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The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Gordon Weiss

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Member:kidzdoc
Title:The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers
Authors:Gordon Weiss
Info:Bellevue Literary Press (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 384 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan civil war, Tamil Tigers, LT Early Reviewers

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The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers by Gordon Weiss (2011)

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
At heart, I don't think Gordon Weiss is a long form writer. He was formerly a UN official, and the prose and structure of The Cage seems to show someone who more naturally writes briefing papers than full-length books. Although The Cage is a short 230 pages, at times I felt it could have been edited down further still (and benefited from another editorial pass because of some occasionally clunky phrasing). These quibbles aside, I think this is well worth the read: Weiss details the last stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a conflict which was largely ignored or dismissed by the international community. It's a pretty damning indictment of all sides involved, and a lament for the fact that those responsible for so much pain and suffering will probably never be held accountable. Not an easy read but a worthwhile one. ( )
1 vote siriaeve | Jan 17, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was a superb investigative book about the Sri Lankan Civil War, from its origins in the postcolonial years, to the disastrous end of the war, in which tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed by the Sri Lankan Army in its push to eradicate the last traces of the Tamil Tigers. Weiss's attention to detail and his use of on the spot observers, including civilians and NGO workers, is a damning condemnation of the current President and his brother, the Defense Minister. ( )
  kidzdoc | Jan 8, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I came to this book with a set of vague impressions--that the Tamil Tigers were a vicious crew of killers but nevertheless not comparable to al-Qaeda and that ilk--rebels, not terrorists; that my love for MIA, b. Maya Arulpragasam, father a cadre of EROS, the Eelam Revolutionary Organsation of Students, might be romanticizing or exoticiing (= romoticizing) my judgment a little; that I was pretty sure some baaaad shit went down on that emerald isle in the spring of 2009, and maybe the Tigers were responsible but they sure didn't come out of it looking like winners. Gordon Weiss, who spent years in Sri Lanka as a journalist and then as UN spokesguy, used all his briefing-writing powers to give me what I wanted--a brief (230-page), well-supported (the whole book, including preface, maps, pictures, glossary, list of acronyms, timeline, dramatis personae, notes, bibliography, and index, is more like 360 pages) account of the almost casual way in which things so often fall apart when they're gonna fall all the way; the "paranoia of a society deranged by war psychosis"; and the final atrocity that played out on the sand spit that became known as "the Cage."

I learned a lot of stuff about how the aforesaid paranoia is indistinguishable from megalomania, with Sri Lankan government officials routinely issuing absurd pronouncements treating the UN and the Red Cross as little more than Tiget fronts; about how capriciously the ethnic genie was let out of the bottle, with racial laws passed eagerly by multiple governments for short-lived political advantage or the ability to prosecute a war "more effectively" that instead grew with every new unjust decree; the power of the terrorist bugbear to prevent Western governments in that apocalyptic decade just past from seeing with their eyes what was going on; the absolutely fucked-up nature of the things that happened to Lankan society, with kangaroo courts beginning by reading out the addresses of the families of all the witnesses, laws saying anyone who had any interaction with any Tiger, even unknowingly, could be imprisoned indefinitely, and a law enforcement establishment that treated any Tamil as a Tiger; one domination-minded family that now controls 70% of the country's finances (!) and has legislated itself into power basically until the system crumbles, using the rebels as a pretext. Weiss has an exceptional ability to express things pithily not only from the perspectives of the prime actors, stepping out of the Western lens and helping his audience see their leaders and their practices as Otherly--"the country's readiness to play the rogue nation card and to court support from Iran, among others, provoked timidity from a group of influential nations traditionally far more assertive regarding morality in foreign policy"--but also from that of the suffering people, many of whose individual stories are here, and heart breaking.

Most importantly, I learned that Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, aided by thousands of Sinhalese with varying degrees of culpability, bottled their enemies up in a little package of land smaller than Vancouver's Stanley Park along with 330,000 civilians and then bombed and blasted them indiscriminately until tens of thousands were dead, more willing to kill Tamils seemingly indefinitely than let the adversaries escape again.

Some people will read that and words like "bleeding heart" will arise in their rage brains and they will say things like war is war and they were terrists and it worked dinnit but this is a good litmus baseline for that kind of talk, because Weiss only implicitly says this is an elected government and it should be better than a terrorist organization--in fact, he elaborately acknowledges the Sri Lankan govenrment's right to defend its territory even at the cost of some undefined degree of oppression of its own people. What he does say is even if we can't expect them to be better, we shouldn't expect them to be ten times worse. The Tigers were holding people hostage and killing them to the tune of thousands with their li'l guns, so the government took a leaf from somekind of ultraviolent comicplaybook and said U TTHINK WE GIVE A FUCK and killed the hostages themselves, ten times faster, just so Prabhakaran and his cronies would shit themselves. So evil!

