(On the ethnic history and politics of Sri Lanka and a review of Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. A shorter version appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 2015. Below is the original long version—the director’s cut. Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily.)
Few places in the world, of similar size, offer a more bracing human spectacle than the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. It abounds in deep history and cultural diversity, ancient cities and sublime art, ingenuity and human folly, wars and lately, even genocide. It has produced a medley of identities based on language (Sinhala, Tamil, English, many creoles), religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, animism), and geographic origin (Indian, Malaysian, European, Arab, indigenous), alongside divisions of caste and class. Rare for a country its size are the many divergent accounts of itself, fused at the hip with the politics of ethnic identities—a taste of which I got during my month-long travel on the island in early 2014.
The Sri Lankan experience has been more traumatic lately, owing to its 26-year civil war that ended with genocide in 2009. The country’s three main ethnic groups—Sinhalese (75 percent), Tamil (18 percent), and Muslim (7 percent)—now live with deep distrust of each other. One way to understand Sri Lankan society and its colossal tragedy is to study the causes and events that led to the civil war. What historical currents preceded it? Did they perhaps make the war inevitable? What was at stake for those who waged it? What has been its human toll and impact on civic life? In his brave and insightful work of journalism, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian attempts to answer such questions while bearing witness to many of its tragedies.
A Brief Social History of Sri Lanka
Around two-and-a-half millennia ago, waves of migrants from the Indian subcontinent overwhelmed the island’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Veddah (a few descendants still survive). Migrants arriving from modern day Bengal, speakers of Prakrit—an Indo-European language that evolved into Sinhala—intermixed with indigenous islanders to later become the Sinhalese. Other migrants from southern India, speakers of Tamil and other Dravidian languages and belonging mostly to the Saivite sect, also intermixed with the islanders to later become the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Which group of migrants arrived first, a question hotly pursued by the nationalists, lacks scholarly resolution. Both groups established themselves in different parts of the island: the Sinhalese in the center, south, and west, the Tamils in the north and east.
From the 3rd century BCE, Anuradhapura was the Sinhalese capital city for 1,300 years, notable for its water management, palaces, dagobas, temples, and monasteries patronized by kings. According to the Mahavamsa, the ‘Great Chronicle’ of Sri Lankan Buddhism written in this city in the 6th century CE, the Sinhalese are a special race descended from a lion and a princess. Ignoring the chronology of Buddhism’s arrival via emperor Ashoka’s emissaries, the Mahavamsa claims that the Buddha himself flew thrice from India to the island, deemed the Sinhalese his ‘chosen people’ and Sri Lanka the final ‘refuge of his faith’, and commanded his followers to defend the faith at all costs, with militant violence if necessary. One of the epic’s main heroes, king Dutugemunu, grows up hating Tamils and massacres many in a great battle (the epic, written soon after a battle between Sinhalese and Tamil royals, reflects a briefly heightened antipathy). Like Ashoka, he is overcome by remorse, but unlike Ashoka who renounced violence, Dutugemunu happily ‘casts away his mental confusion’ when the city’s Buddhist clergy tells him that he has committed no sin because the non-Buddhist Tamils he killed were ‘heretical and evil and like animals’ and he in fact made ‘the Buddha’s faith shine’. This precedent-setting justification of violence in the defense of faith would echo down the ages—for instance, after winning the civil war, President Rajapaksa was eulogized by his fans as the modern-day Dutugemunu. It’d also become an oft-cited instance of Sri Lankan Buddhism’s departure from the Buddha’s message, as it is more widely understood.
