Knowing and Unknowing

Contrary responses to the Sri Lankan Civil War

The Sri Lankan army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, after a prolonged and bloody campaign in the north and east of the island. ISHARA S KODIKARA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 January, 2016

THE POLITICAL JOURNALIST ROHINI MOHAN begins her 2014 book on the Sri Lankan civil war with Sarva, as we’ll come to know him, arrested for being a member of the violent separatist organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lankan law allows for a person, against whom there’s no evidence, to be held for three months without being charged; after which, the police are allowed an extension to gather said evidence; a potentially endless process. Hence the allusion to the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which reads: “Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.” Once Sarva is taken away in one of those infamous white vans, known to every Sri Lankan, he is at the mercy of a poisonous administration apt to silently quash individual rights.

For those who lived these final years of the conflict, it was a question of knowledge. You didn’t know what you wanted to find out, and what you were aware of, unavoidably, from day to day, was a source of chronic anxiety. The tactics of the Tigers—who innovated, and deployed across the country, the explosive vest now associated with Islamic extremism—were matched by the refusal of the authorities to communicate their military objectives and be transparent about their detainment policies. The result was a bleak, windblown space, in which rumour and cultural superstition projected their own horrors. Sarva’s mother, Indra—who believed all along that her son’s life would be difficult, for his ill-omened birth turned her hair grey at a single stroke—struggles to discover what has happened:

These were familiar news items; she had been reading them since the nineties. A son missinhug, a husband stranded in another town because a highway had closed overnight, a sister caught in the crossfire, a neighbour found dead in a ditch, a schoolboy shot by a soldier, another boy joining the Tigers. It all began with these hours of not knowing.

Mohan has a writer’s eye for the telling detail, psychological or sensuous, and reading this, it struck me that a short story, a novel even, could be written about a Tamil mother’s “hours of not knowing.” But Emily Dickinson has already given us the poem:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Indra’s Hindu fatalism protects her against emotional incoherence. But war conditions, at the same time, insist she challenge these beliefs and struggle actively to achieve justice first for one kidnapped son, then another. She must also resist the opposite of this unknowing—what Mohan labels “the mundane omnipresence of conflict,” a constant daily reminder of one’s precariousness. By February the following year, Indra realises in her dealings with the Terror Investigation Division, who have now taken another son, Deva, that she is “fighting a force she could not comprehend.” The bureaucracy achieves, as in Kafka’s book, the opacity, the massive impermeability, of fate. The hours of “not knowing” where Sarva had vanished to correspond to those “unrecorded hours,” in which she has come to know that those illegally abducted are held in abandoned locations exempt from custodial restrictions, and where “the most brutal torture occurred.”

"The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War," Rohini Mohan, HarperCollins, 353 pages, Rs 499

The 26-year civil war ended in May 2009, when the Tigers were defeated and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was shot through the head. Following 9/11, and a respecification of the concept of “terrorism,” the international community could no longer understand the Tigers’ activities as anything but. Prabhakaran seems to have never fully accepted this. He continued to fantasise that, comparable with the intervention of an authoritative parent, help would arrive from outside the country, and the Tigers became more and more isolated in their northern stronghold, protected by a human shield of civilians. To an external observer, it might appear a bathetic conclusion to the struggle between the Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

In her 2013 monograph In My Mother’s House, Sharika Thiranagama explains that though Sri Lanka had been partly colonised by first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch, who called it Ceylon, it was the British who were “the first power to unite the island under a common administration and ... as a unified political and spatial territory.” They sought to codify a diverse population “through popular Victorian ideas of race, linking this to religious and language differences.” It’s not that the Ceylonese existed, previously, in a state of innocence as to ethnic identity, but that these divisions were now underlined, intellectually elaborated, and fastened to state policy.

