Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tamil diaspora

This Divided Island

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on 10 March 2016


Colman's Column3


Last week, I reviewed Sri Lanka – the New Country  by Padma Rao Sundarji. This week I am taking a look at This Divided IslandStories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramaniam.You can guess at the difference between the two books just by looking at the titles. Rao is positive; Subramaniam is negative. Rao concentrates on the present and sees hope for the future; Subramaniam focuses on the past and sees dark clouds ahead; Rao wishes for peace; Subramaniam admits nostalgia for a war he did not suffer.

The top army man in the north, Major General Hathurasinghe, appears in both Padma Rao’s book and in Subramaniam’s. A Tamil woman tells Ms Rao that Hathurasinghe heard that her baby needed urgent heart surgery 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.” In Subramaniam’s book we see a different Hathurasinghe. He threatens to shoot the children (or so the author is told – he does not ask Hathurasinghe) of a woman who is asking questions about the whereabouts of her husband, Elilan, one of the top Tigers.

Subramaniam’s book received good reviews from distinguished writers –Amit Chaudhuri called it “excellent”; William Dalrymple called it “brilliant” –“a remarkable book by one of India’s most talented young writers of non-fiction”; and Kenan Malik called it “superb”. I am afraid that for a foreigner, like myself, who has lived in Sri Lanka for 14 years, yet another book about Sri Lanka by an outsider with no specialist knowledge has to work hard to justify its existence. I seem to have been reading a different book to the one reviewed by Dalrymple who believes that Subramaniam shows himself “capable of journalistic persistence and occasional moments of real bravery”.

I really do not see where “the real bravery” comes in, although the author tries his best to talk up the dangers. The war ended in May 2009 but Subramaniam did not make his first visit Sri Lanka to research this book to until 2011 (ten years later than me) although he had been for a week’s holiday in 2004. As far as I can tell from a careful reading of the book, he did not witness a single act of violence and was never in any danger. The tone irritated me right from page one when he makes a huge drama out of setting off from Colombo for the hill country at 5 a.m. “The streets glowed of sodium-lit emptiness, and Uncle W’s hatchback skimmed eastwards in silence”.

There is a ludicrous episode where he persuades someone to take him on a motor-cycle to an army base in the north. His companion advises him not to look directly at the camp lest they both be arrested. They do not attempt to take any photos. None of the soldiers takes a blind bit of notice of them. Our brave reporters get bored and ride off.

Early in the book, a snarky tone is set when he describes a meeting arranged by police to deal with the Grease Yakas phenomenon. Subramaniam writes: “Sri Lankans still felt tense, and the peace was already curdling into something sour and unhealthy. Old fears continued to throb; old ghosts transmuted into new ones”. I wonder why the author felt the need to superciliously mock the authorities for doing their best at a difficult time. There was real danger of vigilante action because of the panic. I wonder what the author means by, “before slipping into a little abstract music about communities living happily together”. Throughout the book the author makes it clear that the concept of communities living happily together bores him. War and violence is what he wants to write about. Early in the book he admits: ‘there is now no other Sri Lanka for me but the Sri Lanka of its war.”

Subramaniam gives a reasonably good account of the Tigers’ crimes as well as the army’s, although Sri Lankan readers might raise an eyebrow when he writes of the “manner in which the army had finished the war, rampaging through Tigers and Tamil civilians without distinction”. He covers the massacre at Kattankudy and the expulsion of Muslims from the north. He provides a vivid description of Black July and of the lesser grievances which preceded that horror. He deals with more recent events such the BBS persecution of Muslims. He talks to someone who was abducted in a white van and tortured.

However, he adds no new value (apart from florid prose) to old information that he has gleaned from his reading and interviewing. There are many long passages which consist only of reports of conversations he has had with people who, to my mind add nothing to what is already known, and may be unreliable narrators. The author, bizarrely, vicariously shares his interviewee Raghavan’s nostalgia for the good old days of the LTTE: “suddenly I could see it too: the glamour of the ideological life lived just outside the law, the impossible romance of a fraternity of young men out to change their world”. Just outside the law? The “impossible romance” of butchering babies in the dark?

An Indian reviewer, Mekund Belliappa, wrote, “the use of the word ‘war’ in the subtitle is misleading (or a marketing gimmick.)…There are no ‘war stories’ in This Divided Island: the author witnesses not a single violent act.” Subramaniam writes: ”Sri Lanka was a country pretending that it had been suddenly scrubbed clean of violence. But it wasn’t, of course. By some fundamental law governing the conservation of violence, it was now erupting outside the battlefield, in strange and unpredictable ways. It reminded me of a case of pox, the toxins coursing below the skin, pushing up boils and pustules that begged to be fingered and picked apart”.

