Home > 2016 > The Chakra and After: A Study of Sri Lanka

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 41 New Delhi October 1, 2016

The Chakra and After: A Study of Sri Lanka

Monday 3 October 2016, by Apratim Mukarji


After the Fall: Sri Lanka in Victory and War by Mohan K. Tikku; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 2016; pages 308; Price: Rs 650.

Considering the relative geopolitical insigni-ficance of Sri Lanka in the comity of nations, this beautiful island nation’s continuing ability to attract sustained international attention is quite remarkable. As many as seven years have passed since the end of the 26-year-old brutal civil war. But scholarly studies and journalistic writings on the country continue with a regularity which is only slightly less intense than before.

 As one delves into After the Fall: Sri Lanka in Victory and War (Oxford University Press,New Delhi,2016),the latest study by a true-blue Sri Lanka veteran Mohan K. Tikku, one gets a clear explanation for the continuing global interest in the country. While there is lasting peace today in Sri Lanka, the very potent challenges that the end of the war has brought about—recons-truction and development, ethnic reconciliation, finding out the truth about what really happened during the closing months of the war up to May 2009 and bringing the guilty of well-documented—though contested—allegations of war crimes to justice, and rehabilitation of the Tamil community in the truest sense—continue to sustain international interest in the country.

The value of this publication lies in the fact that it chronicles and explains succinctly the antecedents and nuances of the tortuous process through which Sri Lanka’s fortunes have so far travelled, beginning with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ascendancy to power in 2005, his triumphal victory over the Tamil Tigers, his exit from the presidency in 2015, and the succession to power by the incredibly enduring partnership between the two traditional political rivals, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP), in running the current government. “Finally, between the end of a totalitarian Tamil militant leader in the north,” concludes Tikku in one of the several poignant comments in the book, “and the unseating of an authoritarian president in Colombo, the wheel had come full circle—like a Buddhist chakra—within a span of five and half years (May 2009-January 2015).”

The core of external interest in Sri Lanka today lies in establishing beyond all doubts, allegations and counter-allegations what really happened during the last phase of the civil war, the so-called “Eelam War” or Tamil war of independence waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Sri Lankan state. While the all-out efforts of the Sri Lankan security forces to crush the rebels once and for all are well-documented (the Sri Lankan state was so proud of its achievement in ending the war that it officially boasted of the efficacy of the so-called Rajapaksa Doctrine or Rajapaksa Model consisting of seven principles in this regard), it was the last few months before the final denouement in May 2009 that remain a grey area. Incidentally, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party recently suggested that India also use this doctrine to finish off the secessionist movement in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In an honest appraisal of the environment of human rights violation that was built up as a state policy, Tikku writes: “Human rights violations were woven into the very fabric of the fourth Eelam war. These were taking place even as the CFA (Cease Fire Agreement) hung over the landscape, uncertain and unclear,like the evening fog...rights violations took place with increasing frequency. Yet, not many of these managed to attract international attention. The tenor of the ‘war on terror’ rhetoric was pitched so high that it didn’t seem to matter even if some rights violations and related crimes were taking place... Finishing off the LTTE was the job at hand; rights violations and other excesses could be considered later.”

This book also provides an insight into the role played by the US Government in facilitating the hard line approach that Rajapaksa had adopted towards the ubiquitous Tamil question. If one remembers that at the core of the Tamil question lay the issue of federalism—a veritable anathema to the majority Sinhalese population—the American role in subtly encouraging the Sri Lankan Government to ignore and bypass it while addressing the ethnic conflict is clearly highlighted by Tikku. He writes: “On January 9, 2006,...US Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead delivered an address to the American Chamber of Commerce in Colombo that would have many Sinhalese extremists feel like singing... he warned that in the event of a war the LTTE should know that they were going to get it this time. Many Sinhalese would be entitled to read in this declaration a clear signal that a military ‘victory’ over the Tamil Tigers... was finally possible. What better could they ask for when the world’s most powerful nation was saying so?”

A few weeks later, Tikku recounts, Lunstead made the following point that while federalism was one model (to solve the ethnic question), his country “has no desire to tell Sri Lanka how to run its country or what kind of a model to adopt”. “A global superpower that in the past had been associated with ordering regime changes in other places was suddenly feeling so coy about supporting an option that on all hands was considered to be the best basis for a durable solution to the conflict in the island,” says Tikku.

This admirably comprehensive narrative highlights every significant phase in Sri Lanka’s recent history and ends with what lies ahead, the “difficult terrain” that President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickrema-singhe must travel. Tikku advocates an inter-national aid package to incentivise the govern-ment to go down the road to accountability and reform while enabling the public to see “hope in change”. A key suggestion, undoubtedly.

The reviewer is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.