Sins of their founders

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  • Few places conjure up such contrasting images as Sri Lanka @Dhume01

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  • For the international community, Sri Lanka stands for Asia’s single most egregious human-rights violation this century.

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  • In “The Cage,” Gordon Weiss sets out to chronicle Sri Lanka’s civil war, with a focus on its gruesome dying stages.

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  • In the end, Sri Lankans themselves will decide what kind of country they want to build. @Dhume01

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Few places conjure up such contrasting images as Sri Lanka, the island nation of 21 million people off the southern tip of India. For the tourist in search of an exotic getaway—off the well-worn path of Bali or Phuket—Sri Lanka brings to mind pristine beaches, elephant safaris and therapeutic ayurvedic spas. But for much of the international community, the country stands for perhaps Asia's single most egregious human-rights violation in this century. The United Nations estimates that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed in the closing stages of a 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended with the terrorist group's annihilation in 2009.

In "The Cage," Gordon Weiss, an Australian journalist and former United Nations official in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, sets out to chronicle the conflict, with a particular focus on its gruesome dying stages. Tens of thousands of hapless civilians found themselves crushed between one of the world's most brutal terrorist outfits—best known for perfecting suicide bombings in the 1990s—and an army willing to flout the laws of war by shelling hospitals, executing prisoners and blocking medical supplies.

Mr. Weiss lays most of the blame for the carnage at the door of the Sri Lankan government, which tends to dismiss virtually all criticism as propaganda by the country's enemies. He takes exception to Colombo's "insistence on cloaking its victory in a Potemkin-like pretense at bloodlessness." Instead he wants Sri Lanka to look its violent past "full in the face" in order to achieve a lasting peace. Mr. Weiss deplores the crude ethnic chauvinism of the ruling Sinhalese Buddhist majority government over the vanquished, and largely Hindu, Tamil minority, who constitute about a fifth of the country's population.

Most observers date the formal start of the Sri Lankan civil war to 1983, when, in response to a Tiger ambush that killed 13 government troops, Sinhalese mobs lynched between 1,000 and 3,000 Tamil civilians in Colombo. "Black July" spurred a large-scale emigration of frightened Tamils to the West, where the diaspora now numbers about a million people. Another 60 million ethnic Tamils live across the narrow Palk Strait in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

But the roots of Sri Lanka's troubles go back to the country's independence. In 1948, Sri Lanka arguably had better prospects than the British Empire's only other multiethnic colony with a large Tamil minority: Singapore. Sri Lanka was blessed with an educated population, a history of limited self-government and a strategic location. Of the two countries, however, it is Singapore that has thrived while Sri Lanka has yet to live up to its founding promise.

Instead of embracing an inclusive view of citizenship—like Singapore or neighboring India—Sri Lanka marginalized its Tamil minority. Many Sinhalese chose to view their country primarily as the lone remaining outpost of South Asian Buddhism, once the region's dominant faith but long since extinguished in today's India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh by a combination of Hindu resurgence and Islamic conquest.

In the decades leading up to the civil war, successive governments in Colombo deported part of the Tamil population to India, declared Sinhalese the country's official language, and made it harder for Tamils to study medicine or engineering. In 1975, 20-year-old Velupillai Prabhakaran foreshadowed the future by assassinating the moderate Tamil mayor of the northern city of Jaffna. Over the next 34 years, Prabhakaran established a reputation as one of the world's most brutal guerrilla leaders. His fighters forswore cigarettes, alcohol and sex and wore a vial of cyanide around the neck as a symbol of their willingness to die for a separate homeland called Eelam to be carved out of the Tamil-majority areas of the island's north and east.

At his peak, Prabhakaran controlled a network of front companies around the globe, a small merchant fleet known as the Sea Pigeons and the world's only insurgent air force, which consisted of three converted Czech light aircraft. For a decade, the Tigers held almost one-third of Sri Lanka's territory, including a chunk of its best agricultural land and about a quarter of its coastline. From his jungle redoubt in the North, the Tiger leader unleashed a spate of suicide bombings whose victims included former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

In hindsight, however, the Tigers made several fatal errors. By murdering Gandhi in 1991, the group lost the goodwill of India, which had helped train and arm the first batch of Tamil fighters in the 1980s before setting the Indian army on them between 1987 and 1990 in a botched attempt to enforce a peace agreement negotiated with Colombo. Then, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the world became much less forgiving of national-liberation movements that embraced terrorism. International funding from the Tamil diaspora began to dry up.

Elected president in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with his brother, Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, began to put in place a military strategy to defeat the Tigers. Between 2006 and 2009, aided by massive arms purchases from China and Ukraine, naval intelligence supplied by India, and diplomatic cover from both China and India, the Sri Lankan army managed what many had declared impossible—a decisive military victory over a terrorist group embedded in a reasonably sympathetic local population.

To Mr. Weiss's credit, he appears to strive for even-handedness despite his obvious distaste for the Rajapaksa regime. (Under the president's rule, press freedom has withered, and cronyism has boomed.) Mr. Weiss accurately lays out the central challenges that regional actors, nongovernmental organizations and the international community face in Sri Lanka: ensuring accountability for possible war crimes, and a life of dignity and equality for all Sri Lankan citizens.

In the end, though, Sri Lankans themselves, not impassioned outsiders, will decide what kind of country they want to build. They could learn a lesson from the divergent paths taken by Singapore and Sri Lanka. Where Singapore would set out to make the most of all its people on its path to prosperity, Sri Lanka chose petty ethnic chauvinism. This powerful book is a haunting reminder of the price countries in the developing world pay for the flawed choices of their founders.

—Mr. Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist."


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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

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