Sri Lanka’s early and medieval history includes wars and other conflicts between the Tamils and the Sinhalese but also long stretches of peaceful coexistence, intermarriage, and cross-fertilization of ideas. Lured by its proximity, Tamil kings from south India sometimes invaded and ruled the island, including its Sinhalese domains. But proximity also enabled peacetime trade and cultural exchange, including the migration of sculptors and architects. The island’s rival identities coalesced quite early around language, not religion—back then, Buddhism also flourished in south India and many Sri Lankan Tamils were Buddhists too. Indeed, across the Palk Strait the two Buddhist traditions enriched each other for centuries. Among other syncretism, Hindu gods—such as Kataragama (aka Murugan, son of Shiva and Parvati), Vishnu, and Ganesh—also became part of the Sinhalese Buddhist pantheon. Passing through a forest near Sigiriya last year, my tuk-tuk driver, a Sinhalese Buddhist, stopped to pray at a roadside shrine to Ganesh. He requested safe passage and protection from wild elephant attacks—the sort of mundane matters Hindu gods attended to, in contrast to the relatively aloof Buddha.
More recent migrations brought Arab Muslim traders, Christian colonials from Portugal, Holland, and Britain, and Malay Muslim soldiers from the Dutch- and British-ruled Malay Peninsula. Identities multiplied. While language remained the primary ethnic marker for both the Tamils (Hindu, Christian) and the Sinhalese (Buddhist, Christian), religion trumped language for the Muslims, most of whom now claim Tamil as their mother tongue. Another ethnic subdivision arose among Tamil speakers with the arrival of ‘Plantation Tamils’, laborers brought from India by the British to work on coffee, tea, and rubber plantations in the central highlands. The older communities of Sri Lankan Tamils (aka ‘Jaffna Tamils’) looked down on these rustic ‘Plantation Tamils’. Nor did the many Christian denominations have equal social standing. Further subdivisions of caste existed in most groups, especially among the Tamils, and would later play a part in their experience of the war.
The Rise of Sinhalese Nationalism
Given Sri Lanka's recent travails, it’s hard to believe that in the early 1950s, a Singaporean delegation had visited Sri Lanka—then seen as a prosperous and peaceful multi-ethnic state with high literacy and an inclusive public life—to learn how it managed ethic diversity so well. Some might question this image and cite the many communal conflicts and wars in Sri Lanka’s past, but that would be a mistake. The default condition of the past was peaceful coexistence and syncretism, not discord. Even in times of discord, Sinhalese and Tamil identities had never been as exclusive or feverishly ideological or religiously polarized as they became after the rise of ethnic nationalisms in the late colonial and post-colonial era. For instance, the last four rulers of the Sinhala kingdom in Kandy until 1815—as John Clifford Holt, editor of The Sri Lanka Reader points out—had been ‘ethnic Tamils who ruled over a predominantly Sinhala but ethnically variegated population.’
Sri Lanka’s encounter with Portuguese and Dutch colonialism—in whose wake came proselytizing Christians, and conversion to Christianity became mandatory for public employment—soon generated a Buddhist reaction and revival. It was led by Henry Steel Olcott, an American Buddhist, and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933). Dharmapala, perhaps the foremost Sri Lankan nationalist, began creating a ‘Buddhist modernism’ and what some have called ‘Protestant Buddhism’. Stung by the supremacist attitudes of the colonizers, he made up a glorious Sinhalese past that, he alleged, had been blemished by the last four Tamil Kings of Kandy, and was presently being infected by degenerate European faiths. He eulogized the ‘Aryan Sinhala race’, the Buddha’s ‘virile, vigorous manly ethics’, and called Jesus ‘an absolute failure’, ‘a victim of megalomania [and] paranoia’, whose ‘congregation was the riff-raff of Galilee.’ He promoted the ludicrous idea that the Sinhalese were racially distinct from ‘the filthy Tamils’, denigrated the Muslims of Sri Lanka as ‘an alien people’ who had used ‘Shylockian methods’ to become prosperous like the Jews, and advised Sinhalese women to preserve their ‘Aryan blood’ by not breeding with the minorities. It’s easy to dismiss Dharmapala as a man of his times but the Sinhalese political and religious elites still revere him as a great nationalist, patriot, hero, saint, and savior of Buddhism; they even celebrated 2014-15 as Dharmapala Year.
