By Mark Salter –
2016 has been a good year for books about Sri Lanka at Hurst, a noted UK-based publishers specialising in Asian – and in particular South Asian – affairs. First came A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka by Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, as told to Sunila Galipatti, a writer and former Director of the Galle Literary Festival.
As befits a prisoner of war memoir A Long Watch is couched in direct, lucid prose. It tells an extraordinary story. In September 1994, at the height of the civil war, Boyagoda was commanding one of the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest warships, the Sagrewardene. South of Mannar it came under attack by LTTE vessels and eventually sunk. Unlike many of his crew Boyagoda survived the assault, only to be pulled out of the sea with the other survivors and hauled away by LTTE cadres.
The highest-ranking officer ever captured by the Tigers, Boyagoda spent the next eight years in captivity, eventually being released in 2002 as part of a prisoner exchange deal. The majority of the book covers his long years of imprisonment. The picture that emerges is a complex one. Boyagoda makes no bones about his rejection of conventional ‘evil terrorist’ characterizations of the Tigers. He is also at pains to emphasize how fairly he was treated by his jailors, expresses sympathy for the injustices visited on the Tamil population, and even shows empathy for his captors, many of whom were, as he notes, forcefully conscripted by the Tigers in their youth.
As Galipatti has acknowledged elsewhere, telling a story as exceptional and as potentially charged as this one was never going to be an easy task. As a consequence she sticks firmly to a first-person narrative, keeping herself and her opinions firmly in the background. Inevitably, the resulting account has proved controversial. In particular, following its publication accusations that in a wartime version of the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ Boyagoda had sold out – even spied for – the Tigers were voiced in a number of quarters.
Certainly, the return to the South in 2002 did not prove easy for Boyagoda: eventually released from the Navy, initially he struggled to relate to his children and family, from whose lives he had been separated for so long. Overall, the account of Boyagoda’s wartime captivity is best read for what it is: one man – albeit a particularly thoughtful, sensitive one’s – experiences, as opposed to what it is not: an objective, critical account of the Sri Lankan conflict.
Next came Madurika Rasaratnam’s Tamils and the Nation: India and Sri Lanka Compared. An altogether denser, more academic work of comparative political history, Rasaratnam’s book is a magisterial effort to address a central question. Why did India and Sri Lanka’s post-independence evolution of follow such hugely differing trajectories with respect to their Tamil populations? Why was it the case, for example, that whereas by the late 1960s, previously independence-oriented political parties such as the ADMK had fully embraced the notion of Tamil Nadu’s place within the wider Indian polity, in Sri Lanka the Sinhala-dominated state’s continuing failure to accommodate Tamil aspirations eventually succeeded in transforming political forces that had vocally advocated independence from Britain and national unity into advocates of Tamil Eelam – and eventually into those, such as the LTTE, with no qualms over the use of violence to achieve that goal?
Not that all was perfect on the western side of the Palk Straits. As Rasaratnam’s book makes clear, for all the Indian National Congress (INC)’s success in accommodating Tamil demands within a broader pan-Indian nationalist framework, the story with respect to another key minority – Muslims – was rather less rosy. In particular, in the lead up to independence Rasaratnam highlights growing antagonism between a nascent Hindu nationalist movement and its Muslim counterpart as a source of – arguably still unresolved – tension within Indian society.
Nonetheless, the overall picture of a nation-in-the-making struggling – and in a number of important respects, succeeding – in accommodating cultural, social and ethno-religious differences is a fascinating one. Not least, as noted above, on account of the vital successes India later achieved with respect both to Tamils and other Southern Dravidian cultures.
What then, of Sri Lanka? Space doesn’t permit a full review of Rasaratnam’s account of Ceylon, and later Sri Lanka’s dealings with its minority communities. At least the post-independence part of the story is well known to students of the civil war, notably pivotal events such as the 1956 Sinhala Only Act and the succession of ultimately failed pacts negotiated between Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders in the 1950s and 1960s.
What needs underscoring here is the lessons this story carries for the Sirisena government in its efforts to move beyond the post-war morass it inherited by the Rajapaksas. First of these – underscored by Indian experience – is the central importance of a concerted effort to articulate and promote an inclusive national consciousness. An effort, moreover, that needs to go beyond simply devising a new constitutional framework (though undoubtedly it does need to include this).
In other words, while necessary for reaching a ‘political solution’ to the ethnic conflict, devising a new constitution incorporating a revised framework of devolved governance embodying and even going beyond the 13th Amendment won’t do the trick by itself. What’s needed is a concerted attempt to frame a new national vision in which minorities – crucially, Tamils and Muslims – are given a central place in the country’s essentiai self-understanding and political practice.
‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’, as British Jamaican poet Benjamin Zepzniah once memorably pointed out. And the related question for Sri Lanka is this: can it put the colours excised by Sinha Le supporters back in the national flag in ways that will help make Tamils and Muslims as proud to be Sri Lankan as their Sinhalese compatriots in future?
*Mark Salter is author of To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka (Hurst, London, 2015). His website is at: www.marksalter.org
De Silva / December 31, 2016
Typically when its long a long winded sentence it says the author trying to hard.
Why was it the case, for example, that whereas by the late 1960s, previously independence-oriented political parties such as the ADMK had fully embraced the notion of Tamil Nadu’s place within the wider Indian polity, in Sri Lanka the Sinhala-dominated state’s continuing failure to accommodate Tamil aspirations eventually succeeded in transforming political forces that had vocally advocated independence from Britain and national unity into advocates of Tamil Eelam – and eventually into those, such as the LTTE, with no qualms over the use of violence to achieve that goal?
All that is one sentence!
Well, take a look at India. You have Tamils in Tamil nadu. No Tamil in New Delhi. The system reflects that proposition.
In Sri Lanka Tamils in Colombo, Jaffna and Nuwaraeliaya. Surely the same system does not fit here!
You should really give yourself a break from commenting on Sri Lankan affairs.
Click ‘De Silva’ above if you want to read something that makes more sense.
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran / December 31, 2016
There are a large number of Tamils in New Delhi! The reasons why Tamils live in Buwara Eliya, has nothing to with freechoice. They are decendants of workers brought to run the plantations. They were treated like slaves and are yet to
some extent. The story of the Tamils is not only in the north and east, but also in the rest of the island. In the rest of the Island a lot of Tamils have been Sinhalized. This does not mean that Tamils were not there long ago.
This is the story our generics tells us. It cannot be tampered and falsified. It is an u refutable fact.
Please try to learn and be honest.
Dr.rajasingham Narendran / December 31, 2016
There is also the possibility that some Sinhalese were also Tamilized. I know one Sinhala family in Jaffna who yet the Tamil in the ore-war style. I know of another Sinhala man who has married a Tamil who lives in Jaffna. His children are going to a Tamil school.
I my lifetime I have seen the Tamils in the catholic belt in the western province going to Sinhala schools and becoming Sinhala. This was triggered by Cardinal Cooray to close Tamil schools run by the church.
History or people never remain static. There is always flux induced by circumstances.
Pena Kiyanna / January 1, 2017
Salter writes “2016 has been a good year for books about Sri Lanka at Hurst…”
Don’t know what Salter has to say about that attempt to ‘whitewash’ Erik Solheim!
Saw at remainders bin for 50p at Woolworths Oxford just a month after its release.
Sven Le Grande / December 31, 2016
Can recommend A Long Watch. Boyagoda seems an exceptionally humane individual. He was treated as well as could be hoped for by his captors (acknowledging his ‘value’ as a prisoner) but pretty shabbily by his own side after his release.
Manel Fonseka / January 5, 2017
Have you heard that Boyagoda was recently implicated in the theft of a highly valuable white turtle. I was very sorry to hear that this man after losing 8 years of his life to captivity & then cold-shouldering by the navy, got into serious trouble that could land him in prison. Does anyone have any news of him?
Sach / December 31, 2016
Boyagoda himself says in his book, that he wanted not To add anything that can worsen the communal relations and this is only his story and he did hear screams in pain inside some prison cells.
Boyagoda is only a single individual of a 20 million who suffered war. Ask the experiences of the sinhala and tamils in border villages what it was living with ltte is.
Secondly tamil nadu is the native and cultural homeland of the tamil which gave birth to everything tamil. Tamil Nadu is the tamil nation. But indian constitution does not accept that.
Tamils in sri lanka is a minority much like tamils in UK. And tamils in UK do not have rights enjoyed by Tamils in Srilanka .
The probLem in Sri Lanka is due to demographic engineering done by european colonials including Britain Mark is coming from.
Nimal / December 31, 2016
There’s still hope in the island for communities to live together in harmony.
jim softy / January 1, 2017
For me, this is Christian propaganda, brain washing to spread the chirsitianity via empowering Tamil-christians.
Only good thing is Christianity and Catholics are extinct where it flourished.
Church priests can do business and live a good life in the name of religion. Devotees don’t understand that.
AJ / January 4, 2017
Only devotees who understand Buddha is the BBS. Great logic once again. Only religion that is screwed up big time now is BBS terrorists inspired Budhism. We could only change this by calling a ban on this terrorist network.