And that's not even taking into account the fact that they had already won, that it was more and more a mopping up operation, only the mop was second-hand Chinese artillery. This isn't Israel--it's Israel with even more of the moral ambiguity removed; it's Somalia but not in the facilitating context of the total breakdown of civil society, Syria but with everybody in Colombo still going about their lives and graduating from law school. This is an important book because we don't know what happened there, we have a vague sad concern, but we are easily distracted. This is testimony, and it doesn't make us any better but it still means something that we hear it.

From a military or a, like, insurgency perspective, too, this is a primer on the risks of trying to operate as a traditional army, let alone a traditional country. The Tigers were the best there was at what they did and for thirty years they were unbeatable--melting into shadows, 'ssassinatin' political leaders, maintaining a whole clandestine and legit economy across the globe, and a merchant marine, and an air force! And they were so good that ten years ago they had basically won--Eelam was baasically a country, and they were even providing basic services! Magnificent. But then you go from being able to melt into shadows to having to go to your office and, like, read a budget proposal, not to mention provide peace for a ppulation that has suffered long, and that's when the much larger nation to the south totally dedicated to your destruction gets the chance to strike with its traditional army, and you're on their turf now, and it DOES NOT go well. It's like, the Tamil Tigers were Gozer and they had to draw him into a physical host to destroy him. But like, not evil Gozer. Well, yes, evil Gozer, but the Ghostbusters in this case are even worse. Look, this was a tragedy and the perpetrators got away Sinhal free and not all my offensive metaphorizing will change that. ( )
1 vote MeditationesMartini | Dec 14, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In May 2009, after 26 years of fighting, the Sri Lankan army obliterated their terrorist scourge, the Tamil Tigers. These terrorists had appointed themselves leaders of the minority Tamil people and waged a dirty war for independence. Over the years, the blew up buses and airports, assassinated two heads of state (India and Sri Lanka), massacred civilians, used their own people as hostages, and forced children to become soldiers. The Sri Lankan government was well within their rights to oppose them. However, it is how the government opposed them that is the problem and the reason for this book. Weiss exposes an alternative to the government’s official narrative. One of his goals in writing this is to document eye witness accounts and expert opinion on what occurred in the final months of the war, despite the government’s blanket denials and obfuscation. There is extensive proof that the Sri Lankan government blocked aid from reaching the civilians displaced by the war, and there are many independent accounts of the government bombs killing thousands of civilians (including the targeting identified hospitals), yet the government claims to have done nothing wrong. But truth leaks out everywhere; for example, by the expulsion of the UN and independent media from the conflict area, it shows that it suited the army’s plan to have no witnesses. A second example is how the government prevented the Red Cross from collecting any data that would provide an overall picture of the dead or missing. As Weiss says, “If so few had died, it made no sense for the government to hide the dead and prolong the misery of those who survived, wondering at the fate of their missing relatives.”

I have been following the human rights situation in Sri Lanka since 2007, and so—for a lay person--have read quite extensively about it. I have also watched many hours of documentaries on the war, including the excellent Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and the sequel, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields 2: Unpunished War Crimes. Opening the pages of The Cage, I felt that I had a good basis of knowledge on the subject.

Weiss, who was a political adviser and spokesperson for the UN in Sri Lanka from 2006-2009, goes into extensive detail on the history of Sri Lanka and how it led to the civil war and its aftermath. My conclusion from this is that through their decades of undemocratic and prejudice policies, the Sri Lankan government created the Tamil Tigers. In this important document of wartime atrocities, Weiss is “scrupulously evenhanded”—to quote a blurb on the book’s cover, and I was impressed by his fairness. He doesn’t accuse the Sri Lankan government of genocide, which others would have and I can see would be a tempting conclusion. He does, however, join the many NGOs and human rights organizations who are calling for an independent international criminal investigation into the government’s behavior during the war, in particular to determine if war crimes were committed. As Weiss says, “the way you fight a war does matter, even when your cause is just.”

One of the greatest strengths of this book is the fascinating final chapter, “Postmortem,” in which he outlines how he sees the future for this island. He talks about how there are “many tens of thousands of murders for which nobody has ever been held to account. Millions of Sri Lankans alive today—Tamils and Sinhalese—have direct experience of the terrible phenomenon of “disappearance,” and an abiding sense of injustice and unreconciled grievance.” The government operates with unprecedented secrecy, yet says they have nothing to hide. To stay in power, they rely on nepotism and revisionism, but mostly denial. Even three years after the war, Sri Lanka is officially deemed one of the most dangerous countries anywhere for journalists. As they continue to flout basic human rights agreements, they also view anyone who disagrees with them as having committed treason. As Weiss says, “media and public opinion remain full of trepidation in the atmosphere of Sinhalese supremacist ideology vindicated by the conquest of the Tamil Tigers. Even as this book goes to print… newsrooms are being wrecked and burned by gangs of thugs and journalists forced into exile (there is) ongoing persecution and disappearances of human rights activists, journalists and government opponents.”