The British also imported “plantation Tamils” from India to pick tea, and set up English schools in locations which benefitted Tamils, who then took prominent roles within the colonial administration, angering the rest of the population. Tamils became famous for, and defined by, their education. (Young people taken at war’s end to holding camps brought their school certificates and study materials with them, for such habits of aspiration die hard.) Muslims and Christians, too, were felt by Sinhala nationalists to have been unduly privileged by the British, and after independence, concepts of racial purity and authentic Buddhism emerged as a supposed corrective—a reorientation of power to an embittered majority which already held it.

Sinhala was made, in 1956, the official language of Sri Lanka; in 1972, Buddhism was declared the official religion; 1981 saw the destruction by arson of the Tamil library in Jaffna, and two years later, the infamous mob-killings of “Black July,” prompted by the murder of 13 soldiers by the Tigers, saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of Tamils dead. Their homes and businesses were looted, burned, by both policemen and thugs supplied with voter lists so they could tell who was Tamil and who Sinhalese. (Tamils could also be identified, during street confrontations, by the different kind of oil they used to anoint their hair.) Revenge-fuelled, the Tigers grew stronger. Their rhetoric was immensely attractive to young Tamils tired of seeing themselves as second-class citizens, and avid to escape into an idealistic heroism and even, in the case of the fabled “Black Tigers,” martyrdom for the cause.

The head of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, pictured here with his wife and son, continued to believe until the very end that help would arrive for the rebels from outside the country. SRI LANKAN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE / HANDOUT / REUTERS

With overseas backing from an increasingly successful Tamil diaspora, the Tigers became a true military force, with both air and sea divisions. Eliminating other rebel groups, they placed themselves at the heart of Tamil life—annexing religion and ritual, the group engaged, writes Thiranagama, in a range of “coercive strategies.” She’s not talking here simply of physical intimidation, but also of more subtle and insidious interventions “in temple quarrels, in relationships between parents and children, in the decision on who and how to marry.” Their suicide bombers killed civilians as well as politicians and soldiers, blew up buses and buildings in the capital. Both the Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa and Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, were assassinated. The Tigers became the biggest employers in the Vanni—the region they considered Eelam, a separate homeland for Tamils—where they in effect set up their own government, exercising strict control over their followers. And they, too, were not above kidnap; they would brainwash child recruits, whose parents sought to hide them when the soldiers came round to conscript. The same white vans used by the police—“that dreaded symbol of the unknown”—were deployed by the Tigers to snatch youths off the street.

The army still maintains a large presence in areas once under the Tigers’ control. S KODIKARA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

THESE ARE THE FACTS, or some of them, which impinge upon the life-stories Mohan relates. Beginning in 1993, when she is 13 and the Tigers come to recruit at her school, we witness the assimilation of Mugil—whom I couldn’t help but associate with the young woman photographed imposingly from below on the cover of the book—into the LTTE. At first, she “didn’t know, and didn’t care to know,” her history—that, for example, “Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was initially a reaction to proselytising Christian missionaries and Westernisation.” Instead, Mugil simply, “in the tradition of so many youngsters,” leaves a note “at home one day, writing about her desire to go to battle with her generation so that her elders and the children of the future would have a country they could call their own.” Ventriloquising the Tigers’ purple rhetoric, Mohan helps us understand why a young Tamil woman might make this decision. The Tigers boasted all-female suicide cadres (Rajiv Gandhi was, of course, killed by a woman) and its opportunistic use of both sexes on the battlefield could be reimagined by girls such as Mugil as an act of liberation.

Mohan doesn’t justify the Tigers’ activities, but she does explain their persuasiveness to the Tamils whose lives—their desperate, improvisatory texture—she takes seriously as a subject. We learn, for example, how the Tigers restricted civilian movements and through forced conscription and spy networks ensured complicity; how the army held displaced Tamils, prior to rehousing, like prisoners in camps with poor facilities and little food. Was non-compliance with the movement even an option for those living in the Vanni? In the sophistication of its analysis, Mohan’s study, awarded the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, joins a select list published over the last four years that are essential to our understanding of the civil war. Besides Thiranagama’s work, these include Still Counting the Dead by Frances Harrison, The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers by Gordon Weiss (once the United Nations spokesman in the country) and most recently Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island.

