A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – May 2015 (1)


This Divided Island – Samanth Subramanian

Although Sri Lanka is shaped like a pearl at the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent, the more I read about it, the more it resembles a rather misshapen and rotten onion. Peel the skin away and you come across another less overt layer of rottenness.

The island has recently emerged from a ferocious civil war waged between the Tamil Tigers and the island’s Sinhalese government. The war was only brought to an end by the death of the self-styled Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, and the final, brutal (and probably genocidal) assault on the Tamils, be they Tigers, women or children, on the Vanni peninsula.

Inevitably, what sowed the seeds of this civil conflict was the aftermath of British rule. The minority Tamils – the Sri Lankan government would have you believe that the Tamils were johnnie-come-latelies but there is sufficient archaeological evidence (fast disappearing in an ISIS stylee) that this isn’t so – had done well under colonial rule, holding many of the better jobs and fluent in English. Post-independence there was a virulent nationalist movement aimed at establishing Sinhalese pre-eminence – it became the national language – and discriminating aggressively against Tamils and their language. The only routes open to the Tamils were to submit or to fight back.

Subramanian is an Indian of Tamil descent and whilst there is a pro-Tamil bias in his narrative, he exposes the brutality and mania of the Tigers and particularly of Prabhakaran – if you want a modern-day example of the truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, you could do no better than look at the Tiger leader.

But what is shocking is the level of brutality exhibited by both sides – by civilians on civilians as well as the military – and what brought it home to me was that much of it happened in places we wandered around as tourists which to the untrained (or unknowing) eye looked to be the epitome of charm and tranquillity.

Equally harrowing and shocking are the tales of the disappeared – Tamil flunkies who were put on buses after the surrender and have never been seen or heard of again.

Of course, you will say, that is all in the past and lamentable as it all is, the war is over and Sri Lanka is rebuilding itself. Time to move on – well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

I imagined Buddhist monks as being rather unworldly chaps who look like overweight Dutchmen and spend their time contemplating their souls and thinking lofty thoughts. Some may but Buddhism (and the monks, some of whom are active politicians) is behind the nationalist drive to create a Sinhalese Buddhist state in Sri Lanka. The ancient Buddhist text of the Mahavasma is the principal source for the justification for the policy and the civil war is seen as a continuation of the fight between the Buddhist Duthagamani and the Tamil Elara which broke out some two millennia ago.

The onward march of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism following the effective emasculation of the Tamils means that other minorities are, potentially, in the firing line. Subramanian recounts post-civil war outrages perpetrated against the Moslem minorities. Nothing may come of it all, of course, not least because the Moslem community have more aggressive international support than did the benighted Tamils and there has been a change of government since this provocative book was written. But..

A challenging, at times harrowing, at times funny book which, if you want a perspective on modern-day Sri Lanka, you should read.


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