Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Book review

The Cage by Gordon Weiss
The Sunday Times, 22 May 2011

Pasted Graphic
The first full account of the Sri Lankan army's massacre of civilians in 2009, by the UN spokesman in Colombo, argues that their actions were war crimes

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka was always a silent war, with much of the killing and suffering hidden from view. This was never more so than at its horrific climax in the first five months of 2009, when the Sri Lankan army trapped the last Tamil Tiger guerrillas as they hid among more than 300,000 Tamil refugees in an area twice the size of Hampstead Heath and unleashed on them a vicious bloodbath.

At the time, nobody knew the full extent of the carnage. The government had banished international journalists and aid workers and forced the UN from the scene, so that there were no witnesses while the army methodically bombarded the coastal spit of land with artillery, all the time maintaining the fiction that it was respecting a “no-fire zone”.

Gordon Weiss, however, was working in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, as the UN spokesman. A journalist and UN official for two decades, much of it spent in conflict zones, he has published the first comprehensive factual account of the mass killing and why the UN was powerless to prevent it.

His book is a striking account of the ruthless terror wreaked by both sides on the innocent civilians trapped in the pocket of land. The Tamil Tigers, hoping that the presence of the refugees would shield them from attack, killed those they found trying to escape to government lines. As the perimeter shrank, the Tigers grew more desperate. “They would shoot, execute and beat to death many hundreds of people, ensure the deaths of thousands of teenagers by press-ganging them into the front lines and kill those children and their parents who resisted,” Weiss writes.

But whatever the sins perpetrated by the Tigers, Weiss says that it was the Sri Lankan army that inflicted the bulk of deaths on the captive ­population. Seizing the chance to defeat the Tigers, against whom it had fought for nearly 30 years, the army shelled the area with heavy artillery without a shred of restraint. As many as 40,000 civilians are believed to have died in the blitz, as well as the entire Tigers leadership, including Velupillai Prabakharan, the group’s fanatical creator and supreme leader.

Although not himself an eyewitness to the slaughter, Weiss was close enough to the levers of power for us to trust his judgment that the killings were war crimes that should be investigated. His book is a powerful indictment of the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya, the defence secretary, who drove the campaign.

There is no doubt that the world is a safer place without the Tamil Tigers, a ruthless insurgent group that grew out of the ethnic war waged on the mostly Hindu Tamils by the xenophobic government. The Tigers were not bound by any of the rules of warfare. They pioneered suicide bombing long before Al-Qaeda. They blew up buildings, put bombs on planes, trains and buses, used children as fighters, developed their own navy (including submarines) and even had an air force of light planes.

Among the leaders they have killed are the Sri Lankan president and the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. They would not tolerate any dissent in their community and exterminated moderate Tamil leaders. Much of the overseas money for their arms and guerrilla operations was raised by extortion and through the heroin trade.

Weiss emphatically supports Sri Lanka’s right to protect its territory from such a scourge. But he believes that the army’s mass killing of civilians in order to destroy the Tigers was a step too far and cannot go unmarked. Not only is it one of the darkest, most shameful episodes of the new millennium — but how is it that the United Nations was so slow to react and did not do more to stop the slaughter?

One reason for the failure is that the Sri Lankan government was extremely adept at hiding what was going on and successfully projected its struggle against the Tigers as its part of the “global war on terror”. Another was that China protected it in the UN Security Council, blocking international action.

Weiss’s book is well-timed. UN experts, too, have just released a damning report that says the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in the 2009 offensive may amount to war crimes. The Sri Lankan government angrily rejects it. But this is a “Srebrenica moment”, which must be seized, Weiss says. Failure to have a credible judicial war-crimes investigation will be an encouragement to other brutal regimes with “terrorist” problems to follow Sri Lanka’s model of waging a silent war against its own people away from the world’s gaze.