The ‘Eelam War IV’ that came to an end in May 2009, claimed thousands of lives: over 20,000 civilians perished, and about 6500 troops and 15,000 Tigers killed. This does not include thousands of injured in all the three categories. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 300,000 were internally displaced and hundreds fled as refugees to other countries, especially to India. Civilians who fled from the conflict zone and housed in various refugee camps in Sri Lanka as IDPs were suffering from acute malnourishment, dehydration, sickness, wounds, and mental trauma due to loss of their near and dear ones. The LTTE, once considered invincible, was decimated. Though there is enough literature on how the LTTE was defeated, not much information is available on what had been happening in the LTTE-controlled areas during the last years of the conflict. The book under review throws light on that period.
Written by a diaspora Sri Lankan Tamil who was engaged in human rights work in the LTTE-controlled area of Vanni up until it was overrun by Sri Lanka forces in 2009, the book provides a compelling insider’s look at the motivations, issues and complexities of ‘Eelam War IV’. This is what the author refers to in the title of the book as ‘The Fleeting Moment’. She had witnessed both construction during the ceasefire period (2002 to 2006) and destruction during the war that followed. The author had gone through the rich experience of Vanni life during the last stages of ethnic conflict: multiple displacements, starvation, bombings, killings, and internment.
Though a short book, it succinctly narrates various aspects of LTTE’s functions, its ideology, its interaction with the Sri Lankan Tamil society, life of its cadres, and its final demise. The chapter on ‘Vanni Media’ gives a good overview of the state of media (print, audio and audio-visual) in the then LTTE’s de facto state. Filled with many anecdotes, the style of narrative is engaging. It is undoubtedly a highly informative book, especially to researchers. Importantly, the account is autobiographical and is entirely based on first hand observation and information. Interestingly, the author was a spectator with a preferential seat. As Radha D’Souza in her ‘Foreword’ to the book rightly observes, ‘Malathy’s [the author] journey through the realities of the peace process on the ground and the eventful fate of the Tamils is an important story for all to digest.’
As the LTTE was in no position to put forth its side of the story as effectively as other actors involved in the conflict, the book under review tries to fill the gap. Going by the author’s admission, the conflict ‘will continue to be studied for a long time from many angles. This book may be of some value for such studies. My main motivation for writing this record, however, is the conviction that recording history is an important aspect of the survival of a people.’ The book is also useful in the sense that it helps the reader to differentiate between the perpetrators and victims in times of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Because, as pointed out in the ‘Foreword’, ‘the tragedy of our times is that vast majority of people who want a just and peaceful world and are willing to work for it can no longer tell the difference between perpetrators and victims or between decisions emanating from the highest seas of global power legitimated by international law and global justice.’ Truth is the first victim of war.
‘The Slow Walk to Mullivaikaal’ gives a chronological account of the lead up to the LTTE’s demise. Starting from 2004 the tide was turning against the LTTE. Two events during that year—defection of Batticaloa Commander Karuna and Boxing Day tsunami—started to have a long-term impact on the militant group. In 2005, the LTTE’s call for boycott to Presidential elections gave a chance by whisker to Mahinda Rajapaksa, who went on to become President of Sri Lanka and declared ‘Eelam War IV’. The death of Anton Balasingham, the theoretician, political advisor, chief negotiator and the international face of the LTTE in 2006, was a big blow to the militant group, especially its supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. Fuel embargo and the killing of the LTTE’s political wing leader Thamilselvan came in 2007. The ceasefire was officially abrogated and international agencies started pulling off from Vanni in 2008. And everything was over by mid-2009.
In the final chapter, the author narrates her personal experience as one of the detainees in the Malik Farm camp. Going by her accounts, conditions at relief camps, what the author calls as ‘internment camps’, are troubling: shortage of water, food, toilets, sanitation, medicines and so on. Children suffered the most. At this juncture, the author turns critical of the international community and starts defending the LTTE. To be fair to the international community, it played a key role in the relief and rehabilitation of the internally displaced. But, for this international dimension, Sri Lankan Tamils displaced by war would have suffered a great deal. The engagement of the international community continues even today in the form of resettlement and reconciliation.
One thing comes out clearly from the book: the outcome of the war would have been different had the international community supported the Tamil cause. In this regard, Radha D’Souza, in the ‘Foreword’, asks why ‘some governments are allowed to wage war against their own people and not others.’ The UN was criticized for its failure to prevent war and ‘to act as an honest peace-broker’. But the issue was the LTTE factor. The LTTE sowed its own seed of demise through its arrogance, lack of political acumen, terrorism, authoritarianism, over-confidence and undermining the strength of the Sri Lankan state and its allies.
Though adulatory of the LTTE, the author is also critical of the militant group on certain issues like education, recruitment policy, children and women. Glossary of terms is interesting, but an Index at the end would have been more useful. Nevertheless, the book is a must read for those who are interested in conflicts in general and Sri Lanka in particular.
- Manoharan is based in Delhi with specialization in South Asia and India’s internal security.