Unfortunately, much of history is written by journalists. And Gota’s War is no different. If you’re looking for a military history of Sri Lanka’s war, this is not the book for you. In fact, that book has yet to be written. CA Chandraprema looks at the conflict through the lens of the media — the incidents and events that drew the newspaperman’s eye; albeit a rather right-of-centre Sinhalese nationalist newspaperman. Make no mistake, this is an important book; if for no other reason than that it is the first since the end of the war to cover the conflict in its entirety.
Chandraprema’s use of Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s truncated name in the title, and the description, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, is slightly misleading, giving the impression that the book is simply about the Defense Secretary’s role in the final few years of the war. In fact, what Chandraprema does is to use Gotabhaya as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative, particularly in the early stages of the war, when Gotabhaya was a young SL Army officer. Gota’s War is both history and biography, but it is not a natural coupling, and Chandraprema’s attempt to do both in one piece, cripples the scope of the book as a historical work.
In order to keep Gotabhaya central to the narrative, Chandraprema is forced to keep the trench-level view of the war narrow, while looking at some events – the JVP uprisings, the political infighting between the Rajapakses and their opponents – with a detail that is superfluous to the war against the Tamil separatists. Naturally, because of this, the early military confrontations between the Armed Forces and the separatists is confined to descriptions of operations carried out by the Gajaba Regiment, the unit Gotabhaya served most of his military career with. Similarly, this focus on Gotabhaya naturally prevents him examining some of the other influential characters that a true history should have. This is particularly clear in the almost non-existence of Gen Sarath Fonseka in Gota’s War. When he does make a rare appearance, he is depicted, at best, to be a rather passive figure and, often, as a hindrance to the dynamic and practical defense secretary. Fonseka, in Chandraprema’s view, is a Montgomery to Gotabhaya’s Patton, plodding and rigid, petty and selfish. In this, the author has done both Fonseka and his book a great disservice, and is akin to writing the history of the Second World War and leaving out Eisenhower or MacArthur. Similarly, many of the other military officers examined – senior to Gotabhaya the soldier and subordinate to Gotabhaya the defense secretary – are largely those who had the most influence on him. While this is acceptable in a biography, it is certainly not in a history.
The converse of this is that Gotabhaya often disappears from the narrative for long periods, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when his character isn’t central to events. We have very little indication of Gotabhaya’s personality, or the motivations that drove him; almost nothing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse the man; beyond the most superficial of sketches. This too is a deep flaw in Chandraprema’s book. At the end of Gota’s War, we know hardly more of the defense secretary than we knew at the beginning.
Chandraprema has also come under criticism, both from within the SL Army and without, for playing favourites in his book; for focusing on the feats of certain military officers, unfairly criticizing others, and completely ignoring still others. I will not dwell on this because every author has his own slant and viewpoint, and is entitled to it. To examine motive would be to review CA Chandraprema rather than his writing, and that is not the point of this article. I have mentioned the treatment of Fonseka simply because it is so glaring and obvious a failing.
One thing Chandraprema can be certainly complimented on is his writing style. Gota’s War is 504 pages long, and looks rather daunting when first picked up. However, it is very readable even if you’re not a history buff. The prose is smooth and conversational, the chapters no more than half a dozen pages in length, as fast paced as a novel, and devoid of the stuffiness, cliché, and archaic language many Sri Lankan authors of histories and memoirs feel obliged to write in. Chandraprema even manages to infuse a certain amount of sardonic humour to his writing. The book is solidly bound, and the cover is attractive, if rather unimaginative. The book could do with some better maps, however, in place of the hand-drawn ones at the back, which give no indication of the frontlines, the Tiger- and government-held areas, or the direction of offensives described by Chandraprema.
The author begins his book by examining the origins of the conflict, in the two decades immediately after independence and, right from the start, Chandraprema’s flag is nailed firmly to his masthead, never to be relented throughout the following 79 chapters. In effect, the Tamils are wrong; they have always been wrong, and none of this long conflict can be blamed on the Sinhalese or the state. The blame is unequivocally placed at the feet of the Tamil political leadership who, according to Chandraprema, radicalised and nationalised Tamil politics by overreacting to perfectly reasonable laws and acts by the state. In his description of riots in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the author downplays the violence against Tamils and often highlights the incidents of violence against Sinhalese. He invariably portrays the state and the police to be doing everything they can to quell these pogroms, which Chandraprema believes were the fault of the Tamil politicians in the first place.
