Niromi de Soysa’s Path of Redemption with Deception? or Both?

Michael Roberts, an original article drafted in early October [but see NOTE ** at end]

Young Pirapaharan

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka arising from the Tamil struggle for liberation spanned the years 1983 to 2009 and went through several phases. In one phase the Indian government intervened forcibly by injecting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in July 1987 to protect the Tamils (allegedly). This act in pursuit of their own geo-political designs was resented on the Sinhalese side of the ethnic fence in Lanka; while being deliriously welcomed by the Tamil populace of the north.

    However, the LTTE had reservations and cleverly engineered a turning of Tamil sentiment against the presence of the IPKF. From early October 1987 the LTTE took on the IPKF in sustained guerrilla warfare. This battle lasted till late 1989. Consult any book on the “Indian intervention” or any specialist and you will find confirmation of a FACT that everyone in Sri Lankawas fully aware of: viz., the Sri Lankan Army was confined to barracks and did not engage the Tigers. Eventually, a complicated series of political events led to the withdrawal of the IPKF in early 1990.[1]

 Such details are not widely known in the West. Understandings today are coloured by the emotion-laden details on the last stages of Eelam War IV in early 2009 disseminated by the world-wide Tamil migrant lobby acting in cahoots with powerful media outlets in various centres in the Western heartland. Allen & Unwin is exploiting this market through Niromi de Soyza’s purported autobiography in Tamil Tigress. The book has received wide publicity in Australia and been described as “part memoir, part compelling reportage, part mea culpa” by Nikki Barrowclough in the Sydney Morning Herald’s weekend magazine.[2] Among its supporters is the moral crusader, Gordon Weiss, who found it “incredibly moving” and sees it as “a story of redemption” (as quoted by Nikki Barrowclough).

There is a fly in the ointment however. Few seem to be aware of a capsule version of the same tale under the same nom de plume in the Daily Telegraph in May 2009.[3] I was in the same boat till a friend unearthed it. This presentation undermines that of 2011. In both essay and book the tale is launched in melodramatic fashion by an account of de Soyza’s first battlefield skirmish, one that is central to the unfolding composition in the book because several of her bosom mates and one mentor died in that fiery encounter.[4]

 “At dawn that day, Indian soldiers had surrounded our hideout” she says in 2009. Later in this same account she notes that “fighting the Indian soldiers made no sense to me.” This realisation was one factor in her decision to extricate herself from the commitment to fight for Tamil independence under the LTTE.

 In contrast, in the opening account in 2011, the enemy are just “soldiers”; while the back cover explicitly proclaims that “two days before Christmas 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting the government forces that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades (emphasis mine).”

  Thus, the Indian presence has been obliterated at this critical juncture, though they figure occasionally at other points deeper in the book (pp. 162, 164, 168, 227, 264). The contrast with her initial foray in 2009 is a demonstration of deception catering to the Western world’s sustained criticism of the Sri Lankan state in 2011 within a backdrop created by the disclosures in Killing Fields and an UN panel report by so-called “experts.”

One can only conjecture why such misrepresentation was injected: foregrounding the Indians in the opening chapter would undermine the propaganda pitch as a Tamil patriot which is one dimension of Tamil Tigress. Readers in the West would assume that the soldiers were Sri Lankans because they were not versed in the complexities and temporal shifts attending Sri Lanka’s ethnic wars.

There is, nevertheless, a deeper puzzle. In both presentations Niromi de Soyza believes that the Tigers were engaged in fighting the Indian troops of the IPKF as well as the troops of the Sri Lankan army during her alleged battlefield stint from October 1987 to June 1988. “The war resumed, just as Prabhakaran had predicted, though now we were fighting not only the government troops but the peacekeepers, too” she says in the Daily Telegraph account. She is consistent on this point. In 2011 she told Margaret Throsby in an ABC interview that “when I joined, the Indian forces had arrived and the Tigers had chosen to fight the Indian forces as well as the Sri Lankan forces.”[5] During her leisurely chat with Nikki Barrowclough in Sydney in July 2011 she said that her unit spent “most of the time … running and hiding from government soldiers.”[6]