When I come across a human rights cause that I know is controversial but seems so blatantly one-sided, so “how could anyone think otherwise?,” I start searching what the opposition is saying. The vocal opposition to Weiss, like that of most of the causes I search (from Tea Baggers to Jihadists), is a cacophony of nonsensical, shrill voices. As expected, they rely on logical fallacies, including the ever-popular ad hominem attack (you can’t say the government did anything wrong because the Tigers were worse!), but mostly screams of “Lies, lies!”. Yet, although Weiss blames both the Tigers and the government, it’s only the governments side who protest. Weiss doesn’t vilify any citizens. His version of what happened on the island is backed up by satellite imagery and by the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders, the UN, UNICEF, Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and Desmond Tutu. Yet, according to those who oppose his version of events, they have all been paid off by the Tamil Diaspora. I guess in writing this review, I have too. I’m looking forward to my big fat cheque arriving in the mail sometime soon. Rather, let’s just say that the postwar Sri Lankan government’s PR blitz is evident. As Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says, “perpetrators always seek to obfuscate reality, to discredit the information that points to their culpability and those who provide it, routinely demanding further proof. They stall or deflect action. Buying time and spreading misinformation is, after all, in a perpetrator’s own self-interest.”

Rating: 4 stars. It’s actually 5 star quality, but I deleted a star for two reasons. First, there is way more information here than I personally needed. I think he was right in including it, as it completes the historical record; however, I did not need to know that level of detail. Second, this book gave me too many nights of poor sleep—not nightmares exactly, but troubled dreams. This is a heavy read.

Recommended for: Anyone who cares about human rights. I like the motto of Human Rights Watch: “Tyranny has a witness.” Since it’s probably that the right thing will never be done for the victims of the war in Sri Lanka, it’s important that people write—and then read--about it ( )
10 vote Nickelini | Dec 3, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Sri Lanka is one of the most naturally favoured countries on earth, yet its occupants have been engaged in horrendous communal fighting since the country then known as Ceylon, gained independence from Britain in 1948.

The culmination of this violence came in May 2009. By March and April of that year, approximately fifth thousand Sri Lankan Army troops had encircled an estimated six hundred remaining cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, forcing them onto a tiny spit of land twelve kilometres long and approximately one wide. Trapped in this enclave with the LTTE, were approximately three hundred and thirty thousand ethic Tamil civilians, who had retreated from the SLA along with the LTTE. Without shelter, without food and with only the most rudimentary medical aid, they faced constant bombardment from the SLA who were unable and probably unwilling to differentiate the civilian no fire zone from the rest of the spit. If the Tamils tried to escape this virtual cage, they risked being shot by either side; if they stayed, they risked mutilation and death.

How had things reached this crisis? In The Cage: the Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, Gordon Weiss traces the history of Sri Lanka, concentrating in particular on the period from the mid nineteenth century onward. At independence, there were two major ethnic groups. The Sinhalese, predominantly Buddhist, were the ruling group and made up about seventy per cent of the population. The Tamils, predominantly Hindu, made up about twenty-five per cent, but with many fluent in English, they formed much of the civil service and professional classes. Each group had its own language and each was further split by internal rivalries.

Independence saw a Sinhalese oligarchy entrench the position it had gained under British rule. The first overt move against the Tamils came in 1956 with the passage of the Official Language Act. This act made Sinhala the official language, in one stroke rendering Tamils unable to function in business, law and education, and unleashing the first round of severe mob violence against Tamils.

In 1981, Sinhalese action against the Tamils destroyed the library at Jaffna, where ancient Tamil manuscripts and archives were held. Two years later, as the library and collections were being rebuilt, government troops attacked and destroyed this symbol of Tamil nationhood in an act of cultural genocide. In what the President of Sri Lanka described as "a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people", twenty thousand Tamil houses were destroyed and three thousand Tamils were murdered by Sinhalese mobs in the capital Colombo, during just four days in what came to be known as Black July.

Over the next twenty-five years, the Tamils fought four Eelam or homeland wars for the establishment of a Tamil state. The Tamil Tigers received expert training from the Indian army in the Indian Tamil majority state of Tamil Nadu. The Sinhalese purchased weapons from China. Apart from the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, all this happened with very little attention from the outside world. The governing elites of Sri Lanka became masters of media manipulation, media suppression and media intimidation. After the events of September 2001, there was a shift in language and thus in attitudes around the world, as groups that had been considered as working for national liberation, or as freedom fighters, suddenly found themselves labelled terrorists. Support for legitimate quests for independence dwindled. Sri Lanka took full advantage of this change, as many nations now labelled the LTTE a terrorist organization.

