Reviewed by Dayan Jayatilleka
There are books that are a ‘must read‘, and others that are a ‘cracking good read’. MR Narayan Swamy’s latest book on Sri Lanka, The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE’s Story (Sage Publications, 2010), is both. It is an objective, balanced, reliable and fairly authoritative account of the last war, its prelude and its aftermath.
It should be read across the spectrum, by Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans interested either in Sri Lanka or the broader themes of insurgency, terrorism and ethnic conflict. The long introduction is the best single text I have read so far on the last war, from build-up and backdrop to its grand finale and present-day prospects.
Prefaced by a cinematically perfect final telephone conversation in May 2009 between a trapped Tiger leader and his family in Europe punctuated by the ever-louder, ever closer Sri Lankan gunnery, it is a fast paced narrative woven through with analytical commentary. The author is neither Sinhalese nor Tamil, and therefore far enough from the emotions roused by the topic, but a journalist from the neighbouring country India with a nose to the ground and an engagement with the Sri Lanka story for decades, and therefore close enough to the subject matter.
MR Narayan Swamy was on the story which, in the bloody wake of July ’83, was beginning to bulk large in the Indian press. He is still on it, having never taken his eye off the ball. When he wrote his first book on the Tigers, he would not have thought it would be a trilogy, but that’s what it has amounted to. This book is the third of a triptych, and brings the story to a close while deftly pinning it to what went before.
Narayan Swamy is a reporter par excellence and this book is a reporter’s story. Like any good reporter he tries to cover it from as many angles as possible, balancing the report. He emerges as a specialist on the Tigers and on Prabhakaran in particular. Just as the earlier ones were of the rise and hegemony of the Tigers – and Prabhakaran—this is the book of its and his fall. It is neither pure description nor attempt at military history; it is solid political journalism.
The book traces and fixes the beginnings of the last war, confirming that had the tsunami not hit the island in late 2004, Prabhakaran’s final offensive almost certainly would have, and that he didn’t give the newly elected Mahinda Rajapakse more than a few weeks before he initiated armed attacks unilaterally at the end of 2005. On the political side, as an informed outsider who had observed Sri Lankan leaders grapple with this problem for decades, he discovers the importance of Mahinda Rajapakse’s clarity and determination in ending it. He confirms my reading that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga spiritedly retaliated against the LTTE by capturing Jaffna in late ’95 and yet inexplicably lost steam shortly after, leaving room for the LTTE to counterattack devastatingly – and repeating that strange shuffle after her successful defence of Jaffna in 2000. The book reminds us of the historical contributions of the three who won the war -- Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse and Sarath Fonseka – and that is the order of ranking that rises from the narrative.
Narayan Swamy adds considerable value to our existing body of knowledge on the war. He pieces together from Tiger survivors that Prabhakaran expected the Sri Lankan armed forces to stop after the capture of Kilinochchi – helping us understand just how crucial it was that the offensive momentum was maintained and the old doctrine of ‘negotiations from strength’ was abandoned in favour of a war winning strategy aimed at defeating and destroying the enemy. Narayan Swamy also confirms that Prabhakaran expected the West to intervene and the Indian electorate to turf out the Congress, either of which he thought would provide him a safe exit.
The author breaks a story by revealing that under the BJP administration, Delhi had assigned several top officials of the intelligence agency RAW to join the Norwegian led ‘peace process’ and even help draft the Ceasefire Agreement. Luckily for Sri Lanka there was a change of administration and of attitude in New Delhi.
The record of contemporary history is set straight by the author who has no partisan axe to grind. The erosion in the morale of some of the Tiger cadre during and due to the CFA is captured in the account. Due strategic importance is given, as it usually isn’t in hagiographic renditions, to the Karuna schism (and its weaker precursor, the dissent of Prabhakaran’s deputy, Mahattaya). Narayan Swamy makes clear that Karuna’s was no treachery as many ultra-nationalist Tamils still have it, but a serious and predictable regional contradiction between Eastern sacrifice and Northern domination which went unheeded and unresolved due to Prabhakaran’s arrogance.
The author’s first (and first hand) impressions of Mahinda Rajapakse both as Prime Minister and President were that here was a man who was ready and even eager for peace but unlike any of his predecessors, was clearly determined from the outset that if war was resorted to by the Tigers, it would be a fight to the finish with the express goal of defeating them utterly.
The book leaves no doubt that this, the determined new national leadership, was the single most important of several ‘game changers’ that enabled Prabhakaran to be vanquished. While there are commentaries that attribute that determination to everything ranging from Sinhala chauvinism to nepotistic need, these beg the question as to why all previous leaders were unable to do so with whatever motivations however exalted or base. As Lenin once quipped “there is no such thing as a sincerometer in politics” and it is impossible in serious political analysis to impute motivation in the absence of documentary evidence. Whatever the motivations of Mahinda Rajapakse, they got the primary job done.
MR Narayan Swamy is politically far too literate a commentator to present a mono-causal (still less exclusively Rajapakse-centric) explanation for the fall of the Tigers. Instead he identifies a cluster of three factors all of which came into being in the year 2004. It is this convergence of 2004 that killed Prabahakaran and his Tiger project, argues the writer. These factors were the Karuna breakaway, Mahinda Rajapakse becoming PM and the Congress returning to office in India.
Narayanswamy’s testimony unwittingly puts paid to the perspective that strikes an anti –Tiger posture but still bewails Mahinda Rajapakse’s accession to the Prime Ministership over Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar. The author discloses the fascinating detail that Delhi, by this time under a Congress administration, tilted in favour of Rajapakse over Kadirgamar in the Premier stakes. The PM ship was always the staging post for the Presidential candidacy, and if Mahinda were not the PM he would have had far less of a chance of being the SLFP’s Presidential candidate and still less prospect of winning. No Mahinda Rajapakse, no military victory over Prabhakaran—that much is borne out by this book.
This book, especially the substantive introduction and part-predictive postscript, should comprise essential reading for all students of and policy makers concerned with Sri Lankan and Tamil affairs. It is also relevant reading for existing and aspirant guerrillas and counter-insurgents everywhere.