The silent horrors of Sri Lanka still resonate

My following book review appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

An insider reveals the tortuous history of Sri Lanka’s conflict.

The United Nations recently released a report into war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in the final stages of that country’s brutal civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Colombo regime that ended in May 2009. The results were devastating and detailed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians targeted by a rampaging government army and human shields held by Tiger rebels.

It was one of the worst massacres of the 21st century but remained largely a secret war, with journalists, human-rights workers and independent observers refused entry to the conflict zone.

The UN Human Rights Council issued only one resolution on Sri Lanka but a dozen against Israel’s war in Gaza a few months before.

The decline of American power and rise of an assertive China allowed Colombo far greater leeway to prosecute its own ”war on terror”. This is a victory that is today celebrated and taught by the island’s leaders to other countries looking to liquidate an enemy within; brutality and illegal methods are not impediments to the lessons.

A former UN spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, told ABC TV’s Lateline in April that the UN was undeniably partly responsible for not speaking out more forcefully against the violence during the conflict. He left the position ”because I felt that the government had successfully captured the narrative of what happened in this war and that what was missing was an alternative narrative; and I set about writing this book”.

The resultant work is a compelling examination of the island’s tortuous history and deeply ingrained racial discrimination. Weiss writes as an involved insider but holds no brief for either side of the decades-long war. He writes with passion and a depth of knowledge that does not shy away from describing the ”government death squads and ‘disappearances’ [that] had become a feature of public life”.

He sympathetically explains why a separate Tamil homeland was an almost necessary feature of life for a minority who were routinely discriminated against, could not use their own language in professional life and suffered the indignities of a Colombo-led occupation of their land. Although Weiss is not overcritical in the book of his former employer, he encourages a deeper understanding of humanitarian assistance in the modern age.

He likens the UN to a ”fractious parent/teacher meeting” and a body ”hamstrung by the interests of some of its most powerful members”. He quotes others to condemn the UN – head of the International Crisis Group Louise Arbour said in 2010 that the UN’s soft response ”verged on complicity” and the UN itself has subsequently acknowledged a muted position due to threats from the Sri Lankan authorities.

WikiLeaks cables confirm the US government was aware of the intensity of the fighting in the final months of the war but there was no push by the UN Security Council to warn Sri Lanka. It was a classic case of realpolitik; Sri Lanka holds only strategic importance and no major natural resources. NATO would not target Libya if lettuce was the country’s major export.

Weiss’s conclusion is a grim prognosis for Sri Lanka, a nation increasingly divided along ethnic lines. He sees the country ”sliding into tyranny”. Many Western nations, including Australia, have remained shamefully silent in the face of ongoing gross abuses, all in the name of favourable trade deals and withholding refugees before they can come to our shores.

The Cage is a courageous document that holds to account the brutality of a rogue state that is all too often simply seen as a beautiful tourist destination.


Gordon Weiss

Picador, 352pp, $34.99

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