“Within our tight circle, the conversation pulsed with nervousness and fear. Above Sri Lanka, the skies brooded and faded to black”. Throughout the book, the author employs this technique  of taking a normal peaceful scene and bigging it up with melodramatic vapourings. Is this the genre known as “creative non-fiction”? Kenan Malik did the same thing after visiting Sri Lanka for a few days. He had the gift of ESP in the north: “the ghosts of conflict still haunt Jaffna”. Subramaniam was similarly gifted. He writes of “inchoate dangers,” the “rank odour of menace” and many “sullen” faces. Even when he is comfortably ensconced in Colombo he “would get a glimpse of the hidden warts and scars, the anxieties and tensions.”

Subramaniam claims to be looking at Sri Lanka as a “forensic gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess how the fire caught and spread so catastrophically.” The way he finishes that paragraph gives me a queasy feeling: “but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again”. One cannot help but suspect that it would give him a vicarious thrill if the conflagration were to resume.



Sri Lanka – This Divided Island by Samanth Subramaniam was published by Atlantic Books in February 2015. It is available on Kindle.

Padma Rao’s Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday February 29 2016.



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Rao cover



One particular passage in Padma Rao’s excellent book, Sri Lanka-The New Country, brought tears to these rheumy old eyes. It concerns her Sinhalese driver Udayanga and a Tamil waiter whom she calls Murugan. She first recounts Udayanga’s story. “Throughout the trip, he had displayed none of the rough chauvinism that many commentators outside Sri Lanka insist that the Sinhalese wear on their sleeve vis-à-vis their fellow Tamil citizens”. He was a Buddhist from Balangoda. From an early age he had wanted to join the army and he tried to enlist after the LTTE assassinated President Premadasa. Despite his parents’ best efforts to obstruct him, he was eventually accepted and after some hard training joined the Special Force. During the war he met many LTTE child soldiers. He said that Prabhakaran had no humanity. “Instead of giving them a pencil he would give them a gun”.


Murugan was a tall, lanky young man working at a hotel in Mannar. He shyly asked this Indian author “Is Prabhakaran in India?” Murugan had been an LTTE cadre, forced by guns held to his parents’ heads to enlist and he was afraid that the LTTE leader would return. She told him to get on with his life now that there was peace.



She saw Udayanga and Murugan playing carom in the courtyard with “a lot of boyish guffawing”. When the time came to leave the hotel, Udayanga walked towards Murugan and they engaged in stiff handshake, then some backslaps, finally a quick rough hug. “This is the future, these children of Sri Lanka. These boys, this embrace. This is Sri Lanka, the new country.”


At the beginning of the book she gives a brief run-through on Sri Lankan history and mentions the island’s geo-strategic relevance at the crossroad of shipping lanes and writes that it “expectedly remains a focal point not only for the United Nations, international NGOs and aid agencies but also the international media. She notes that members of the Tamil diaspora are still trying to fund Tamil separatism “despite the fact that millions of fatigued Sri Lankan Tamils who did not flee, like the diaspora itself, but stayed back and bore the brunt of the terrible war, want no more talk of separatism”. She notes that foreign media may not always help these fatigued people to achieve their modest desires. “What news reporters see and experience on the ground often differs from what editors at the headquarters of their publications expect or want them to produce”.


She contrasts the bleakness of the north when she visited during the cease fire of 2002 with the north as it is today. “From Vavuniya onwards we had not seen a single bus, truck or even a cycle anywhere. We saw no children playing, no women hanging out washing, no men smoking under a tree. Up to here we had seen and heard nothing, except cicadas and the sound of our own car”. At Killinochchi “there was no electricity. There were a few people selling a few utility items like candles, matchboxes and solitary, stray vegetables on small plastic sheets on what must have once been a pavement”.


On a previous visit she had encountered a group of two dozen people squatting in a circle, tears streaming down their faces. Each person was holding a picture of a boy or a girl. They had heard that foreigners were in the Wanni and wanted to tell about their missing children. When warned that the LTTE might punish them for what they were doing, one man replied “what have we got to live for anyway?” That man later contacted the author to say the LTTE had told him that his son had been killed in fighting near Elephant Pass. He was the proud owner of a certificate of martyrdom signed by Prabhakaran.


When she visits Jaffna just before the Northern Provincial Council elections, the author wants to go to villages to talk to “ordinary” people. She is able to do this as the aide accompanying her makes himself scarce. Everyone she talks to praises the Army. One man said: “The LTTE was only involved in violence, absolutely nothing else. Our life in the Wanni was miserable. They kept taking our children away. There was no food, no power, absolutely nothing in our lives except blood. Blood, blood…”


Ms Rao notices vast improvement in the Eastern province as well as in the north. “Critics often say that building roads and setting up shops is not development. Try looking at it from the point of view of those who have lived in a place like Batticaloa for thirty years”. She saw many groves of coconut trees. Gone were the charred and barren fields of decades and most of the tents housing fleeing populations. The last of the landmines were being cleared. Mangroves are being restored to help local fishermen.