 As we have seen, however, the Sri Lankan Army was not involved in the ground skirmishes in this period. Everyone in Sri Lanka was aware of this fact. It is not only a issue of visual proof, though the camouflage uniforms of the IPKF and the turbans worn by the Sikh regiments who were part of the IPKF should have been outstanding indicators to all those resident in north and east. The Indians used “British self-loading rifles [whose] form, sound, and fire pattern” was quite distinct from that of the Chinese weapons used by the Sri Lankan Army.[7]

 Such errors destroy the authenticity of de Soyza’s battlefield experience. These suspicions are compounded when she tells the world that “during battles we had been trained to fire in the general direction of the enemy, not at individual targets, and I am not sure whether any of my bullets hit anyone;”[8] and that during her skirmishes as a guerrilla she may have shot at someone running, but “didn’t ever see a face… I would have frozen if I’d seen a face.”[9] Two former Lankan soldiers I consulted found this picture of training and soldiering quite hilarious. Indeed, from his reading of the book Gerard Windsor concluded that “the Tigers were “amateurish” – a verdict that countless troops pitted against the LTTE in the 1980s and 1990s would dispute.[10] Here, then, de Soyza does a disservice to the Tigers as a fighting force, while marking her profound ignorance about warfare.

    A clutch of ethnographic errors identified by Arun Ambalavanar augments these doubts about the authenticity of her memoir. If the book was presented as a mix of fiction and non-fiction such concerns would not matter, though the political claims made at the end of the book would lose mileage. The discovery of the 2009 version is intriguing insofar as it reveals common threads of reflection and political thought in both ventures. These cannot be addressed in a short review, but I note here that both versions criticise the LTTE’s harsh discipline and its execution of Tamils deemed guilty of transgressions. However the criticism of the LTTE reads sharper in the 2009 sketch and is further underlined by the author’s despair.

    If Tamil Tigress had been cast as a novel or even a fact-based fiction its impact as a vehicle for reflection on the human condition and a challenge to the perception of the Tigers as “terrorists” of a satanic kind would have remained forceful. When a whiff of deception intrudes, such reflective potential is diluted.


NOTE **: Given my experience with the West Australian regarding with the short version of my previous article (a specific request which was rejected after I sent it –for reasons not specified)I did not send this article to any Australian news outlets. I tried two inIndia and two high-profile magazines abroad as well as the Guardian. No takers there either. Neither was it taken up recently by DBS Jeyaraj and any of the Sri Lankan newspapers. [1] For background on the period 1983-1990, see the following: Rohan Gunaratna, Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, Colombo, South Asian Network on Conflict Research, 1993; M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi, Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1994, pp. 247-316. For a summary of some threads, see Roberts, “Another Demidenko? Niromi de Soyza as a Tiger Fighter,” in http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/another-demidenko-niromi-de-soyza-as-a-tiger-fighter/.

 [2] Nikki Barrowclough, “Tigress, interrupted,” Good Weekend, 9 July 2011, p. 28.

 [3] “Life as a female Tamil Tiger guerilla relived by one of first female soldiers,” http://www. telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/5283438/Life-as-a-female-Tamil-Tiger-guerilla-relived-by-one-of-first-female-soldiers.html

 [4] As recounted in “The Last Few Moments of Life,” Chapter 14.[5] http://www.abc.net.au/classic/throsby/2011_07.htm.

 [6] Good Weekend, 9 July 2011, p. 28.[7] David Blacker, email, 3 October 2011.

[7] Blacker is of Burgher and Tamil lineage and served in the Sinha Rifles of the Sri Lanka Army in 1990/91. 

[8] “Life as a female Tamil Tiger guerilla relived by one of first female soldiers,” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/5283438/Life-as-a-female-Tamil-Tiger -guerilla-relived-by-one-of-first-female-soldiers.html 

[9] In Nikki Barrowclough, “Tigress, interrupted,” Good Weekend, 9 July 2011, p. 28.

 [10]Windsor, “Tamil Tigress,” http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/tamil-tigress-20110901-1jmmv.html.

5 Comments

Filed under female empowerment, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil Tiger fighters, truth as casualty of war

5 responses to “Niromi de Soysa’s Path of Redemption with Deception? or Both?

  1. Rama Prabha

    Sir, I read all ur blogs. I am from India and doing my PHD in conflict resolution in that regard ur blogs are very useful to me thank you sir.

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