A review of a book on the Sri Lankan civil war

“This Divided Island” by Samantha Subramanian (2014)

I read this book about the Sri Lankan civil war before and during a two-week trip to the island in which I ensured that I visited the Tamil part of the country as well as the more general areas populated by the majority Sinhalese. It is an unconventional book in a couple of respects.

First, it is not written by an insider or a total outsider and, though it is a work of non-fiction, the power of the writing has some of the elements of a novel. Subramanian is an Indian of Tamil ethnicity and Brahmin caste who studied journalism at Penn State University, so he has some sympathies with Tamils and speaks their language but he has the objectivity and fluency of a journalist.

Second, this is not a factual narrative of the Sri Lankan civil war, although helpfully there is a two-page timeline. Instead the structure of the work is a series of personal stories curated through interviews and travels. This approach means that the reader learns little hard fact but really feels the pain and loss of the people on either side of the conflict.

Subramanian refers to the origins of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu Tamils and argues that, though Buddhist nationalists represent the Sinhalese as the native population and portray the Tamils as foreigners, “Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils” but “Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries”. He insists: “In Sri Lanka, ethnic divisions are lines drawn not in sand but in slush”.

He argues that “Through no doing of their own, Tamils found themselves unfairly advantaged” by British colonial policy which meant that Tamils were disproportionately likely to go to university, work in the civil service and learn English. Following independence, in 1956, parliament sought to correct what was seen as an historic and unfair advantage by making Sinhalese the sole official language of the country. Then, in 1972, a new constitution gave Buddhism ‘the foremost place’ among the nation’s religions.

In 1975, a Tamil called Velupillai Prabhakaran – who the next year founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers – assassinated the mayor of Jaffna. The beginning of the civil war is usually dated from a Tiger ambush of an army convoy in Jaffna on 23 July 1983 when 12 soldiers were killed. The government finally declared a crushing victory on 18 May 2009 and Prabhakaran himself was killed in the final day of fighting.

The 26 year long war cost up to 100,000 lives. Then, in the final bloody weeks, some 40,000 non- combatants were killed in what many have classed a war crime by the Sri Lankan army. The Tamil word for the war was ‘prachanai’ which simply translates as ‘the problem’.

Subramanian is even-handed in his acknowledgment of injustice on both sides of the conflict. He explains how the LTTE forced ever-younger boys into their army and killed those they regarded as traitors of even just critics and he writes of the Tigers showing “such an endless genius for brutality”. But he expresses horror at the excesses of the Sri Lankan army, particularly the shelling of civilians and hospitals in the final weeks, and records the multiple disappearances of former Tiger soldiers and critical journalists since the conflict ended.

He notes: “In the long war, the two sides had grown closer in temper than either would have cared to admit”.


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