From the Fiery Land of the Buddha: War Crimes, Counterterrorism, and the Aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War

By Neha SharmaJune 5, 2015

From the Fiery Land of the Buddha: War Crimes, Counterterrorism, and the Aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War

Sri Lanka: The New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji
This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan Civil War by Samanth Subramanian
The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Rohini Mohan

IT’S BEEN SIX YEARS since the Sri Lankan State declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — an insurgent outfit that fought for secession to form an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island country. Authoritative literary accounts of the 26-year-old conflict are now finally being published, and a United Nations investigation is underway into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan government.

An ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign, in which radical Sinhala Buddhist monks are terrorizing Muslims, may be partly the reason for the timing and renewed interest. There is also improved accessibility to the north — the ravaged epicenter of the war that the military blockaded in its immediate aftermath.

For the authors of recent books on the war, and the survivors of war they encountered, the distance from the period of unrest allows for more poised, albeit passionate, reflections on one of the most brutal conflicts of this century. More importantly the authors, in their line of inquiry, are alert to the dangers of inadvertently sympathizing with the Tamil Tigers by reducing this complex narrative into one of oppressor and oppressed.


The LTTE was formed in the ’70s as an extremist response to the Sinhala Buddhist majority, which at the time asserted nationhood in its name. The seeds for Tamil dissent were sown shortly after Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, gained independence from Britain in 1948. The rift was rooted in language: English was a mark of aristocracy and preferred for the top jobs, especially in the public sector. Anti-Tamil animus was strong among the Sinhalese after independence, as most Tamils, fluent in English, had a vocational advantage. In 1956 the Sinhala Only Act was passed, making Sinhala the official language of the state, further marginalizing Christians, Muslims, and Tamils; the law did not recognize Tamil as a state language. Then in 1971, under the guise of affirmative action, a new standardization law was implemented that raised the benchmark for Tamil enrollment in universities. But it was in 1983, after the Black July riots — an anti-Tamil pogrom — that the LTTE’s cause and violent means became legitimate in the eyes of Tamil civilians.

Early on the Tamil Tigers were known for innovative strategies of guerrilla warfare — from their sophisticated use of artillery and militaristic organization to the effective use of suicide bombs. During the last decade of its existence, post-9/11, the LTTE was considered a terrorist organization. The group forced children into frontline combat roles and used Tamil civilians as human shields.

In 2009, then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched what would become the definitive and final chapter of the civil war. The military overwhelmed the Tigers, and Tamil civilians, with allegedly indiscriminate attacks in the Vanni (the Tiger-controlled region), making no distinction between innocent civilians and guerilla fighters; jets are said to have bombed government demarcated no-fire zones where civilians sought refuge, as well as medical camps treating the wounded. During the campaign, the government discouraged international humanitarian groups like the Red Cross and the World Food Programme from operating, and forced the foreign press to evacuate the area — a measure most viewed as an attempt to eliminate any witness to the atrocities.


In 2011 an investigative documentary, Callum Macrae’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, aired on Channel 4, using citizen journalism to piece together the gruesome massacre of innocent Tamils, including footage captured on mobile phones and cheap cameras. A subsequent documentary, No Fire Zone, added to the chilling visual evidence against the government. President Rajapaksa claimed Tamil propagandists doctored and fabricated the footage and rejected the UN’s call for an investigation.

In January this year, Rajapaksa was deposed in a snap election, bringing an end to his authoritarian leadership, which had enabled acute press censorship, mysterious murders and disappearances of detractors, kidnappings of Tamils in covert operations, self-serving constitutional reforms, and nepotistic appointments in the cabinet.

Most Sri Lankans view Rajapaksa as a hero for putting an end to over two decades of conflict. But for some minorities of Sri Lanka, the silence around the means by which he ended the war carried the tones of fascism.

Now, fanatical Buddhist monks, such as the Bodu Bala Sena, have precipitated a new wave of violence on the Muslim community, reportedly with the “quiet backing” of Rajapaksa and his brother, former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The same conflict has roiled Myanmar, and the Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis highlights the direness of the situation.

The new Sri Lankan administration, led by Maithripala Sirisena, is without a doubt more moderate when compared with Rajapaksa’s rule. But Sirisena also served as the acting defense minister during the last two weeks of the civil war, worked in Rajapaksa’s administration until very recently, and has the support of influential Buddhist factions in the country. Majority voters most likely voted Rajapaksa out not because of his antipathy for minorities, but because of corruption and abuse of political power.

