Michael Roberts, reviewing Gerald H. Peiris: Twilight of the Tigers. Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka, Delhi, Oxford University Press & Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, pb, 297 pages…. reprinted from TRANSCURRENTS, with the % comments therein [all from 2010] also presented at the end — after the Footnotes, …. with highlighted colours are my subsequent editorial impositions
Twilight of the Tigers is essential reading for any person interested in the political history of Sri Lanka during the first decade of this century. With measured argument and in lucid prose Gerald Peiris challenges the belief that territorial devolution is a viable means of resolving Sri Lanka’s political problems and questions the thinking that launched the peace process in 2000-01.
The short title may mislead people into thinking that this is a book about the recent demise of the LTTE as a de facto state in Sri Lanka. In fact the book was in press by late 2008. But Peiris had correctly anticipated the direction of the war because he also has expertise in this arena, having contributed to Jane’s Intelligence Review. Moreover, for years he has adhered to a hardline patriotic position seeking to protect the island’s sovereignty. Thus, he has stood alongside such individuals as HL de Silva in objecting to federalism on the grounds that the devolutionary measures under consideration, including the North-East merged sub-state, would imperil political stability.
Twilight is a cogent exposition of this stance in engagement with specific events and processes in the years 2000-08. Moreover, the argument that “territorial power-sharing is fraught with peril” is further clarified by a brief comparative excursion that analyses such attempts in other parts of the world (pp. 54-56).
Peiris approaches the subject from a “statist” position devoted to efficient centralised planning and delivery. The book is informed by his expertise in economic geography and political economy. Thus, study of his magnum opus on Sri Lanka. Challenges of the New Millennium (Kandy, Kandy Books, 2006) would assist readers who wish to acquire in-depth material on the issues he raises. That book would complement his argument in Twilight that the creation of an exclusive Tamil homeland would not work peacefully because of such issues as the distribution of water resources (pp. 51-52) would emerge as intractable flash-points for future confrontations.
This technocratic persuasion seems to be moderated by some empathy for the grass-roots participatory activism associated with some strands of JVP thinking, but the traces of this leaning in Twilight are too brief for one to work out how it would mesh with the centralist emphasis.
Peiris’s arguments from way back, therefore, stood in counterpoint to my stance on the peace process – as expressed for instance in “The Many Faces of Eelam” in the Daily Mirror, 8 August 2002. At that point, in 2002-03, I felt that the Sri Lankan state did not have the organisational capacity to best the LTTE on the military front. This leaning was directed by the abject failures in the various military campaigns in the 1990s. So, pragmatically, I was for some form of modus vivendi, though not overly optimistic about the future because I suspected that Pirapāharan’s desire for Eelam was obdurate.
My pragmatic inclination then – as it seems now on reflection – had one major flaw: it did not attend to the impossibility of sustaining federalism when both units within the federation possess an army and navy (as pinpointed on one occasion by Dayan Jayatilleka). Or, as Peiris puts it, the peace process of devolution could only be sustained if the LTTE accepted “a voluntary abdication of its absolute power” in the terrain it controlled, an act involving disarming (pp. 47, 23-24). This possibility, as we all know, was never ever on the cards.
This shortcoming in my reading of the Sri Lankan scene became clear when I visited Jaffna and Kilinochchi in late November 2004. Apart from experiencing the depths of support for the LTTE among the Tamil people at first-hand, I (a) discovered that some of the English-speaking Tiger civilians I met were as feisty as eager for the resumption of war and (b) I received unsolicited email evidence that the LTTE was indeed preparing for war. The tsunami of 26 December 2004 merely slowed down that process.
All this, and Peiris’s interpretation, have since been confirmed by details that have subsequently come to light about Pirapāharan’s hardline thinking on the peace process. A conversation recently with a young Tiger supporter in Melbourne confirmed what other sources, including Karuna, have revealed: Pirapāharan went ballistic after the terms of the Oslo discussions in December 2002 were released. Anton Balasingham was pushed to the side (though this move was carefully covered up by the LTTE spin-doctors by an emphasis on his illness).
So, Gerald Peiris has hit the nail on the head when he asserts that the peace process was doomed from the outset. This motif in Twilight is allied with caustic criticism of the “self-induced hallucination” of Ranil Wickremasinghe and the other architects of the MoU that initiated the ceasefire in early 2002 and the various measures, such as the ISGA and P-TOMS, that developed from this foundation in subsequent years. He is equally critical of the Norwegian partialities towards the LTTE (pp. 72-74, 250, 264).
