Reading Sri Lanka’s Separatist War

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 21 2021
Columns Reading Sri Lanka’s Separatist War

By Uditha Devapriya 

My home library is full of various books by various authors on the Sri Lankan separatist war. Some of them are suspect and shoddy. Most are extensive and wide in focus. Some are specific and narrow. The better ones strike a balance regarding the stakeholders, prime among them Dayan Jayatilleka’s Long War, Cold Peace. The lesser ones stick to one viewpoint: Sinhala or Tamil nationalist, pro-war or pacifist, they spin out variations on the same narratives. 

All of them take sides, but few dare to admit the pitfalls of doing so. Representing every shade of opinion, they are equally indispensable to the scholar and the historian. Sri Lanka’s separatist war has been the subject of countless studies. It has been written on by defence analysts, political columnists, military experts, anthropologists, and novelists. No two studies make the same point, surprising for a conflict that took place in such a small country. 

Yet, the underlying message in them remains the same: be it C. A. Chandraprema’s ‘Gota’s’ War or Gordon Weiss’s The Cage, the point is not so much that it should never have ended as that it should never have happened. It’s a testament to how political polarisations give way to recognition of the common tragedy belying such wars, hence, that while many valorise the ending of the war, no one glorifies the war itself. 

The argument these scholars and writers make is not that the separatist war should have ended the way it did, but that had the leaders decided differently, it would never have produced a situation which required military intervention. Insofar as the idea that the conflict may have ended differently decades ago is concerned, this opinion unifies everyone: had leaders acted more prudently, had they read the signs and taken due note, the island’s history could have played out differently. 

As it turned out, however, that was not to be. Historians and political analysts probing the reasons for this are working with the benefit of hindsight: regardless of their opinion regarding the separatist war, they diagnose reasons, suggest solutions, and point out how conflict could have been averted. All of them try to historicise the conflict. Sadly, the really good historical account of the Sri Lankan conflict is yet to come out. 

I make an exception for Jayatilleka’s book, but its focus is not so much on the war as the peace that should have followed in its wake. The best among the books that focus on the conflict so far is Asoka Bandarage’s ‘The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka’. Yet written within the constraints of her time – she had to rely extensively on secondary sources, a weakness she admits to in her introduction – it deserves an updated, expanded edition. 

Autobiographical accounts are, naturally, much less objective than either Bandarage’s or Jayatilleka’s scholarship, but these are crucial too, be it Karannagoda’s or Gunaratne’s memoirs. This is what makes the lack of a book, even an article, by Sarath Fonseka quite deplorable: as the brains behind the army’s campaigns against the LTTE, his version of events is sorely needed. 

Sinhala-Tamil relations 

Other books dig deeper. K. M. de Silva’s ‘Reaping the Whirlwind’ is essential reading on this front, though there are other interventions, such as by Michael Roberts, that charts a longer historiography of the war. Yet the best historical account of the ethnic conflict I have read so far is not a book, but a series of essays on Indo-Lanka relations, Sinhala-Tamil relations, and plantation Tamils, by the LSSP’s Hector Abhayavardhana. 

The leading Left theoretician of his time, Abhayavardhana combines analytical rigour with a longue durée view of the conflict, highlighting the political economy of the growing rift between Sinhalese and Tamils and its implications for the country’s relations with India. These essays are comprehensive despite their brevity, and are better than most, but also hard to find. No two Marxist interpretations of the war are ever the same. 

Thus while Abhayavardhana highlights the material causes underlying SinhalaTamil relations, Sri Lanka’s first Marxist anthropologist, Newton Gunasinghe, differs somewhat sharply in his reading of the conflict. Gunasinghe understood the limitations of a political economic approach to the situation in Sri Lanka, and sought to apply Gramscian and Althusserian theory to it. His analysis of J. R. Jayewardene’s open economic policies in the wake of the 1983 riots, to give one example, attempts to go beyond a purely class reading of the war: in it he explains how the antecedents of Sinhala-Tamil clashes are found in the transition from the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration’s protectionist measures, which (for him) entrenched a middle layer of Sinhala businessman, to the Jayewardene regime’s liberalisation drive, which (again, for him) ruined prospects for many of those businessmen. 