In Chapter 3, The Creation of Conflict, the author describes the protests of the Tamil leaders against “Sinhala Only” thus: “The Satyagraha as an instrument of protest was never meant to be peaceful. It was non-violent only to the extent that actual physical violence was not used by the Satyagrahis. In every other respect, the Satyagraha was an instrument of confrontation.” Throughout, Chandraprema steadfastly refuses to apportion any responsibility for the conflict to the Sinhalese or the policies of the state. Just as he blames the Satyagrahis themselves for the violence perpetrated against them, he goes on to blame the 1958 riots on Chelvanayagam’s tarring of the “sri” letter, and the 1983 riots on Prabakharan’s killing of thirteen soldiers in an ambush. Nowhere does he acknowledge the right to protest, nor the authorities’ responsibility to the rule of law. Elsewhere, when describing the undisciplined retaliation against civilians by SL Army troops that had come under guerrilla or terrorist attacks, Chandraprema suggests that this was quite natural a reaction and unnecessary of criticism. He cites the ‘70s and ‘80s as being a period in which such atrocities were acceptable, as if he was discussing the rape of the Sabine women, or the sack of Troy, rather than the conduct of a military fighting an insurgency in the late 20th Century. In Chapter 16, The Rajarata Rifles Mutiny, Chandraprema writes, “It is only after the end of the cold war that these new fangled notions of politically correct wars came to the fore.” These, and other absurd comments, rob Gota’s War of a lot of the credibility it might have had, and such defense of the indefensible ensures that his later descriptions of the war tend to be suspect as well.
Chandraprema’s narration of the war itself, while interesting and informative, doesn’t really add much that could not be gleaned from the newspapers of the time. If the reader is expecting inside information on the strategy and tactics of the various periods of the war, and the thinking behind these, he will be disappointed. Like any piece of journalism, Chandraprema’s depends heavily on whom he interviewed in his research; and, rather than interviews supporting a particular theme, the content is driven by the interviews themselves. So while we are privy to some selected after action reports and command memos by general officers, there is no reference to regimental war diaries that would have given a better viewpoint of the actual fighting. So while instructions from generals such as Lakshman Algama and Srilal Weerasooriya, run for several pages, the chapters on now-famous battles like the siege of Elephant Pass add nothing new to history.
On the plus side, Chandraprema is heavily critical of the lack of training and organization within the SL Army in the ‘80s and ‘90s which resulted in some of the heavy defeats like Pooneryn and Mullaitivu. This is an aspect that no one has really addressed outside the occasional article, and together with the descriptions of the detailed measures attempted by various Army commanders, gives an accurate picture of why the war was so unsuccessful in the first two decades. Popular opinion has tended to simply blame the politicians for lack of will, and some senior military officers of corruption, but Chandraprema points out that a lack of morale, discipline, training, organization, and equipment in the combat battalions was a big part of this military failing. Chandraprema goes on to call the SL Army of the ‘90s a defeated one, pointing out that some of the most celebrated victories were often nothing more than the prevention of utter defeat rather than real victories. These suggestions will not endear the author to the old guard, but he is right in that these were all, for the most part, defensive battles, and did little to further overall success against the separatists. Here too, however, Gota’s War is crippled by its lack of a trench-level perspective. Chandraprema never reveals what it was like for the men on the ground who were actually doing the fighting, restricting his narrative to that of the senior officers who he had interviewed.
Chandraprema also spends a lot of time on the second JVP insurrection, and on the period of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), which is largely unwarranted in a book of this scope. Both these periods are necessitated by his use of Gotabhaya (and by extension, Mahinda Rajapakse) as a protagonist. In the examination of the JVP rebellion, he uses it to reinforce the view of Gotabhaya as an efficient military officer, citing the successful pacification of the Matale District where he served as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 1st Gajabas. Similarly, Chandraprema uses the period of the CFA to establish the Rajapakses’ position in the wings, looking out on a country that was being sold out by Ranil Wickramasinghe and the UNP. These political dalliances by the author add little to the actual narrative on the war, and will make more middle-of-the-road readers cringe at what is clearly a partisan viewpoint.
The cringe-worthiness continues as Chandraprema strays even further away from the plot to discuss the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge, The Sunday Leader editor, and the unsuccessful eviction of non-resident Tamils from the city of Colombo; incidents that had nothing whatsoever to do with the course of the war. Unfortunately, Chandraprema’s strategy of distancing the Rajapakses from the more negative incidents that took place under their watch is quite transparent when he suggests that Gen Sarath Fonseka was responsible for the killing of Wickramatunge, and that Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse were nothing more than helpless bystanders. He even claims that Gotabhaya’s reasoning for the eviction of the Tamils was quite sound and based on military expediency. Chandraprema could very well have achieved this by simply leaving out these incidents and focusing solely on the war itself, but the journalist in him probably refused to accept the insignificance of such events in the larger picture since they loomed large in the media headlines of the time.