The Moral Imperialism of Human Rights Exponents
Peiris builds on these strands in his thinking by concluding the book with a chapter on “The ‘Human Rights’ Onslaught” in Sri Lanka. He explicitly avoids arguing that all interventions “are sinister in motive.” He admits that “violations of human rights rank among the main problems of the governance in the country” (p. 254). But he highlights the problematic foundations of the international legal regulations and organisations that promote such incursions; remarks on the double standards that direct the choice of countries earmarked for UN intervention within a context of well-organised disinformation campaigns and uses detail to question the impartiality of such interventionists as Louise Arbour and Philip Alston. The chapter is rounded off by a detailed examination of the evidence on the killings of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers at Muttur on 4th August 2006.
The central point in this chapter is Peiris’s questioning of “the authenticity of the information” upon which the UN and other experts intervened (p. 247) and “the moral imperialism” that impels such ideologues as Arbour. This challenge is supported by illustrations of the gross errors of fact perpetuated in some instances by a few experts (e.g. pp. 247-48). Having witnessed at first hand recently how some Australian moral crusaders and media personnel have indulged in sweeping generalisations and/or fraudulent claims about the factors that have promoted out-migration from Sri Lanka, I found some of Peiris’s arguments here especially pertinent. I do not say that Peiris’s commentary is the last word on the subject, for much within this chapter is unfamiliar terrain to me. But Peiris has thrown down the gauntlet in front of the INGOS and NGOS involved in human rights and R2P agitation for Sri Lanka. The country will be well-served by a debate on the issue as the many well-intentioned local personnel who have pressed these activities in recent times respond to this challenge.
Overview & Formatting
The strength of Peiris’s analytical survey, nevertheless, rests in the detailed review of the circumstances that led to the peace process and its chronological deciphering of key moments in the twists and turns of Sri Lankan politics in the period 2001-08, with all its attendant international ramifications. The temporal progression in this book is assisted by the coherent political argument in defence of state sovereignty and centralised control that is a major pillar in Peiris’s thinking. It is also aided by the excellent organisation and formatting of the chapters, with subheadings, sign-posts and occasional boxed sections rendering it easy to read without getting lost.
While there is much to commend in this book of 279 pages, let me conclude by pinpointing a missing element within his evaluation. I assert here that the peace process may have been founded on ill-judged premises; but it also promoted the decline of the LTTE. This is not recognised. Let me elaborate albeit briefly.
While the ceasefire may have provided the LTTE with the space and time to consolidate its hold on the Tamil people within its realm (and beyond its realm too), it also provided the state with the space to recover from the attack on Katunayake airport and other military losses in the immediate past. Just as the LTTE built up its armaments, so did the governing regimes. Indeed, the military hierarchy revolutionised the capacities of its infantry regiments within the period 2002-06 so that the army had the tactical capacity to defeat the LTTE when Eelam War IV occurred.
Again, as surmise, I assert that the UNP’s policy of undermining the LTTE through consumerism had its impact. The Tamils in Tigerland had been subject to a spartan existence for years. The flow of commodities, including pornographic material and other goodies, opened new vistas. As experienced Tiger officers were allowed to marry, the LTTE also ‘lost’ key personnel in ways that increasing new recruitments did not necessarily compensate for.
And then, in part because of the attractions of a new life world, General Karuna decided that continuing war, something that Pirapāharan was wholly committed to, was not attractive. His defection in March-April 2004 was one of the unintentional outcomes of the peace process, even though a honey-trap that entwined him in some urban hotspot was deliberate design that accelerated that momentous step. This defection itself was founded upon a pre-existing regional fissure among the Sri Lankan Tamils, namely, the long-standing hostility of Batticaloa Tamils to men from the north. So, the reasons for this major development were complex. That it weakened the LTTE considerably cannot be doubted.
 S. Tammita-Delgoda, Sri Lanka. The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudukulam,” New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare, Manekshaw Paper No. 13, 2009.
 One concrete illustration was the manner in which Colonel Karuna took to safari suits and highlife. A young military officer at the peace talks concluded that he was no longer committed to fighting. This evaluation proved correct.
 This is based on grapevine gossip.