By the time the Sri Lankan army had the Tamils surrounded in the cage, it had managed to block not only domestic efforts to help the civilians, but had also issued continued denials of aid and access to the Red Cross and the UN, thus dooming about thirty thousand of those trapped to death, and untold thousands more to horrific injuries. When the Sinhalese president of Sri Lanka declared victory over the Tamils, he thanked India, Pakistan and China, leaving out western countries that had helped. Weiss considers this a signal of realignment of a country once considered a staunch western ally.

Weiss was a member of the UN communications team during this period. His account is documented in great detail with over one hundred pages of notes and other supplementary material. While it seemed to skip around unnecessarily at first, it gained focus in the excellent second half. Here, while still discussing matters in the context of Sri Lanka, Weiss raised more universal questions about the role of non partisan organizations such and the UN and the ICRC, and the rules under which they must operate, and the role of more outspoken organizations like Médecins sans Frontières. He discusses the role of organizations like the International Criminal Court and the International Commission of Jurists in dealing with crimes of "universal jurisdiction". Laws established after World Wars I and II to regulate disputes across borders must now be reconsidered in the light of Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur and Afghanistan, where disputes are within established national borders. One of the difficulties in these cases is defining the role of combatant versus civilian and willing combatant versus forced conscript. Whether or not you are interested in Sri Lanka per se, this book has important questions.
7 vote SassyLassy | Nov 30, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
As the UN's official spokesman in Colombo during the decisive period of fighting that lasted from 2006-9, Weiss was uniquely positioned to observe the human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides in the closing stages of the conflict, and also the scandalous lack of intervention by the international community. And in contrast to the SLA, which seems to specialise in indiscriminate bombardment, he lines up his targets carefully, then picks them off with surgical precision.
added by Nickelini | editScotsman (Jun 20, 2011)
 
However, one of the strengths of this book is that, unlike much of the reporting at the time of the crisis in 2009, it unpicks the roots of the problem that led to the emergence of the effective, aggressive, innovatory and very ugly organisation that was the LTTE. This goes much further than a simple account of tensions between Tamils and Sinhala or Hindus and Buddhists, delving deep into Sri Lanka's tradition of maximalist politics and the role of the violence in Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s in forming the worldview of its current leaders.
 
“One of the best books published by an Australian this year . . . Himself the grandson of a man who was murdered in Auschwitz, Weiss is aware of the thin line that separates civilised societies from those that sink into collective madness governed by hatred.”
added by blpbooks | editSpectator (Australia)
 
“A courageous document that holds to account the brutality of a rogue state that is all too often simply seen as a beautiful tourist destination.”
added by blpbooks | editSydney Morning Herald (Australia)
 
“A striking account of the ruthless terror wreaked by both sides on the innocent civilians.”
added by blpbooks | editSunday Times (UK)
 
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This book was inspired by my grandmother Suzanne, who urged me to risk and rove, and is dedicated to my grandfather Karel 1902-1945, who walked with me.
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As the mist lifted on the morning of May 19, 2009, a soldier leaned down to a body on the smoldering and largely silent marshland battlefield.
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In the final days of the 30-year Sri Lankan civil war, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, according to UN estimates, as government forces hemmed in the last remaining Tamil Tiger rebels on a tiny sand-spit, dubbed “The Cage.” Journalist Gordon Weiss, the United Nations spokesperson in Sri Lanka at the time, pulls back the curtain of government misinformation to tell the full story for the first time.

A harrowing portrait of the root causes and catastrophic consequences of a revolutionary uprising caught in the crossfire of international power jockeying, The Cage charts the role of foreign influence as it converged with a history of radical Buddhism and ethnic conflict. As Weiss relates the tale of an island paradise torn apart by war, he raises critical questions: Were war crimes committed? Was this the Obama administration’s first “human rights failure” (as suggested by Time magazine)? And does China’s central role in the Sri Lankan government’s victory sound a warning for democratic progress? Readers of The Cage, with its new author’s preface for the North American edition, will also find it provides the key to understanding why the controversial 2012 UN Human Rights Council resolution urging a war crimes investigation is only the first step toward reconciliation.
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In pursuit of power and fundamentalist Buddhism, an oligarchy of Sinhalese political leaders and monks hi-jacked democracy in Sri Lanka. In response a brutal enemy was born: the Tamil Tigers. The result, one of modern history's longest civil conflicts, spawned a host of horrific innovations, from suicide bombers to violent Buddhism.… (more)

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