Former Tiger propaganda chief Daya Master told the author, “How many countries in the world would have emerged from such a long war and rebuilt within four years even half of what has been achieved here?” The author reminded him of the strictures from the international community. “Who is this international community, madam? … What is their purpose and role in a small country so far away? They are going over the top and making far too much noise. Why don’t they restrict themselves to doing some developmental work here… and leave our political future to us and our elected governments?”


“Why is it that you people focus only and entirely on the Sri Lankan army, and not on the brutality of the LTTE? I know it intimately. I have witnessed it for decades and indeed was forced to be part of it. Please tell them in your reports to forget the past and concentrate on the future. For us in this country that is the bottom line!”


The author comments: “The condemnation of violations by the LTTE is there – in the fine print – in all recent UN resolutions against Colombo. But it is never the same fanfare of publicity and vigour as is the key demand for condemning Rajapaksa and insisting on an international inquiry.”


Although Ms Rao is a foreigner, there is nothing of the dilettante parachute journalist about her. She has been visiting and writing about Sri Lanka for two and half decades. For fourteen years, she was the South Asia bureau chief of the Hamburg-based Der Spiegel. She has interviewed everybody who is anybody – Mahinda Rajapaksa (she was the first foreign journalist interview him when he was first sworn in as president and the first print reporter to interview him after the end of the war), Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga (who typically kept her waiting for 14 hours), Prabhakaran (who also kept her waiting), Karuna, Douglas Devananda, CV Wigneswaran, MA Sumanthiran, R Sampanthan, GL Peiris, Erik Solheim, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, General Sarath Fonseka, Major General Udaya Perera (“write what you like. But have a dosa.”), Major General Hathurasinghe,Lakshman Kadirgamar (“an inspiration and one of the few people who left me tongue-tied as a reporter”), Daya Master, Jehan Perera, KP, Dilhan Fernando, Hiran Cooray, junior members of all branches of the state’s armed forces, former male and female LTTE cadres, as well as numerous ordinary citizens of all ethnicities. She travelled far and wide island-wide and visited peripheral islands.



Throughout the book she reminds us that she is paying for travel and accommodation herself. She also stresses that she encountered no interference from the government or the army.

Despite her broad and deep knowledge of Sri Lanka, Padma Rao approaches her task with humility. “This book is neither meant as unsolicited advice, nor as admonishment, nor critique of either Tamil or Sinhalese Sri Lankans”. She humbly apologises in advance for any errors.


Sri Lanka: The New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji was first published on February 15 2015 by Harper-Collins, India. It is now available on Kindle.

Triumphalism and foreign commentators

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 29 2010.

Some months ago, my fellow LAKBIMAnEWS contributor, Dayan Jayatilleka, was kind enough to mention my humble efforts in what he called “the prestigious Le Monde diplomatique”. In a series of short articles, I tried to convey to the western world the complexity of what was actually happening in our country. Most people who  commented on these pieces described them as  “professional” and “unbiased”, although an article caused one reader to call me a government lackey and another to call me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.

The August 2009 edition of Le Monde diplomatique carried an article on Sri Lanka by one Cédric Gouverneur entitled ‘The Time of Triumphalism.’ The editor of the English-language edition, Wendy Kristianasen, asked me for my views, somewhat pointlessly,  after the article was published. Unfortunately, she did not like my views.

She wrote to me: “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.”

My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”

Cédric Gouverneur wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.”

He clearly got that horribly wrong!

In this latest article he raises several issues which need to be debated, and which have been covered in some depth in LAKBIMAnEWS and other papers, such as the plight of the IDPs, the militarisation of the north, the fear of colonisation of predominantly Tamil areas.

The phrase “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” occurs in the body of the text. I doubt if that is actually telling us anything real or useful. This phrase suggests that the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka form a homogeneous entity. Tamils are already divided by differences of origin, class, caste, religion, income, status and political views no matter what the government does. It would be more accurate to say “The government, overjoyed at electorally annihilating the opposition”.

In the article, theories are developed on the strength of vox pop statements from unreliable witnesses. “This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic (sic) Farm”. This is based on the comments of a man who is nostalgic about the days of the LTTE. But even he says : “I appreciate that since the shelling, the army has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds.”

Shanti Satchithanandam’s views are cited and she is described as a “victim” of the Tigers. Others have described her as a Tiger supporter.

It is implied that Sinhalese were gullible because: “They truly believe the media’s line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a criminal organisation.” Why should they not believe it?!

