Ever since my visit to Sri Lanka in 2011, I was curious about its history and its politics. I wanted to read more about the Sri Lankan Civil War, particularly its final phase. In the years that followed the conflict, the Sri Lankan government was accused of human rights violations.
Throughout my stay in Colombo, about three years after the brutal war ended, I felt an air of jubilation. It was as if everyone I met was celebrating. Auto-rickshaw drivers pointed at buildings around the city, identifying the ones that had been bombed during the war. “Pakistan played a pivotal role during the last phase of the civil war,” our hotel owner, a retired air-force pilot, had said. “When the entire world was against us, your government supported us, which allowed us to defeat the Tigers.” The security guard at the exit gate of the airport gulped down a bottle of alcohol while on duty, unafraid of any imminent Tamil Tigers attacks.
As I was listening to these stories I was also aware of the fact that as a tourist I would bring in my own simplistic perspective. After all, I was talking primarily to Sinhalese. Perhaps the Tamils in the north will have a different impression. What is the situation in the north now like? What do the Tamils want? Will Sinhalese nationalism, which became the root of the problem, sweep through the north, ignoring the political demands of the Tamil? How bad were the human rights violations? These were some questions I pondered upon.
Padma Rao Sundarji’s book, titled Sri Lanka: The New Country, answers all these questions. An Indian journalist who covered Sri Lanka as a foreign correspondent during the war and after, Sundarji provides great insight into the lives of Tamils.
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While writing the book, she returned to Sri Lanka several times. Her first trip to the north was in 2002, when she entered the Tamil territory to attend a Prabhakaran press conference. In an eye opening chapter of the book, she talks about the feeble infrastructure, young cadres with cyanide around their necks and the writ of the government in the area.
After the war, she spoke to former Tamil Tigers members who are now working with the government. Through the interviews, Sundarji explains how during the early years of the movement it was an ideological battle but in its last phase the group became a criminal organisation abducting children to fight their battles. She shatters the romanticisation of guerrilla warfare that dominates liberal circles. Travelling around the villages and cities of the country’s northern areas, Sundarji also spoke to local Tamils and discovered that most of them support the Sri Lankan army. This challenges the assertion of the Western countries where the Sri Lankan army was seen as a coloniser of the north. While, in the south, in the heart of the land of Sinhalese, she talks to both Sinhalese and Tamil politicians and discusses the changing landscape of the north.
Following the tradition of travel writers such as Ryszard Kapuscinski, the book is a treat for anyone interested in knowing the story of Sri Lanka.
Title: Sri Lanka – The New Country
Author: Padma Rao Sundarji
Publisher: HarperCollins India
The writer is an author, most recently, of ‘In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan’ and ‘A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’
Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2016.
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