The story of Sri Lanka's bloodbath

July 23, 2011

The Cage
By Gordon Weiss
Picador, 2011

The Cage tells the horrifying story of the final months of the war in Sri Lanka, which ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.

Gordon Weiss, the former United Nations spokesperson in Sri Lanka, says the war ended in a "bloodbath", including the "wholesale bombardment by government forces of unarmed civilians".

The LTTE fought for more than 30 years for an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. At its height, the LTTE controlled almost a third of the territory of the island.

Weiss said: "In the areas they ruled, they had constructed an efficient administration that mimicked the workings of a fully fledged state, with perhaps a fifth of Sri Lanka's 2.5 million Tamils living under their writ.

“The Tigers built a parallel system of government that included courts of law, municipal administration, a police force, a customs service, a tax and legislative code, a banking system, and a radio and television network."

However, by early 2009 the LTTE was in retreat. The Sri Lankan Army (aided by the United States, Israel, India, China and other countries) recaptured more and more LTTE-controlled territory.

From January to May 2009, the LTTE was progressively forced back into an ever smaller area on the north-east coast of the island (Weiss refers to this small besieged area as "the cage").

Eventually, LTTE fighters were trapped on a narrow strip of land between the Nadikadal lagoon and the sea.

As they retreated, the Tigers took with them about 300,000 people who had been living in areas under their control. The retreating LTTE fighters and civilians were subject to artillery and aerial bombardment by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Weiss estimates that between 10,000 and 40,000 people were killed during the final 16 weeks.

The media were excluded from the besieged area by the Sri Lankan government. Aid agencies were also excluded.

In 2008, a few convoys of food aid had been allowed into LTTE-controlled areas. The last such convoy crossed into the LTTE zone in January 2009.

UN officials were able to see the terrible consequences of the bombardment of the area by government forces — indeed, they came under attack themselves.

Weiss documents atrocities by both sides, but says that government bombardments were the main cause of civilian deaths. He says the Sri Lankan Army repeatedly called on civilians to move to government-designated "no fire zones", then bombarded these areas.

He also reports that hospitals and clinics in the LTTE-controlled area were repeatedly and deliberately targeted by government forces. The government was given the coordinates for these facilities in the hope the army would take care to avoid hitting them — instead they were repeatedly attacked.

Eventually, the doctors decided to conceal the location of their makeshift medical tents from the government.

Weiss also condemns the Tigers for shooting civilians who tried to leave the LTTE-controlled area.

Weiss is far from a supporter of the LTTE (despite absurd accusations made by some supporters of the Sri Lankan government). In fact, he supported the Sri Lankan government's war aims, but disagreed with its methods.

He says: “I went to Sri Lanka as a supporter of that state’s essential right to protect its sovereign territory, and I left with much the same view.

“However, I believe that the tactical choices the SLA [Sri Lankan Army] was directed to make, and which contributed to the deaths of so many civilians, warrant a credible judicial investigation of the kind that the Sri Lankan state, in its current guise, is no longer capable of mounting.”

This is a contradictory position. The government's brutal methods cannot be separated from its goal of “protecting its sovereign territory”.

What “protecting its sovereign territory” really means is the maintenance of the rule of the Sri Lankan state (dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority) over the Tamil population of the north and east of the island.

This goal requires brutal methods to crush Tamil resistance. The resistance comes from the discrimination and violent repression the Tamil minority have faced at the hands of the Sri Lankan state.

Weiss explains how the Tamils were alienated from the Sri Lankan state by decades of racist laws and government policies, anti-Tamil pogroms and military repression.

This led to growing support for a separate Tamil state, and eventually to the rise of groups committed to armed struggle as a means of gaining independence.

In this context, the Sri Lankan state's right to “protect its sovereign territory” means to oppose the right of Tamils to national self-determination. Weiss does not really explain why he takes this position.

Perhaps support for the status quo in terms of state borders is part of the mindset of UN officials (though Weiss himself is no longer a UN official, having resigned to write the book, and in any case the UN has accepted the breakup of other states, such as the former Soviet Union).

Another shortcoming of the book is that it tends to downplay the complicity of the US and other Western governments in the Sri Lankan government’s war on the Tamils.

For example, Weiss says: “China and India consistently undercut the US promptings to Sri Lanka that it ought to limit its assault on civilians.”

But US lip service to human rights did not prevent it from consistently aiding Sri Lanka's war effort — for example, by supplying satellite surveillance information to the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Despite its political shortcomings, the book is very useful in documenting the crimes of the Sri Lankan government.

The end of the war has not brought real peace. As Weiss says: “Many Sri Lankans — Tamils in particular, but thousands of Sinhalese also — live in daily fear of their government. The death squad threat enforces the government's writ.”

The government is continuing its efforts to destroy any possibility of self-determination for the Tamils. It is continuing to establish army bases and Sinhalese settlements in traditional Tamil areas.

Weiss says: "The hitherto relatively contiguous area that has formed the basis for a Tamil claim to a historic homeland will be broken up and interspersed with hundreds of army camps, staffed by Sinhalese soldiers.

“The families of the soldiers will work on agricultural lands wrought from the proliferating HSZs [high security zones], or in factories established in the adjacent Special Economic Zones and awarded to Chinese or Indian interests.

“It is ethnic cleansing of the Israeli rather than the Yugoslav variety."

Weiss also says: “The grievances that had given rise to the Tigers did not disappear with their destruction at the Nadikadal lagoon …

“There is no hint of a political offering that will remove the  casus belli  [reason for war] for which the Tigers fought, and thus perhaps no escape from the island's cycle of violence.”

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