His criticism of a purely political economic reading of the war comes out in an essay he wrote for May Day 1984, in which he raps sections of the Left more concerned with bringing down the Jayewardene regime than with taking on racialist elements in the anti-regime bloc. Regardless of whether one agrees with this reading – and there is much to disagree – his erudition shows well in it. Then there are diplomatic memoirs. 

The prototype here, of course, is Jayatilleka’s ‘Long War’, Cold Peace; a more recent contribution is Rajiva Wijesinha’s Representing Sri Lanka. Since we won the war in Nandikadal, these works are important in that they advise us how we can regain the confidence of the world without compromising on sovereignty or dignity. It’s telling that both Jayatilleka and Wijesinha agree that Sri Lanka’s Government and people are right in viewing the military victory as deserved and unavoidable; neither of them sees a contradiction between the necessity of winning the war and maintaining the gains of that hard-won victory abroad. 

Indian accounts of the Sri Lankan war are, on the whole, a little contentious. Surprising as it may seem – or perhaps not so surprisingly – most Indian authors disparage the LTTE. This is, of course, understandable: the LTTE not only did a double-whammy on the Indian military and, with the most primitive ammunition, delivered the biggest, most embarrassing defeat to one of the most powerful armies in the world, it also wound up assassinating the man – the Indian Prime Minister, none less – who intervened to save the LTTE from near-certain defeat in 1987. 

This does not guarantee accuracy and objectivity in these accounts – most of them view Ranasinghe Premadasa with a “singularly jaundiced” eye, as Dayan Jayatilleka has noted – but it does prevent them from becoming apologies for terrorists. What we need to appreciate there is that the relationship between India and the Sri Lankan war was never as clearcut as nationalists tout it to be: the truth, as always, was more complex. 

Sinhala and Tamil nationalism 

Analyses of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism – which are crucial to any proper understanding of the war – are not really hard to find, but most of them lack insight. Srikantha Nadarajah’s ‘Nationalism in Sri Lanka’ unearths the myopia of both Sinhala and Tamil extremists, but his intervention is rare. 

The fundamental rift between these two forms of nationalism, as I see it, is the majority-minority dialectic that pits the one against the other: hence, while Sinhala nationalists are a majority with a minority complex, their Tamil counterparts happen to be a minority with a majority complex. To simplify this further, Sinhala extremists think, and not unjustifiably, that Sri Lanka is the only home they’ve got, whereas Tamil extremists believe, again not unjustifiably, that while there are no States in the world without their kind, there is as of yet no state in the world that is exclusively Tamil. 

A good study of these nationalisms would delve into these dynamics, but barring the rare intervention – which Bandarage’s and Jayatilleka’s, not to mention Nadarajah’s, works are – such a study is hard to find. Finally, of course, there are accounts of the many peace processes that tried, and failed, to resolve the conflict. The most recent contribution would be Chanaka Talpahewa’s book, but while the contribution it makes is indeed commendable, its full worth is yet to be registered or appreciated by locals. 

Talpahewa’s historiography of the war is similar to Bandarage’s, yet he goes further than the latter in ascertaining why Norway failed to repeat its success with the Oslo Accords here. His argument is not just that the Norwegians were attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole, but that the peg they were trying so hard to push in was specific to its context, and the underlying model was not universally applicable. 

I realise that a bibliography of Sri Lanka’s separatist war is hard to come up with. So much has been written on so many things, and by so many authors. Discriminating between the good and the bad is of course a matter of taste, largely dependent on how one views the conflict in the first place. 

Yet while not a few would prefer Nalin de Silva’s reading of Prabharakan’s fathers and grandfathers, many others would prefer Bandarage’s more solid account of the dynamics of the conflict. As for me, I’m just glad to have the books I do in my library. I hope, however, that more is written on the subject: few conflicts from recent times, after all, have been as misread, and misapprehended, as the Sri Lankan. 

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 21 2021

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