The Buddhism promoted by Dharmapala and his followers was exclusive, aggressive, and nationalistic. It equated an arid notion of the Sinhalese ethnic identity with the national identity (the religious revival and nationalism that Dharmapala injected into Sinhalese Buddhism had its counterpart in Indian Hinduism through Vivekananda, Saraswati, Tilak, Savarkar, and others). As in all nationalisms, control over the writing of history became pivotal. Citing the Subcontinent’s historical rejection of their ‘noble Aryan Dharma’, these new Buddhists built up a sense of fear that Buddhism in Sri Lanka was besieged. They fueled resentment against Sri Lankan Tamils, portraying them as foreigners and representatives of a Hindu civilization hostile to Buddhism. It didn’t help that the island’s Tamils evinced a strong sense of pride in their own language and religion, that now practically none of them were Buddhists, and that they had done well under the British, holding disproportionately many professional and civil service jobs by the mid-20th century. As Subramanian explains,
‘Through a quirk of colonial character, the British had set up few schools in the country’s south, compelling Sinhalese children to earn their education in the local language; in the north, though, generations of Tamil students attended schools established by American missionaries, growing fluent in English, the language of pedagogy and administration. Through no doing of their own, the Tamils found themselves unfairly advantaged.’
Fueled by cultural insecurities, victimhood narratives, and jaundiced readings of religious texts like the Mahavamsa, Buddhist monks from multiple monastic orders began spewing prejudice and intolerance against ethnic minorities. They wanted Sri Lanka to be an indivisible Sinhalese state, with Buddhism as its state religion and Sinhala its sole official language. Leading Buddhists and intellectuals, such as Walpola Rahula, rejected the idea of Sri Lanka as ‘a multi-national and multi-religious state’, drowning out the saner voices on the perils of majoritarianism—i.e., a form of majority rule in which a majority group acts to privilege itself at the expense of others. To attain their sectarian aims, even monks later used democratic mobilization and ran for office. Little did the Singaporeans know—when they came to learn from this former ‘model colony’ and newly independent republic—that its bleak strand of Sinhalese nationalism, to be met by a reactive Tamil nationalism, was just starting to poison social life and set the stage for the civil war.
The Outbreak of War
Subramanian, a Tamil from India, grew up in Madras, Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka’s proximity but also its ‘ties of politics and language’, he writes, bound it to Tamil Nadu ‘like a tugboat to an ocean liner.’ Sri Lankan news ‘made bigger headlines than news from distant New Delhi’ and its relentless war became ‘a constant acquaintance’. He recalls the commotion on his train to Madras when news came that a suicide bomber, ‘a toothy, bespectacled woman with flowers in her hair’, had assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. Subramanian wondered about her, why she had joined the Tamil Tigers, and ‘the stories of other people—the displaced, the bereaved, the chauvinist, the young—that were being drowned out by din of the fighting.’ From 2004, he began making short trips to the island. In 2011, two years after the war’s end, he moved to an apartment in Colombo for ten months, arriving ‘in the spirit of a forensics gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess at how the fire caught and spread so cataclysmically, but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again.’
Subramanian is an astute observer, with a sharp eye for the hypocritical and the comic in human affairs. His writing is lucid, vivid, and often memorable (he describes a person’s face as ‘always utterly unflappable; even a smile, I came to feel, would be too severe a storm upon that placid sea’). He judiciously considers the agencies and events that widened the schisms between the ethnic communities and led to the war: the British emphasized differences and communal identities as part of their divide-and-rule policy; the Sinhalese nationalists voted to make Sinhala the sole official language in 1956, effectively shutting out Tamils from government jobs and requiring even loan applications to be filled out in Sinhala; affirmative action policies in jobs and university admissions favored the Sinhalese and were seen as discriminatory by the Tamils; the new constitution of 1972 gave Buddhism ‘the foremost place’ among Sri Lanka’s religions, formally ending the separation between religion and the state. Though the linguistic and affirmative action policies were later toned down, differences continued to intensify and discrimination grew against the Tamils, who felt like second-class citizens in their own country. They demanded regional autonomy under a federal state, but this was anathema to the Sinhalese nationalists. With ‘democratic methods of the Tamil parties floundering’, Subramanian writes, the Sinhalese ended up creating a space for the militants.