These books refuse to accept the Sri Lankan condition of “unknowing”—a response to trauma which some would turn permanent, almost as a matter of national policy. The authors lay out dispassionately, and without bias, events which both the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the Tigers sought to obfuscate, or mythologise. Reporters, as well as aid workers, found their activities proscribed during the war. “Censorship and the threat of violence hung heavy over the media,” says Mohan, observing that at the height of the troubles, “Sri Lanka sat 162nd in the index of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders, making it the lowest-ranked parliamentary democracy.” These techniques of information control persist in the new government’s insistence that no UN investigation into alleged war crimes is required, for a domestic enquiry will suffice. The truth-seeking historian must resist this mentality, no matter how vigorously its proponents code it as patriotic, as genuinely Sri Lankan—and take the stance of, in Weiss’s phrasing, “the dominant liberal international order,” in which “historical, political and judicial closure is held to be a good thing.”

Thiranagama investigates, from an ethnographic perspective, the displacement experience of both Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims—whose demonization by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority (the Tigers, too, forced tens of thousands of them from their homes) also happens to provide Mohan’s book with its final twist. In My Mother’s House investigates lived concepts—the Tamil idea of one’s original village, or ur; the failure in this terror-permeated community of trust, or nambikkai—through an academic lens, yet her book remains both compassionate and principled. Not only the international observer but Sri Lankans themselves (Thiranagama is herself of mixed parentage, half-Sinhalese, half-Tamil) may come to terms with, and challenge, what Weiss describes as “a long history of fudged accountability” that expresses a “collective, and perhaps desired, historical amnesia.” In fact, the personal experiences recorded on these pages suggest the opposite: a profound need on the part of marginalised communities to have their sufferings remembered and righted. Reading these books, I was forced to consider again why my Tamil parents, when they moved from Sri Lanka to England almost 40 years ago, decided not to teach me or my sister their language or to pass on more than a joyous residue of their cultural practices.

In Padma Rao Sundarji’s Sri Lanka: The New Country, managerial attitudes towards the past connect with propagandising on behalf of the government. This book, which appeared less than a year ago but already seems out of date, given Rajapaksa’s defeat by Maithripala Sirisena in last year’s elections, spends most of its time apologising for the former president’s behaviour. It refuses disinterested analysis, and takes sides. Instead of uncovering the real injustices still being perpetrated—there are continuing reports of torture, including sexual torture, of detainees held, like Sarva, under suspicion of involvement with the Tigers—Sundarji dissipates the responsibilities of the journalist in a bland, touristic lyricism. Conventionally championing government road-building following the war (“superb, seamless, four-lane highway”; “the main highway, the A-9, was superbly redone”) she finds time to mention, of the Rajapaksa family, “the wonderful grins that the family is blessed with.” This is an unhistorical, poorly written book, particularly disingenuous in its suggestion that accusations of war crimes—including “the alleged killing of 30,000 civilians caught in the crossfire during the last and fiercest phase of war,” and “the alleged capture and killing of Prabhakaran’s youngest son Balachandran”—were “all emanating from one television channel, Channel 4, in the UK.” This weasel sentence is typical of a discourse—one could link it with the former government and its apologists, but it seems to have proliferated—which has sought to locate all objections to national policy as coming from outsiders who should know better than to meddle in Sri Lankan affairs. It’s also inept in its suggestion that the documentaries about the civil war aired by this channel invented these accusations, rather than giving voice to them.