Sirisena’s win has assured the masses that democratic functions are vital in the country, and there is an atmosphere of marked optimism (“the fear has gone”). But while the administration may take UN allegations of human rights abuses more seriously, there are no assurances about checking the hardline Buddhist agenda.


As Sri Lanka still reels from its tumultuous past and attempts reconciliation, the debate about the validity of the government’s actions during the final act of the war — considered genocide by some polemicists — rages on. In the belabored discourse on the subject, incisive commentary and reportage was once lacking. Three recently released books endeavor to change that by complicating the conversation about Sri Lanka’s civil war. Viewed together, they are a fitting preface to the country’s official response to the war crimes report due out in September.

Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War is a penetrating account of the stories of Tamil survivors of the conflict. One of its three primary subjects is a former female cadre of the LTTE named Mugil. Mugil volunteered to join in 1993 when she was a teenager. She was most proud of her shorn hair, which to her was worthier than the “time-consuming hair-coil” that some fellow combatants preferred. “Through the seven years she was a cadre, the prickly hair on her nape would unfailingly remind her that she was different from other women, braver, with greater purpose,” Mohan writes. Although Mugil later specializes in GPS operation and navigation for the Tigers, she is trained to kill in cold blood early on.

Mohan frames Mugil’s initiation to the valorous ranks of the Tigers through the wide-eyed idealism of a child — a girl who is also drawn to another kind of liberation: the feminist creed. She “chose” to join the movement at a time when it inspired resoluteness; while the Tigers conscripted soldiers, they were considered “volunteers.”

As the military offensive intensified in the latter phase of the war, the Tigers resorted to desperate, unconscionable measures such as forcibly recruiting child soldiers. Mohan notes that the shorn hair that empowered Mugil back in the day was used to easily identify and “deter them [the girl recruits] from escaping.”

Mohan recounts a chilling episode of the war that shook the insurgent’s resolve. In October 2008, a 28-year-old Mugil was guarding the line with a bunch of girl recruits who were “born into the war and its terrors, not its beginnings or causes.” Sri Lankan soldiers encountered them and, with Mugil hiding and watching nearby, raped and killed the children. “Below her, the carnage was over. Five naked girls, their bodies twisted in the last moments of struggle, lay still in the mud. No one had told these girls this could happen.”

Still, evaluating criminality, on either side, is not as straightforward as it seems. Mohan worries about the government heedlessly considering any Tamil soldier a terrorist, regardless of whether they were “children conscripted in the final hour, having trained for just a day or two; the women pretending to take part to deter sexual predators; the men posing as fighters to get rations.”

Mugil has since worked to disassociate herself from the war, in large part to assure her children a normal life. At a time when “memorials and commemorations were classified as acts of terrorism,” she lives in constant fear of persecution for any lingering allegiance to the cause.


Samanth Subramanian tenaciously chases these moral complexities of the war in his book This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War. The author wrestles with the motives of the staunch believers, the disenchanted renegades, and those who, caught in between, were unable to negotiate the validity of something for which they spent the better share of their lives fighting. His consistent tone of skepticism burns through the easily accepted truths about the war. “Ten years, I calculated to myself. That was how long it had taken for the Tigers to go from killing out of perceived necessity to killing for sport. It seemed like an abominably short time for the decay of a movement — unless the movement had been ridden with rot from the very beginning.”

In one such instance, when Subramanian asks Raghavan, — a former comrade of Prabhakaran, the founder of the LTTE — to rationalize his involvement, Raghavan betrays the conviction of an ideologue, attributing it to their “immaturity” and a “fascination for violence” at the time. Subramanian wonders if this offered Raghavan “the safest way out, and if it was better to own up to foolhardiness than a fondness for terrorism.” Raghavan left the movement before the final leg of the war and moved to London with his wife, who compares living under LTTE rule with Stalin’s Russia.

Subramanian is cynical of those who still nurse a romantic view of the bygone days. One such Tamil, Ayathurai, speaks of the past longingly, and of how safe the community felt despite state-imposed embargoes that led to the privation in the north. Another former cadre, Adityan, expresses nostalgia for the place where everything was Tamilian. According to Subramanian:

This idyll had been constructed out of paralyzing fear, of course, but it suggested — falsely but ably — that an independent Eelam under Tiger rule would be something of a perfect society. To people as accustomed to deep, deep imperfections as the Tamils of Sri Lanka, even a glimpse of utopia was powerfully seductive.

As Indian Tamils, both Subramanian and Mohan’s self-awareness and healthy cynicism toward the LTTE bolsters an honest investigation against the Sri Lankan State. Their critique reserves sympathy only for the frailty of the persecuted Tamil civilian and other minorities in Sri Lanka.


