by Padraig Colman
In my rebellious youth, I did not have much respect for the military and was grateful that I was born just late enough to escape doing two years National Service in the British army. We baby boomers had a tendency to arrogance because we had a decent education and the ability to see the tawdriness of post-imperial Britain. With maturity, I have developed a better understanding of what my parents’ generation endured to make life comfortable and secure for brats like me. I first came to live in Sri Lanka when the battered nation was enjoying a cease fire. I was dismayed when Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency and further dismayed when he decided to go for the military option. I did not think the SLA was up to the job. I was wrong.
Sri Lanka: The New Country, by the Indian journalist and author Padma Rao Sundarji, was published a year ago but it still seems very relevant today, particularly in the picture it paints of the army. One review on Amazon said: "Looks like funded by the Sri Lankan army. … It is a accepted fact that there was a genocide in the final phases of the war, here the author doesn’t take a stand instead repeats what army generals have said." My own take was: "Unusual for a foreign writer to deal with Sri Lanka with the humility of knowledge rather than the arrogance of ignorance".
The author risks being branded as an "apologist" for the Sri Lankan military when she writes: "since not many attempts have been made to speak to the Sri Lankan army which continues to be depicted as a kind of a nameless, faceless bully force, hungry for power over and colonization of north and east Sri Lanka," and says that she includes debates with senior officers in order to provide a balance. She acknowledges that in all South Asian countries the armed forces are frequently called upon to play civilian roles.
The book is relevant today because the military feels under threat as the new yahapalana government of national unity tries to please the international community on the question of alleged war crimes and drop-in visitors to Sri Lanka continue to assume that 40,000 plus civilian were killed by the army in the final stages of the war against the LTTE. The Commanding Officer in Jaffna, Major General Chagi Gallage, was transferred to Army Headquarters in Colombo last week, following an altercation with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. A special new rank of Field Marshall has been created for Sarath Fonseka and the UNP has given him a National List seat in parliament and a ministerial post. Speculation is that this is to appease a disgruntled military.
Ms Rao is well aware of the suffering and sacrifice of young men who volunteered to fight for their country. In February 2009, she was on board an Antonov transport aircraft accompanied by young men the same age as her own son. At Palali, "Rows of wounded soldiers urgently in need of medical aid lay on blood-splattered stretchers on the airfield. They were to be transported back to Colombo on the same plane. Several coffins too were lined up".
She talks to Colonel G Gyanaratne who had commanded a regiment during the final stage of the war at Mullaitivu. At one point Gyanaratne noticed that she was looking sad and helpless and relaxed his military demeanour. "Wars are a terrible tragedy, madam. But I assure you, we are not monsters. We did and are still doing our best. After all, these are our own people. The war is over. And it will never happen again".
Ms Rao asks a young woman who sells snacks and who is married to a construction worker how she feels as a Tamil living so close to the SLA. The response is surprising: "For us, this is the best place to live." She recounts the story of her baby needing urgent heart surgery. The top army man in the area, Major General Hathurasinghe, heard about this and came with a doctor who took the mother and baby to Colombo by plane. The baby was operated on and has been fine since. "Even today, the officers come frequently just to see how she is faring."
Ms Rao talked to Hathurasinghe about whether there was a continuing threat from the LTTE and whether there was a need for continuing military occupation. He believed that individual LTTE combatants posed no real threat, however, "take them in combination. Here is the TNA beginning to talk of separatism again. And there are those influential members of the Tamil diaspora doing the same. Last year, we caught two fellows who were trying to hoist an LTTE flag here. We traced the attempt back to Tamil Nadu. They told us there was a ‘training facility’ there. … There is a lot of LTTE revival propaganda coming out of your country". However, he said that most people understood that the "sacrifices they made for one man’s lunacy were simply not worth it". They had hoped that the end of the war would bring certain freedoms, like getting married and enjoying family life. Tamil society was rejecting former Tigers. "Most parents don’t want to give their daughters or sons in marriage to anyone who was with the LTTE. We are trying to help remove that suspiciousness".
The author has been criticised for being too kind to the army and for not attempting a thorough investigation into war crimes or white van abductions. Throughout the book, Ms Rao is somewhat disapproving of the armed forces being involved in the catering business but appreciates what navy Commander Dias says. "We run Sandy Bay from our Navy Welfare Fund. And we are, after all, contributing to the national economy. We have the manpower and in peacetime not much else to do."
She met former Tigers, male and female, who are now serving in the SLA. During breaks in dancing the samba for the author, Grace Rani, Malinpriya and Harimala talk about their past which was dominated by their conscription into the LTTE at a young age. Now the SLA is teaching them to make yoghurt with the option of being trained for a future career in nursing or computer science.
In Jaffna she meets a Tamil who is teaching Buddhism. "Together with the army we have conducted ten-day vipassana courses in IDP camps especially with former LTTE cadres…. After the first three days of anapana, many of those cadres began to cry".
When she is being taken to Adam’s Bridge by a couple of sailors the weather is rather frightening. One sailor jumps overboard to rescue a seagull whose wings have been battered by the heavy rain. While the author is about her business at Adam’s Bridge the sailors dry the gull out and on the return journey put it back where they found it.
The author asked a woman she calls Kanaga who she planned to vote for and the whole group said they wanted to vote for the army. "It is the army that has taken care of our every need. They have given us cattle, goats, houses and even built proper toilets for us". The military governor Major General Hathurasinghe had personally found her a job. Nevertheless, the TNA won the election.
Unlike other books about Sri Lanka by foreigners, this one does not dwell exclusively on the past, although the author has been visiting and writing about Sri Lanka for 25 years and has interviewed everyone who is anyone. For 14 years, she was South Asia bureau chief for Der Spiegel in Hamburg. Despite the allegations against the SLA, she is happy to recount positive stories she heard from ordinary people, Tamils as well as Sinhalese. She is happy to contemplate a future.