"In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka," Sharika Thiranagama, University Of Pennsylvania Press, 320 pages, Rs 1,903

The problem is that while The New Country positions itself briefly as a critique of the Tigers—a real subject, which does need to be considered alongside injustices committed against Tamil civilians—it is rather more interested in editing the past: thus the unprepossessing title. It’s a perfect example of the mentality Weiss excoriates, and this is never clearer than when Sundarji discusses a Tiger graveyard replaced by a new army headquarters. While this move might seem insensitive to the grieving families, the graveyard’s continuing existence could see it become an abiding symbol of separatism, the location of an iconic martyrdom. This dilemma is easy to understand. But there follows an extraordinary passage about Germany, where Sundarji has lived and worked. I can only describe what is concocted here as a sort of anti-writing, whose failures of style are also moral failures:

Critics (mostly Western) have argued that if Germans could keep former Nazi concentration camps intact as grim reminders of the past, Sri Lanka could have spared the graveyard too. But I know how nauseous I had felt for days on end, when I had visited Auschwitz and other chambers of death. Consequently, I was always just as much against concentration camps as memorials. No government or army in the world—unless a country under occupation as was post-war Germany—would have allowed it. When the time comes to move on and build a new future, it is best to erase a monstrous past.

The “mostly Western” jibe at outsiders (though Sundarji admits she is herself “neither an Indian Tamilian,” nor does she have “any Sinhalese relatives or genes”); a too-rapid turn to anecdote, as if her personal response to Auschwitz is enough to determine national policy; the orotund transformation of actual gas chambers into figurative “chambers of death”; an assumed interchangeability of “government” and “army,” and of the Rajapaksa government with a generalised “Sri Lanka,” which feels and operates as one entity; and, finally, the irresponsible and clichéd elision of literal and figurative “building” in this sentence: “When the time comes to move on and build a new future, it is best to erase a monstrous past”—these are not merely infelicities of expression. The anxious final turn—“Still, and if logistics had permitted, perhaps Sri Lanka could have transferred the graves to quieter, scattered venues, chosen by the families who had their young ones lying there”—manifests not an even-handed assessment of both perspectives, but a cowardly refusal to come to terms with the “monstrous past” the author would sooner “erase” (just as the army has razed the graveyard) rather than acknowledge the long-standing cultural struggles which continue to determine, whether she likes it or not, the future of Sri Lanka. We cannot unknow what we know, moving from experience back into innocence.

"Sri Lanka: The New Country," Padma Rao Sundarji, HarperCollins, 322 pages, Rs 499

In Sampur, on Sri Lanka’s east coast, writes the journalist Sarah Stodder in last October's issue of this magazine, the cemetery remains under the navy’s control. Yet the gradual restoration, here, of Tamils’ land to farmers and fishermen previously displaced and offered paltry resettlement deals—Sirisena has also visited the town and its Hindu temple—does suggest a change of approach on behalf of the new government. Writing of Norway’s political interventions in Sri Lanka, Mark Salter, in his To End a Civil War, also mentions the deletion of Tiger cemeteries, and the building at Kopai of the new headquarters of the Sri Lanka Army fifty-first division, “opened amid much fanfare in early 2011”; and provides a different perspective on the loss, with the graveyard, of a “memorial” which “had stayed with me since I had first visited it ten years earlier”:

Partly because, as with the First World War cemeteries in Flanders, the size of the place conveyed the scale of the casualties in a way that no list of figures could ever match. Partly, too, because it was my introduction to the reality of the child soldiers that had been compelled to fight for Tamil Eelam—an independent Tamil state. The absence of dates on a headstone was the giveaway, I had learned, and sure enough there they were: row after row of tidily kept graves with a name and a youthful face to identify them—but no ages or dates.