According to the UN, approximately 40,000 Tamil civilian lives still need to be accounted for. The government allegedly offered botched figures at the end of the conflict, reducing the number of civilians who were stuck in the embattled zone to one-fifth of the actual population.

In May 2010, Rajapaksa set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation committee to analyze the military’s success in finally putting an end to the civil war of 26 years. In his testimony for the report, then-Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa attributed the collateral deaths to the Tigers using civilians as human shields. Subramanian explains how this cemented a mind-numbing fatigue in the Sri Lankan Tamil’s understanding of the war:

It did not convince them that their government was guilty of war crimes, so that they might unreservedly condemn it, or that no war crimes were committed, so that they might bask in the relief of a fair victory. Instead, they were trapped in the misery of not knowing what to believe — about their government, about their own indirect complicity in their government’s actions, or about the moral cost of their hard-won peace.

Padma Rao Sundarji tackles this subject directly in Sri Lanka: The New Country, while obliquely defending the Rajapaksa administration. Her advocacy of the government’s project of reconciliation and militarization in the north is implausible. In the preface, the author makes clear her intention to not engage with the more common sympathetic views for the Tigers and the Tamil cause. Her premise seems to suggest that prosecuting the government would be futile, treating it as something of an impediment in the progress of the country.

Sundarji’s book features interviews with key political figures, members of the army, and a few chosen rehabilitated Tamil Tigers, most of whom parrot praise for the administration. She rarely engages voices that challenge her views. The country needs infrastructural development and otherwise, and Sri Lanka should not be criticized for undertaking massive reconstruction projects funded by China. But while Sundarji lauds the makeover the Chinese investment has afforded the country, she is not critical of the geostrategic power play that motivates this alliance, and how the Chinese government’s actions might have enabled war crimes, and continue to condone them. More importantly, Sundarji is egregiously neglectful of the state’s role in subjugating minorities and censoring dissenters.

At her weakest, she propagates the Rajapaksa brothers’ specious line of reasoning on the war. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2013, when Rajapaksa was prodded to address the issue of exceptional war casualties, he invoked Hiroshima, asking why there hadn’t been an inquiry into that. Sundarji similarly highlights the innate hypocrisy of some Western countries — whose past is checkered by war crimes and grievous human rights violations — that voted for a UN investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes.

A host of other books, essays, and films continue to complicate the debate on the Sri Lankan civil war.

In Macrae’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Gordon Weiss, the spokesperson for the UN in Sri Lanka during the final chapter of the war, evaluates the UN’s ability at that time. “The government regarded the UN as impediments to their conquest of the Tamil Tigers,” he says. Weiss adds that he felt the government intended to remove independent witnesses from the scene. “Our official response was that we accepted the government’s suggestion that they could no longer guarantee our safety.” In his book The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, Weiss offers a potent analysis of the conflict. He also addresses the reasons for the UN’s tardiness in taking action against the Sri Lankan government.

A strong sense of displacement defines the Sri Lankan Tamil experience — be it the more obvious case of Tamils seeking refuge in foreign countries, or being treated as security threats in their own. Jacques Audiard’s (Rust and Bone, A Prophet) latest film, Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival this May, draws on the Tamil refugee story. The movie deals with the immigrant experience of a former Tamil Tiger who seeks refuge in Paris. The titular character Dheepan is portrayed by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, who, as a child soldier, served in the LTTE from age 16 until 20 and escaped to France at the end of the war.


Jehan Perera, one of few redeeming sources in Sundarji’s Sri Lanka, elucidates the political motivation behind the persisting sectarianism in Sri Lanka in a particularly compelling way. Perera, the founder of the National Peace Council, a Sri Lankan NGO, says:

The theory is that as long as Sinhalese people feel they are under some kind of threat, there is support for the government. Two things happen, it legitimizes the role of the army, so that nobody can object, and when there is a sense of threat people naturally gravitate towards a strong government. That way it can keep its majority Sinhalese voter base intact by artificially generating a moderate amount of insecurity. Extremism, to that extent and as a concept continues to be relevant.

The fortitude of Sri Lanka’s Muslims, in the face of persecution from so many sides — the radical Sinhala Buddhists, the state, and the Tigers (in the past) — is admirable. For now, one can only hope that the government evolves beyond mere reconciliation with policies that compensate Sri Lanka’s minorities for half a century of a bias, alienation, and war.


Neha Sharma is a writer and culture critic based in Delhi, India.

LARB Contributor

Neha Sharma is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like the New Republic, Kirkus Reviews, The Caravan, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, and Rolling Stone (India).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!