed further how Rajapaksa, for all his evils, remains an extremely popular politician. Yes, he is a demagogue. Yes, he has a history of repressing the press. Yes, his rejection of any blame and clear lack of interest in any genuine reconciliation after the war are shocking. But he has won a military victory that the majority of voters are deeply grateful for and this, along with careful efforts to develop rural areas where his core supporters live, assures his power as much as anything. His various political victories are not the result of electoral fraud. The end of the war in Sri Lanka has sparked an economic boom that is forecast to double the wealth of Sri Lankans - if not of northern or plantation Tamils - within a few years and possibly triple it within a decade as foreign investment and tourists flow in. If that is so, his continued rule seems assured. The lesson of the historical chapters, indeed of this book as a whole, is clear: violence brings more violence. The lesson of the next chapter of Sri Lanka's history may well be that violence can also bring wealth and continued power.

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Jason Burke is The Guardian's South Asia correspondent. His new book, The 9/11 Wars, will be published by Penguin in September.