In other words, the destruction of the cemetery by the government removed a reminder, to both Sri Lankans and outsiders, of the Tigers’ reprehensible exploitation of child-soldiers. Observing that the “government never tires of repeating that it is rebuilding the country,” Salter is also sceptical, regarding those who lost their homes, that the construction, for example, of “sparkling new barracks” close to their provisional shacks does “much to bolster faith in the new political dispensation among these dispossessed people.” He says of the Buddhas erected in hurriedly refurbished areas that, taken “together with the Army installations themselves, these statues struck me as nothing so much as the ‘under new management’ signs pasted across a building to announce a change of ownership.” The erasure, or overwriting, of Hindu-Tamil sites might therefore be seen as an aggressive gesture, an insistence, like the laws passed in 1956 and 1972, on the triumph of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Whether or not this is what the government’s policy amounts to, it can be interpreted this way—by both international journalists and victims of the war.

An official chides Salter: “listen: your book is going into the past; these days we prefer to look forwards.” Such ahistorical naivety—and the cultural homogeneity it presumes, even insists upon—does not bode well. To enquire into the truth of the transformation of a no-fire zone in the Vanni into a “Civilian Safe Zone, a technical change of nomenclature that legally allowed the army to attack it”; or the army shelling of the PTK hospital in February 2009, which leads Mugil’s father to suspect the army of wanting to eradicate “as many Tamils as possible,” not just Tigers—this is the task of the journalist, the historian, the writer; but there are those who will have none of it. They believe that truth can be suppressed, or rewritten; that architectural recuperation will salve, rather than agitate, the emotional wounds of multiple communities; that to be a proud Sri Lankan means “looking forward” rather than back—as if this empty management-speak were even vaguely adequate to the ways in which individuals and nations actually function and make sense of their lives.

We gradually learn that Sarva was conscripted by the Tigers, from which he eventually escaped. It was only in 2008, with his detention, that “the past caught up” with him. As it catches up, now, with the reader, who must choose to maintain or withdraw their sympathy in light of new information. A fellow Tiger recruit had given him away, informing the Terror Investigation Division about Sarva’s “three false front teeth,” a physical reality which could not be camouflaged:

‘You got training with the LTTE?’

‘I was forced, ayya.’

They called him a liar. ‘You trained in 1993, not 2003. Don’t you know?!’

Sarva’s brain felt foggy, his legs seemed to be evaporating. He was painfully hungry.

The men were still speaking. ‘You have false teeth. You are a spy. You know Sinhala, Tamil and English. How can you not be a spy?’

Sarva couldn’t find any meaning to stitch their words together. Everything seemed false and simultaneously true. They were repeating things, changing tiny facts here and there, alleging massive things, screaming, beating.

He knows too much (why would anyone be so cosmopolitan as to understand three languages were he not a spy?) and also, it seems, too little. Beaten with a baton, tortured with petrol fumes, Sarva is consigned to a world in which truth and falsity can no longer be distinguished. Like his captors, he and his mother will replace what actually occurred with a different story. At the very point when “Sense was breaking through,” Emily Dickinson’s poem describes the contrary effect of the funeral service in her mind:

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum -

Kept beating - beating - till I thought

My mind was going numb

Finally, “a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down - / And hit a World, at every plunge, / And Finished knowing - then.” Indra is forced to lie about her son: for if “she admitted to his having spent one and a half years with the Tigers, forcibly trained and bordering on voluntary service, the state would not spare him.” Both mother and son are therefore co-opted into the national programme of deception, a terrible compromise of their dignity.

"To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka," Mark Salter, Hurst, 547 pages, Rs 2,486

At his asylum interview in Wales, Sarva struggles to give clear responses, for he, like Indra, feels “the reality of his two years in the LTTE was not black and white, not easily compartmentalised.” He was initially seduced by the propaganda, then yearned to escape. He asks for a male interviewer, and breaks down when questioned about the sexual torture he has suffered at the hands of the authorities. His request for asylum is granted, though the injuries to his body and his psyche are, it is made clear, of the kind one does not simply forget.

Editors’ note: A different version of this essay appeared in the January issue of the magazine. This is the corrected version. The Caravan regrets the error.