Island of Pain: Sri Lanka’s Civil War

November 13, 2014

Rohini Mohan, The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (Verso, 2014).


Journalist Rohini Mohan’s recently released book, her first, recounts the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war – which raged from 1983 to 2009 – and the years that follow. Written unpretentiously, The Seasons of Trouble focuses on three real-life protagonists: Indra, Sarva and Mugil. The book will be of interest to both keen observers of Sri Lankan affairs and a more general audience.

Led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who remains in power to this day, the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group that was fighting for an ethnic Tamil state in the island’s northern and eastern provinces. Sinhala people, the vast majority of whom are Buddhist, comprise the overwhelming ethnic majority in Sri Lanka – approximately 75 percent of people – on an island whose population exceeds 20 million.

Part of Mohan’s book recounts the war’s final stages in the country’s northern province – events which are still hotly contested even today. Violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including war crimes, were allegedly committed by both sides during the war. The Tamil Tigers were a ruthless group and their tactics over the years included bombings, massacres and assassination. They were also, to say the least, careless when it came to civilian casualties. Mohan notes that as of January 2009, “Tamil villagers had been appalled at the Tigers’ casual neglect of people’s safety in the battle zone.” Their program of forced conscription, including of children, is also very troubling. Of course, that is not to say that Sri Lankan government forces, composed almost exclusively of ethnic Sinhalese, did not also commit their fair share of atrocities.

The government’s actions are impossible to ignore: the shelling of hospitals, encouraging civilians to enter “no fire zones” that were anything but, the use of cluster bombs, the restriction of peoples’ access to humanitarian workers or even aid in the north, and the horrible, inadequate conditions of Manik Farm – the massive refugee camp in Vavuniya district where around 300,000 people were forced to stay for an extended period of time. As Mohan poignantly notes, “The camp for civilians was no different from an open-air prison.” Manik Farm was not officially closed until September 2012.

Indra, Sarva and Mugil are all Tamils, the ethnic group that suffered the most during the country’s civil war. Indra is the mother of Sarva, a young man who, under questionable circumstances, had joined the Tamil Tigers for a brief period and is abducted by state security forces towards the beginning of the book. Readers join him on his journey, from ambivalent militancy to interrogation and torture to a life that eventually goes beyond Sri Lanka.

Mugil, the book’s most enthralling character, is a woman who joined the Tamil Tigers in her teens only to later leave the group. In March 2009, she considers fleeing to India, but turns back. In so doing she must tread very carefully. At the end of the war, since Mugil never identified herself as an ex-combatant, she was not forced to endure the government’s (hugely controversial) rehabilitation program.

People with links to the separatist group, tangential or otherwise, face enormous challenges in Sri Lanka today – especially former members of the Tamil Tigers. From intensive surveillance to arbitrary arrest and detention, to discrimination in the eyes of potential employers, to social exclusion, ex-combatants are constantly reminded that the war might be over, but their struggle is not.

Critics may complain that the story is told almost exclusively from a Tamil perspective. Challenges that Muslims have faced are also mentioned, but still, there is merit to this critique. Sinhalese also suffered as a result of the Tamil Tigers’ brutal tactics. In 1993, a suicide bomber even managed to assassinate a sitting head of state, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital – something that’s mentioned (in a short history of the war) at the end of the book.

Nonetheless, The Seasons of Trouble serves as another reminder that the root causes of the country’s ethnic conflict remain unaddressed and that the consequences of war are both wide-ranging and profound. Through the book’s three main characters, it’s the quotidian nature of these extraordinary struggles – the daily grief, sorrow and relentless challenges – that resonated so deeply with this reader. This is not to suggest that war and violent conflict are ordinary. Rather, it’s the realization that the stories captured in this narrative are just a drop in the bucket.

Mohan’s work is not intended to capture the nuances of recent diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and the book touches on geopolitics only superficially. However, it’s useful to keep in mind that Sri Lanka continues to receive international criticism for a lack of accountability for alleged atrocities committed during the final phase of the war and the ongoing human rights violations, which are all too common. As part of a recent U.N. Human Rights Council resolution, the third which has been passed on Sri Lanka in as many years, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present a report about alleged violations, which occurred from February 21, 2002 to November 15, 2011, during the Council’s 28th session in March 2015. Yet, in terms of international scrutiny of the Rajapaksa regime, what happens next remains unclear. While they have been designed to promote human rights, reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka have been largely ineffectual. Furthermore, the nuances of international diplomacy – particularly when it’s conducted in multilateral forums like the Geneva-based Human Rights Council – can seem esoteric and abstract, especially to ordinary people who are struggling with daily life on the island. Furthermore, the Rajapaksa regime’s unwillingness to negotiate a reasonable power-sharing arrangement with the opposition Tamil National Alliance is also cause for significant concern.

The Seasons of Trouble ends on a prescient and sober note in April 2013, as the author recounts an incident of anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by the violent extremist Sinhala Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena – a group that receives tacit support from the ruling regime.

As someone who spent several years working for a human rights organization in Sri Lanka, this book resonated deeply with me. With such clear prose and tough, authentic stories of struggle Mohan’s book is anything but abstract. Indeed, disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual and ethnic violence, discrimination, land problems, militarization, a lack of media freedom and widespread impunity for crimes committed are all issues which reverberate throughout post-war Sri Lanka.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all is that the regime’s authoritarian ways since the conclusion of the war have not encouraged a sense of peace but have alienated the Tamil and, more recently, Muslim communities. The Rajapaksa regime consistently mentions that economic growth and infrastructure development since the conclusion of war has been extensive; this is true. However, due to corruption, nepotism, the shrinking space for civil society, and questionable macroeconomic policies, ordinary Sinhalese have suffered too. All that being said, Rajapaksa is expected to be elected to a third term in January 2015.

The problem isn’t just that Sri Lanka is currently headed in the wrong direction, it’s that Rajapaksa’s current polices – if allowed to continue – will likely augur a return to more extensive ethnic violence further down the road. In that context, The Seasons of Trouble is a timely and important contribution about a fascinating war-torn South Asian nation whose history is as compelling and complicated as it is tragic.


Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.


Photo credit: marietta amarcord