‘Over and over, through the 1970s, Sri Lanka found ways to tell its Tamils that their status in their country was subject to change. It was during this period that Tamil political parties decided to press for full sovereignty rather than regional autonomy. During this period also, new militant groups in Jaffna, like the Tigers, decided that a sovereign Tamil state—an Eelam—could never be wheedled out by political procedure and that it was far better demanded from behind the comforting stock of a gun.’
It didn’t help that the Sri Lankan economy suffered during the 1970s, creating a large pool of unemployed young men. Riots followed the 1977 elections in which the Tamils voted for a separate state, their grievances outlined in the Vaddukoddai Resolution. In 1978, the government passed the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, ‘granting lavish freedom to security forces to arrest, seize, interrogate and detain people as they liked.’ In 1982, for refusing to pledge allegiance to the state, the main Tamil political party, TULF, was expelled from the parliament. Decades of state-sponsored ‘land colonization’, whereby tens of thousands of landless Sinhalese peasants were given land in areas that Tamils traditionally saw as their own, had continued to fuel ethnic tensions.
Subramanian describes the Black July riots of 1983, the official start of the civil war ‘when the [Tamil] Tigers killed 13 soldiers in an army patrol in Jaffna.’ In a week-long pogrom reminiscent of Kristallnacht, ‘Sinhalese mobs visited retribution upon Tamils across the south of the country, killing more than three thousand men, women and children, unhindered—and sometimes even abetted—by the police.’ According to the BBC, ‘People were burned alive in their cars, stripped naked. Women were raped ... soldiers stood by and even supplied petrol.’ Thousands of Tamil homes and shops were looted and destroyed, tens of thousands fled for safety to the north. President Jayewardene appeared on TV to calm the nerves of the Sinhalese but uttered not a word of regret or sympathy for the Tamils. All this further marginalized the moderate Tamil politicians, radicalized the youth, and paved the way for the militant struggle for the independent state of Tamil Eelam.
Wanting to understand more fully the roots of this conflict, Subramanian revisits the island’s ancient history and notes how it has been twisted and politicized. He describes how he read the Mahavamsa in a state of delirium when suffering from a fever. Considering the rise of Sinhalese nationalism in colonial times and characters like Dharmapala, he finds Sri Lankan Buddhism to be ‘just as fluid as any other faith, just as easily poured into new and unexpected moulds.’ Even monks felt no compulsion to refrain from ‘worldly pursuits and temporal authority’. He cites many politicians, radical monks, and hotheaded militants to provide a compelling portrait of how the ethnic strife grew and spiraled out of control.
The Discreet Charm of the Tigers
Subramanian has an impressive knack for finding the right people and extracting from them some amazing stories. He probes with care and sensitivity, mindful of the risks they are taking in talking to him. There is a description of a Tamil politician who was critical of the Tigers and survived eleven assassination attempts, including one befitting a Tamil gangster film in which he lost his sarong during an escape and ran down a Colombo street in his underwear, ‘firing his gun back over his shoulders, trying to pick off the guys who are chasing him.’ Subramanian meets some of the earliest accomplices of young Velupillai Prabhakaran, the ruthless chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), aka the Tigers. They reflect on his charisma, his persuasive powers, his paranoia, and the quirky minutiae of their messy upstart guerilla operations. They share spellbinding stories of their hidings, jailbreaks, assassinations, romances, and betrayals. He even flies to Canada to meet a Tamil man, an ex-major in the Sri Lankan army in the 1970-80s. This man describes the army culture that he once loved, before his painful disenchantment with the army’s rising suspicion of his loyalties, its enveloping racism, and its casual brutality towards Tamil civilians.