Things descend into farce when Chandraprema then sets out to examine several war movies that were produced during the CFA, discussing their propaganda value, the effect they had on the Sinhalese population, and apparently their impact on military morale. While such examinations might be necessary when looking at the impact of war on society, they remain quite irrelevant in the context of history.
Ironically, when Chandraprema deals with one of the incidents from the CFA period that did indeed have a strong effect on the outcome of the war – Karuna’s defection – he refuses to delve into the influence the UNP government of the time must have had on engineering this defection. The author blandly describes the events that everybody already is aware of, and doesn’t reveal any of the behind-the-scenes machinations. To do so would have meant crediting Ranil Wickramasinghe’s administration with something that runs contrary to the right-wing view of the UNP leader as a traitor to the nation.
Similarly, when describing the LTTE aggression that ultimately scuttled the CFA, Chandraprema portrays the Rajapakse regime’s lack of retaliation to these attacks as being inspired by a love for peace and a diplomatic solution. Even the most naïve of readers is unlikely to accept this. The unpreparedness of the military at this point, and the race to get ready for war, is largely ignored as a reason for the state’s lack of immediate reaction. While Chandraprema’s view is that publicized by the government at the time, he fails as a historian in not bothering to look beyond the official line. Chandraprema often opts for playing politics over being faithful to history, and this reduces the overall value of his work.
When war finally breaks out again, Chandraprema’s narrative sticks firmly to Gotabhaya’s view as defense secretary. From this point on, biography and history meld together well for obvious reasons, and the author is able to present an insightful view of the war. Chandraprema gives the impression that the defense secretary was both civil administrator of the military as well as de facto Armed Forces commander. This impression is particularly strong in regard to the SL Army. While the roles of the Air Force and Navy commanders are acknowledged, Chandraprema largely skims over the Army commander’s role, instead superimposing Gotabhaya over this position, right down to describing the defense secretary telephoning individual division, brigade, and battalion commanders for situation reports when it suited him, and not following the chain of command. Unfortunately, narrating the war through Gotabhaya’s eyes doesn’t allow for much analysis of the actual tactics and fighting beyond the most superficial.
Chandraprema also often fails to give any motive or substantiation for many of his opinions. One example is his description of the failed Muhamalai offensive of October 2006, which the author claims was launched without approval or knowledge of the National Security Council headed by Gotabhaya. Chandraprema suggests that this offensive was planned by Gen Sarath Fonseka, but he fails to explain how such a thing could have happened, why the Army commander would do such a thing on his own, and why he wasn’t called to account for it by the defense secretary, or indeed the president. When the Muhamalai-Nagarkovil front is largely considered by other commentators to have been a sideshow to keep Tiger troops tied down on the Jaffna Peninsula, such contrary opinions require substantiation, and the failure to do so weakens Chandraprema’s narrative.
Another unfortunate fact of Gota’s War is that it skims over the operations in the Eastern Province. While it is true that these battles didn’t result in many casualties for the LTTE, the capture of the East was vital to the war effort, and deserves closer examination; particularly the role of Karuna’s TMVP paramilitaries, and the first use of some of the new tactics employed by the reorganized Armed Forces.
Chandraprema’s description of the offensives in the Wanni is what most readers of his book would have been waiting for. And the author depicts the chain of events, the simultaneous offensives by multiple divisions, and the roles of the individual Armed Forces very well. Frankly, this final phase of the war deserves a book of its own, but Chandraprema does well in the circumstances. However, it is unlikely that the reader will find anything that he hasn’t heard before, albeit with a few insider stories and details. The scope of the book doesn’t allow Chandraprema to go down to the brigade or battalion level in describing the battles, so he sticks to the big divisions and task forces, thereby depriving a true student of history of any new knowledge. This again, reinforces what I said at the beginning of this review, that Gota’s War is a media history of the war, based around the headline news.
The book ends with Chandraprema falling back on the nationalistic agenda of demonizing the Tamil diaspora and the west in general, and claiming a conspiracy to gain by other means what the LTTE had failed to do militarily. While this is an interesting enough topic, it has little to do with the actual war.
Gota’s War, though deeply flawed, is a book that anyone interested in the conflict should read. It is certainly not the definitive book on the war, and it remains to be seen if such a piece of writing will emerge. When and if it does, it will certainly be a more lengthy, detailed, and exhaustive book than Chandraprema’s. Gota’s War is tightly narrated, and its strength is its overview rather than its detail, its everyman view rather than its historical perspective. As such, it deserves its place on the bookshelf of every student of Sri Lankan military history. It is important, however, to ensure that it is not the only book on that shelf.
Gota’s War by CA Chandraprema is published by the Ranjan Wijeratne Foundation and priced at Rs 1,000.