The Royal Institute of International Affairs – Book Review

Posted on January 15, 2013

Still counting the dead: survivors of Sri Lanka’s hidden war. By Frances Harrison.
London: Portobello. 2012. 259pp. £14.99. isbn 978 1 84627 469 5. Available as e-book.

These tales of the final stage of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war make a shocking story, the more so that it has taken three years for them to be told. When the war neared its horrific endgame in early 2009, there were no journalists to give first-hand reports, no cameras to record the bloody scene, nor any aid workers. It was the policy of the Sri Lankan govern- ment to exclude journalists and UN workers from the war zone. It subsequently hired a British public relations firm to sanitize the story and ‘deflect war crimes charges’ (p. 228). It was left to Channel 4 news to tell the true version in two graphic documentaries based on mobile phone images taken by the triumphant army. Now former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka Frances Harrison tells in book form what journalists were prevented from reporting at the time, that is the exceptionally high price paid in human life and misery for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘victory’ over the Tamil Tigers. Harrison’s account, based on the tales of survivors, is no less bloody for being told in words and numbers rather than pictures.
In an introduction Harrison writes of what she says is being called ‘“the Sri Lankan option”—a new way of crushing terrorism using brute military force’, involving ‘scorched- earth tactics, blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants, and enforcing a media blackout’ (p. 7). Of the crimes of brutality and the widespread rape allegedly committed by the advancing soldiers, Harrison says the expert committee set up by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon found that the failure of the Sri Lankan government to hold perpetrators accountable had allowed ‘some to believe the rules [of criminal account- ability] could be disregarded when fighting terrorism’ (cited on p. 231). The book makes its own contribution towards holding the government accountable but also questions how hard the United Nations fought to protect the 400,000 Tamil civilians ‘abandoned to an army bent on eliminating the rebels at any price’ (p. 17) after UN workers were forced to withdraw in September 2008. By January 2009, the entire population of the war zone was relying for food on the United Nations, which itself had no direct access. The UN and foreign diplomats were powerless to challenge the Sri Lankan government’s claim to be operating a ‘zero civilian casualty policy’, let alone to do anything to prevent the heavy loss of civilian lives. In another sign of UN powerlessness, even the expert committee’s finding that both sides committed war crimes has not been acted upon.
The book’s main target is the impunity of the Sri Lankan government and army for what went on in the restricted area during the final five months of war. However, Harrison apportions a share of blame to the Tamil Tigers, whose elimination was the government’s objective. In years gone by, the Tigers’ guerrilla army had given a master-class in terrorism as a weapon of war, taking no prisoners and tolerating no opposition within the Tamil- dominated parts of the island they controlled, as well as claiming numerous scalps elsewhere, among them those of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka. Harrison writes that during the Sri Lankan army’s final artillery onslaught, ‘moral responsibility must also lie with the Tigers for deliberately putting their own people in harm’s way and refusing to surrender even when they’d clearly lost’ (p. 64).
Ordinary Tamil civilians were caught up in the war alongside committed Tamil Tigers fighters and sympathizers, and their stories combine to show how total was the Tigers’ command over the lives of those in the areas they controlled, and how easily farmers or shopkeepers became highly disciplined fighters. Yet the fearless Tigers lost the support of the people they purported to serve when they forcibly recruited into their militia a teenage son or daughter, perhaps an only child. Survivors’ stories are separated by numer- ical estimates: perhaps 40,000 people killed in the final five months; 100,000 in the war as a whole; another 200,000 displaced; 16,000 maimed; 60,000 widowed; countless numbers raped; and 12,000 who simply disappeared. Most were non-combatants who had no place to shelter from the incoming artillery or the personal brutality of soldiers who appeared to hate Tamils. Then there are the psychologically damaged children who may have seen one or both parents blown apart by an exploding shell.
If this was a ‘victory’, it was so in the very limited sense that the Sri Lankan army did indeed eliminate the Tamil Tigers. The sense of grievance by surviving Tamils that, as Sri Lanka’s economically and politically weak minority, they are and always were second-class citizens—a grievance that gave rise to the Tigers in the 1970s—remains. How much harder it is now for Tamils to feel they belong in their homeland after such slaughter of innocents. Survivors have lost all faith in the central government, the UN system and the international community at large to protect them. Continuing applications for asylum in India, Europe, Australia and Canada speak for themselves.
Nicholas Nugent