The article is riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815 (surely something wrong with the arithmetic!). “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?

Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail after she forwarded to him my e-mail address without my permission.

I urge you to read the article in full. Only paying subscribers to Le Monde diplomatique can access it on their own website ( but the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (whose Advisory Council includes Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger, Jake Lynch, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was once foreign minister of human-rights beacon Algeria,  and Edward Mortimer) have kindly reproduced it (historical howlers and all).

I am not one of those who use the tu quoque argument or says westerners are not allowed to criticise Sri Lanka because the crimes of the west are worse. However, Sri Lanka seems plagued by foreigners dropping in for a few days, becoming instant experts and disseminating a distorted picture. Cédric Gouverneur has written many of these “what I did on my holidays” pieces.

I urge LAKBIMAnEWS readers to study the article and engage in debate on it. Unfortunately, such debate is not possible with Le Monde diplomatique – they have no letters page, no readers’ editor, no complaints or corrections section, no facility to comment in any way on M Gouverneur’s article.

The Numbers Game. Marga Institute Seminar

This article was published in the Sunday Island on June 1, 2013


On May 16 a seminar was held at the Marga Institute to launch a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice. I was at the seminar and will here attempt to provide an impression of the ideas generated in the discussion. This is in no way intended to be a formal record or set of minutes.

The members of the panel leading the discussion of the publication were Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, Asoka Gunawardena, Marga’s Executive Governor, and Raja Korale, an international statistics consultant. The open forum was moderated by Dr Nimal Gunatilleke.

The IDAG-S Report

Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka agreed that the numbers do matter because the truth is a moral issue.

The Marga Institute had taken up this publication because it seemed authoritative enough to provide ammunition to persuade the UN to revisit its position on the numbers of civilian casualties in the final months of Eelam IV.

The provenance of the report encouraged confidence in its impartiality and competence. The IDAG-S is a think tank of academics, professionals and analysts from the Sri Lankan diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia. The lead author is an aerospace engineer who was able to bring a wide range of multidisciplinary skills to the task.

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled. Dr Gunatilleke found the high-resolution satellite images included in the report impressive. These had not been published so comprehensively elsewhere. These satellite images show that shells fired by the SLA from February to May mostly avoided concentrations of civilians and in the final weeks had used hardly any artillery.

Remembrance and Amnesia

There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that we did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompts a bunker mentality among the victors who are reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction.

Ernest Renan observed that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention. In some countries memorials and commemorative days are seen as part of the healing process. Elsewhere, remembering is felt to be dangerous. In Rwanda, political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics. Remembering might inflame old hatreds. Cambodia celebrates a Day of Remembrance on My 20 each year. It used to be called the National Day of Hatred.

How do we strike a balance between remembering and the infantile abuse that too depressingly often passes for comment on the websites of newspapers. How do we contrive a discourse that notes the mistakes of the past without allowing the armchair conflict junkies from forcing further mistakes to be made?

Victory parades are not a helpful form of commemoration despite claims that that there are no longer any minorities, only Sri Lankans. Michael Roberts warns against “hegemonic incorporation” of this nature. “Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Multiple strategies are required. Political imagination is called for, both from President Rajapaksa and his advisors as well as eminent minds attached to this their land.”

Accountancy and Accountability

The war arose from a constellation of issues, not just as a reaction to grievances. The government’s foreign service and highly-paid PR consultants have dismally failed to convey this and to let the world know the true nature of the LTTE and the kind of war it fought. GOSL needs to convey the truth about battle. Jim Grant of UNICEF had commended the government for still continuing to provide services in conflict zones. The world was not aware of this. The government has allowed the LTTE rump to convince some sections of western opinion that GOSL was following a policy of extermination. GOSL has not made the case that it took 11,000 LTTE prisoners alive and rehabilitated many of them.

On the other hand, there was a consensus that civil society must engage with the GOSL focusing on the LLRC recommendations on the process of collective atonement and that leadership on this needs to be given by the President.

It would have been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils. Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

IDAG-S consider that some critics , such as Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change.

Way Forward

At the conclusion of the seminar, the question was posed: “How can we engage in the international debate and how can civil society encourage the implementation of LLRC recommendations on issues relating to humanitarian law and civilian casualties?”

Pradeep Jaganathan stressed the need to raise public consciousness and make people realise that we are all responsible and accountable for what took place during the last 30 years – through sins of commission and omission, hate, apathy, failure to speak up.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka proposed establishing a group to review the study and make necessary recommendations to GOSL which could be used in the international debate. Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke thought it important that we address the moral responsibility and accountability of all actors in the conflict, including the TNA, and not solely the state. What is the universalist framework for an understanding of this whole tragedy of war and human suffering?


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