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A new book on the armed conflict in Sri Lanka misses the mark

An account of Sri Lanka after the 26-year ethnic war glosses over many inconvenient truths

Uttaran Das Gupta 

Author: Padma Rao Sundarji
Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 322
Price: Rs 499

Earlier this month, President Maithripala Sirisena announced a domestic inquiry into the alleged war crimes committed — both by the army and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — during the 26-year civil war which ended in 2009. In that context, Padma Rao Sundarji’s Sri Lanka: The New Country is a timely book.

Sundarji was the South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel till 2012; was a part of her beat for two decades. The experience has provided her with a rare perspective into the culture and politics of the island nation. It also compelled her to return to Sri Lanka four years after the war to find out how the country was recovering.

What she finds is heartening: travelling extensively in the north and the east — the two major theatres of the war, often occupied by — she witnesses rapid development and steady reconciliation. The 321-km-long A9 Highway, which connects the central city of Kandy to Jaffna in the north, becomes a symbol of sorts for the change. Sundarji is no stranger to the route — she had taken it in 2002, along with other journalists, to Killinochchi, the de facto capital of the Tigers, to meet the chief, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, during a brief ceasefire.

Then, it was “stretches defaced by shelling and dotted with landmines... flanked by palm trees with their tops lopped off by whistling artillery and aerial bombs”. In 2013, as Sundarji travelled on it, the “smooth and gleaming” A9 looked like “an old and injured friend, who with each face-lift just kept looking better and younger”. The sheen of change seems to have coated everything and everyone, with even former Tigers rediscovering themselves as TV producers and “peaceniks”.

So far so good. But what of the reports of human rights abuse by the Sri Lankan army? Sundarji’s answer: it is little more than propaganda by belligerents among the 950,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. “Given the legendary Tamil brilliance and enterprise, thousands of overseas Tamil refugees fleeing civil war rose rapidly... in the country that gave them refuge. The countries... lead global condemnation of Sri Lanka at every international forum today.”

In Sri Lanka and beyond, everyone she talks to seems to be providing legitimacy to this hypothesis. From the President and senior politicians, both in the government and Opposition, senior army officers, Tamil or Sinhalese citizens, and even former leaders and cadre, as well as the half-ludicrous claimant to the lineage of the Jaffna royal family — for everyone, the diaspora is the villain. At the camp for former LTTE woman cadres, 20-year-old Jaya Mary appeals to Sundarji: “Please tell them [the diaspora], Akka, not to curse the army but to come here and experience it themselves. Tell them we are happy.”

Here the book starts to stretch its credibility.

If indeed the army and former president were such heroes, one wonders how the Tamil National Alliance won the election — Sundarji reports it in her book — in the Northern Province demanding the withdrawal of the armed forces. How does one explain the debacle that Rajapaksa faced in the presidential election in January this year? Sundarji puts on record that, “I have not, over all these years, found enough reasons to dislike Rajapaksa or the extended family either.” Few people in Sri Lanka would agree with her. Rajapaksa’s successor, Sirisena, who was once the former president’s closest ally, has accused him of steering the island nation towards dictatorship.

Finally, why is there not a single interview with any member of this vast and powerful diaspora? Failing to quote the accused is a rookie mistake not expected of the former bureau chief of Der Spiegel.

Sundarji has an unalloyed veneration for the institution of the army (her father was a military doctor). Providing a reason for her “keenness to include the army’s voice”, she writes: “In all South Asian countries, given the ineptitude of local administration across subcontinents, the armed forces are frequently called upon to play civilian roles. (They) pitch in to repair a bridge, evacuate villagers from flooded villages, set up emergency medical facilities, even maintain law and order.”

Fair enough. But when a journalist of her stature writes: “I was well aware of human rights abuses at the hands of the odd soldier in India’s Jammu & Kashmir”, it is criminally irresponsible.

It behooves this reader to remind her that conflicts continue not only through premeditated animosity but also because of apathy. Nirupama Subramanian, another old Sri Lanka hand, in her book, Sri Lanka: Voices From A War Zone, describes how even during the intense fighting of Operation Jaya Sekuri in 1998, senior army officers would fly into Colombo to watch the annual cricket match between Royal College and St Thomas’ — two premier schools. Perhaps President Sirisena’s inquiry will serve as a panacea for this sort of insensitivity.

On a different note, the reading experience is marred by poor editing that has allowed tautologies like “brutal assassination”, “deadly combatants” and “young children” to remain in the published text. Ever heard of an assassination that is not brutal, or met an old child? Perhaps, the editors at HarperCollins were inhibited by Sundarji’s rant in the preface: “Copy filed by overseas correspondents is not only sub-edited, but often rewritten, changing both shape and content. Few editorial desks are entirely uncoloured and unmanipulated.”

As a recent article in the New Republic asserts: “Copyeditors are the proletariat of the publishing world. [However,] what a copy editor, fundamentally, asks is: what do you mean here? It’s a question that deserves your respect.” As a proud desk journalist, I often remind myself no matter how good a copy is a good sub can make it better. Hopefully, the editors at HarperCollins will remember this golden rule before the next edition of Sundarji’s book.

First Published: Fri, March 27 2015. 21:00 IST