On the Jaffna Peninsula, Subramanian finds an oppressive army presence and checkpoints manned by Sinhalese men who speak no Tamil. He finds many abandoned houses, ‘some of them so consummately wrecked that they looked like strange outgrowths of stone rather than disintegrated structures.’ During the Tigers’ control of the north before 1995, these parts were heavily bombed. When the first low-flying aircraft came, people came out to gawk in wonder, until the planes started dropping bombs. ‘To hide from the shelling, people dug bunkers in the ground, covered over by tarpaulins’ and fortified by ‘improvised sandbags—packs of loose earth sewn into the saris of women.’ During this time, writes Tamil historian A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Sinhalese soldiers committed ‘atrocities like gang rapes and wholesale plunder … and bombed churches, temples, hospitals, and innocent civilians’. In those days in Jaffna, a taxi driver tells Subramanian, ‘I was driving my car more as a hearse than as a taxi.’ The multiyear blockade of Jaffna caused massive shortages and unemployment, leading many to drift ‘inevitably, into the Tigers, enlisting to fight or to work in some of the Tigers’ own factories, which manufactured weapons and boats’. Another painful Jaffna episode Subramanian relates quite well is the ethnic cleansing of 1990. The Tigers, having grown suspicious of the loyalties of Muslims—who’d lived as peaceful neighbors, schoolmates, and colleagues for centuries—rounded up all 75,000–80,000 of them, looted their belongings, and forcibly expelled them from the peninsula.
Subramanian describes how the Tigers came to love violence and even turned on their own: via extortion, forced recruitments—including of children as young as 13—and the killing of dissenters. He despises their ‘genius for brutality’ and their indiscriminate violence, such as installing landmines (the Sri Lankan army did that too), blowing up buses, and killing monks, pilgrims, women, and children. He carefully separates ‘the Tigers from the grievances of the Tamils,’ and he sympathizes with the latter. Supported by interviews with ex-Tigers, their spouses and other civilians, his portrait of the pathological culture of the LTTE, along with its transformation over the years down to its bitter end, is a fine achievement.
Subramanian is especially curious about how ordinary Tamils related to the Tigers’ violence. He finds a continuum, from those who actively supported them to others who abhorred their ways. At least one member from each family had to join the Tigers. There was also peer pressure, continuous indoctrination, and, for some, even ‘a scruffy romance to the life of a guerrilla’. The Tigers, Prabhakaran emphasized, were part of a national liberation movement as ‘freedom fighters, not terrorists’. Many Tamils believed the Tigers’ claims of acting for their greater good, which, the Tigers said, required some excesses and personal sacrifices in their march towards the Promised Land of Eelam. Besides, who else was fighting for their grievances? With all the bad blood between the two ethnic groups, no compromise seemed possible. Given the unrelenting hostility of the Sinhalese army—no Tamils were left in the Sri Lankan army—many saw no alternative but to support the Tigers. Or rather, as the Tigers persuaded them, their only alternative ‘was life under the heel of a Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lanka.’
Many didn’t seem to have agonized much about joining the Tigers. ‘The moral decision that transfixed me so much’, writes Subramanian, ‘had been made without any fuss—as a matter of course, even—by tens of thousands of people’. He wonders if he had ‘been too spoiled by peace to understand when it became necessary to fight.’ He keeps probing and finds a complex moral landscape full of ambiguity, with ‘as many answers as there are people’. He meets a family in which the Tigers had recruited a person, killed another out of sheer pique, earned the hatred of a third, and snared a fourth by marriage. ‘The web of these relationships,’ he writes, their ‘loyalties and loathings, was [so] densely knotted [that] they were impossible to unravel and understand.’
Oddly, Subramanian doesn’t investigate the Indian government’s role in, as he says, ‘covertly training and arming the Tigers in the 1980s’—a role similar to that of the U.S. State Department and Pakistan’s ISI in the training and arming of the Mujahideen in the 1980s. Nor does he discuss the grave misadventure of the Indian peacekeeping forces that led to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, or the choppy relationship between India and Sri Lanka over this conflict. Another omission is an exploration of caste in shaping Tamil nationalism and the civilians’ experience of war. One of his interviewees notes ‘how riven with divisions of caste and class the country’s Tamils were’ but Subramanian doesn’t pursue this further. Prabhakaran came from a low caste fishing community and despised caste discrimination in Tamil society. He claimed ideological allegiance to secular socialism and promised ‘total eradication of the caste system’ in LTTE pamphlets. His two main rival militant groups in the 1980s—PLOTE and TELO—brutally eliminated by the LTTE, were both peopled by dominant caste Vellalar Tamils. Did the LTTE downplay caste later to expand its support base and attract more funds from the Tamil diaspora for the ‘greater’ cause of Tamil nationalism? Which castes predominated among its middle and upper ranks as well as its ‘cannon fodder’? The Dutch scholar Joke Schrijvers reported from an earlier phase of the war that a disproportionate number of internal Tamil refugees in camps had lower-caste backgrounds.
