By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Today’s Sri Lanka is the ancient land of Serendip, which gave rise to the modern English word serendipity. Sri Lanka is still a stunningly beautiful island surrounded by white sand beaches that rise up through tropical forests into blue mountains famous for their delicate tea. (When I moved to Moscow from Colombo, I think the true source of my popularity was the tea I brought with me.)
But who thinks of Sri Lanka in those idyllic terms anymore? The battle ravaged landscape in the Tamil north as well as the ethnically-mixed East is still disfigured by the debris of war, and the emotional wounds are far from healing, as Samanth Subramanian reports in his new book This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan War. His account is based almost entirely on interviews with those who survived. The fact that Subramanian is a Delhi-based journalist whose family name reveals his roots in India’s state of Tamilnadu both helped and hindered his research. He speaks Tamil fluently, yet everywhere he was instantly recognized as hailing from the big meddler next door, which is to say, India. But I don’t think his heritage unduly biases his book
The seeds of war in Sri Lanka were sown by British officials who used census categories to divide and rule their colony of Ceylon. The more immediate cause was the post-colonial Sinhala Only Act of 1959, which purposely omitted recognition of Tamil as a second official language. As a result, young Tamils found it hard to pass university exams and obtain government jobs. By 1976 Velupillai Prabakaran had founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militia that innovated some now standard terrorist tactics. Assassination via suicide bomb, for example. In 1983 a Tiger ambush of an army convoy triggered anti-Tamil riots extensive enough to transform into a civil war. That war ended in 2009, with a protracted siege that culminated in a battle that may be classified as a war crime. Did the Tamils use civilians as shields for their last stand? Did the Army disregard the tens of thousands of trapped civilians in the way of their bombardment? (Or both, as I believe?) Subramanian visited Sri Lanka in 2011, when nothing like genuine reconstruction was well under way, a process he found to be badly contaminated by an officially-sanctioned “erasure” of all evidence of the Tamils’ millenia-long occupation of the island. (This Divided Island provides a very useful, far more detailed time line.)
When I arrived in Sri Lanka to serve as Information Officer at the U.S.I.S. post in Colombo in the mid 1980s, the alienation of Tamils from Sinhalese was already well advanced. Anti-Tamil riots had been so violent that Tamils, included the secretary to our Public Information Officer, had been herded into concentration camps for their own protection. Back home, back in the office, she was still in a state of shock. How could this be happening? My own secretary, who belonged to the Sinhalese majority, was just as distressed. She’d gone to school with Tamil girls. They’d become friends for life, they'd thought, but gradually, among the Sinhalese, it had become suspect for anyone to have Tamil friends. The two communities, once interwoven, were being wrenched apart.
I’d thought when I was assigned to Colombo that I’d be able to study Buddhism with some deeply respected dharma teachers. As it happened, I couldn’t. For one thing, I didn’t see how I could do my job if I gave the appearance of partiality. Worse, I was shocked by the fact that monks, in a frenzy of Sinhalese nationalism, had contorted ancient texts in order to take up arms. As Subramanian puts it: “It was an odd twist of the Buddhist principle of renunciation—not a renunciation of violence for the larger good of the soul, but a renunciation of non-violence for the larger good of the Buddhist nation.” In some of the most interesting sections of This Divided Island Subramanian shows how a foundational Buddhist text known as the Mahavamsa provided justification for an all but genocidal war against Sri Lanka’s Tamils, whose presence historically and in our time was construed to threaten the very survival of Buddhism. Does this contradict the contention that Tamils had no ancient presence on the island? You’d think so, but fanatics often have a hard time with logic.
After I left Sri Lanka, the situation got worse and worse. Where, earlier, Tamils had clamored for equal access to educational and economic opportunities, the Tigers demanded that the entire Tamil population support an increasingly bloody campaign for a separate Tamil state in the North and East. Civil War was the inevitable result, and once again the Tigers were in the terrorist vanguard. They governed the territories under their control with all the finesse of today’s I.S.I.S. “Far from being consummately beloved by their people,” Subramanian writes, “the Tigers started to inspire...fear and revulsion.” As one of his interviewees put it: “The heart weakens without democracy, and there was no democracy within the Tigers. They antagonized their brothers by killing them.” And all the while they were singing “the siren song of the tyrant,” which is: “what we’re doing is for the greater good.” Thus, according to Subramanian, many Tamils learned “a useful life lesson: anybody who asked you to trust them despite ‘minor’ infractions was not to be trusted at all.”
Arriving in Colombo two years after the end of the war, Samanth Subramanian set about making friends, establishing trust and interviewing people. His method in This Divided Island is to allow us to see the Civil War and its aftermath through the eyes and memories of people who had, in so many different ways, been caught up in the savagery. “Underneath it all [the horror of war] there were Sri Lankans trying to live regular lives: earning a living, sending their children to school, writing novels, playing cricket, making lunch....A regular day came to involve keeping your children from being conscripted by the Tigers or being wary about buses that might have bombs planted within them....I went to Sri Lanka to discover what became of life before, during and after the [three] decades of war, and to find out what the conflict had done to the country’s soul.” He succeeds brilliantly at this task.
Subramanian also wanted to “see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again.” What he found , unfortunately, was a vengeful mood among Singhalese and resentment still simmering among Tamils. Although the vainglorious war President Mahinda Rajapaksa has since failed to win reelection and his successor is, reputedly, a more moderate member of the same party, the process of rapprochement between the Singhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority (to say nothing of the also victimized Christians and Muslims) remains far from complete. When the wounds of the savage American Civil War are not fully healed, how could anyone expect the mood of the island to be cheery and forgiving?