Endgame and Aftermath
Subramanian visits the Vanni region to learn about the last days of the war and genocide. He talks to many survivors. From Dec 2008, one man says, ‘the fighting felt more urgent, more frenzied, more one-sided, more final.’ An estimated 5,000–11,000 Tigers were pitted against 200,000 soldiers in the Sri Lankan army. Within months, hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled from the advancing army into a small coastal area, ‘carrying whatever they could on their heads or on bicycles’. The army surrounded them, blocked entry for food, medicine, journalists, and the Red Cross, and began ‘shelling indiscriminately or specifically targeting civilians. A no-fire zone would be declared, and once people hurried eagerly into its borders, they would be promptly shelled.’ Makeshift hospitals and a UN compound, a refuge for civilians, were intentionally bombed. Prabhakaran and his loyal bodyguards died fighting. The war of three decades ended in May 2009 with vast numbers of the ‘limbless and the dying … strewn about the stretch of coast.’
According to the UN, 40,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks. Many who surrendered were taken away and machine-gunned. Countless were herded into internment camps lined with barbed-wire fencing, where ‘food, water and sanitation were in sorely short supply.’ Many died or were killed inside; others reported widespread torture and sexual abuse by soldiers; thousands are still ‘missing’. The government’s Orwellian description of this last phase of war was ‘humanitarian operations’.
The civil war is over, but will the Tamils easily forget or forgive the atrocities against them? There is no major reconciliation effort in sight, tens of thousands have been forced off their lands, and there are still 100,000 refugees in India, afraid to return. Tamil areas remain under an oppressive army presence. While many aspects of life are returning to normal, resentments still simmer beneath the surface. Sinhalese pride and triumphalism have meanwhile resurged, with the same sort of chauvinism and hubris that begat the conflict forty years ago. As the Rajapaksa family mafia took control of all major organs of government, economic growth and tourism picked up and the Chinese began investing in the country. But this corrupt and authoritarian regime rebuffed calls to investigate war crimes, brooked no criticism, and sharply curtailed freedom of the press. Disappearances became common. Journalists critical of the regime were harassed, beaten and even killed; many fled the country. Subramanian, himself a journalist, covers their stories with extra attention. Hardline monks, like schoolyard bullies who know that the headteacher won’t punish them, turned to persecuting Muslims and Christians. Many Muslim and Hindu religious buildings were torn down and Buddhist ones built in their place, largely to serve as ‘a taunt, a stamp of Buddhist domination, a permanent reminder of the order of things in Sri Lanka’. The new president Maithripala Sirisena, a former political ally of Rajapaksa, leads a coalition of political parties and ran on a platform of anti-corruption and anti-nepotism. Tamil and Muslim voters supported him largely because they consider him less awful than Rajapaksa—Sirisena largely shares his predecessor’s stance on Sinhalese nationalism, the army’s presence in Tamil areas, and political concessions to the Tamils.
Subramanian doesn’t say whether the embers still remain ‘to ignite the blaze all over again’ but he ends with a note of lament. ‘Gradually, in my head,’ he writes, ‘the boundaries between these slices of time—between wartime and post-war Sri Lanka—melted away. The phrase “post-war” lost its meaning … an unbroken arc of violence stretched from the war right into our midst … Having acquired the temperament of a country at war, Sri Lanka had forgotten any other way to live.’ The powerful human stories in This Divided Island—told lucidly and vividly—show what Sri Lankans have won and lost, a prerequisite to any attempt to forge a more inclusive polity for future generations.