Book review: The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers

The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers by Gordon Weiss Bodley Head, 352pp, £14.99

BRIEFLY, in the spring of 2009, Sri Lanka made headlines around the world as its 26 year-old civil war came to a desperate, bloody conclusion on a remote stretch of beach in the island's north-eastern corner.

You may remember seeing apocalyptic aerial photographs that revealed scores of bodies buried beneath the sand. You may remember hearing journalists and diplomats expressing concern that, following the Sri Lankan Army's (SLA) defeat of the separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers, the country seemed to be sliding from flawed democracy to outright dictatorship with alarming speed.

Apart from occasional cricket scores, however, the chances are you won't have heard much about Sri Lanka for a couple of years now. Why? Because since the end of hostilities, the government has been doing everything in its power to keep foreign journalists out of the former conflict zone and to silence its own media, either by intimidation, imprisonment or, in the case of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the outspoken former editor of the Colombo-based Sunday Leader newspaper, assassination.

So what does the Sri Lankan government have to hide? That's the question Gordon Weiss sets out to answer in this painstakingly researched and referenced study, and his conclusions are nothing short of horrific.

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.

First, though, he gives a brief but illuminating history of the origins of Sri Lanka's civil strife - how, upon independence from Britain in 1948, an initially promising fledgling democracy started to fall apart as tensions increased between the largely Tamil, Hindu north and the predominantly Sinhalese, Buddhist south.

The key flashpoint, as identified by Weiss, was the introduction of a "Sinhala Only Act" in 1956 by newly elected prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike, who had risen to power on a wave of aggressive Sinhalese nationalism. This new piece of legislation saw Sinhala replace English as the island's official language, effectively relegating all Tamils to second-class citizens. "Thereafter," writes Weiss, "the Act served as an enduring reference point for the rising pitch of Tamil nationalism."

This desire for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island led, ultimately, to the formation of the Tamil Tigers, a highly effective terrorist organisation headed by the ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran, who wasn't afraid to use suicide bombers and child soldiers to achieve his goals. Having wiped out all the rival bands of freedom fighters in the north, Prabhakaran set about consolidating his power base, using the well-connected Tamil diaspora to build a global network of money laundering and gun-running operations. As a result, by the time the Norwegian government was able to broker a ceasefire in 2001, the Tigers were running a de facto state in the north and the east of the country, having resisted numerous assaults by the SLA and an ill-fated peacekeeping operation by the Indian army.

When the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" in 2002, a peaceful resolution to the conflict seemed within reach. However, when the hawkish Rajapakse came to power three years later, following a period of building tension, it was only going to be a matter of time before hostilities resumed.

A lot had changed between 2002 and 2006. The Tigers had grown physically weaker after their Eastern commander, Colonel Karuna, turned against them in a spat over the allocation of funds, taking 5,000 fighters with him. But they were politically weaker too. In the 1990s, with liberal interventionism apparently proving its worth in the Balkans, self-determination for oppressed ethnic minorities was very much in vogue. In the wake of 9/11, however, terrorist organisations - even ones that claimed to be fighting to establish a homeland for their people - found themselves with serious PR problems. Furthermore, with the US bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sri Lanka increasingly fell within China's sphere of influence, and it used this new state of affairs to full advantage. Indeed, the main reason the international community failed to act via the UN, Weiss argues, was because the Chinese made it clear they would block any moves to consider the legality or otherwise of the Sri Lankan government's actions.

The Rajapakse regime has been accused of genocide by some observers because of the way it conducted the final phase of the war. Weiss doesn't go quite that far, but it is clear from his analysis that, as the Tigers retreated eastwards, taking more than 300,000 Tamil civilians with them, the SLA repeatedly used heavy artillery on areas they knew were packed with refugees.

We know this, in part, because of the bravery of Harun Khan, a retired colonel from the Bangladeshi army who, in January 2009, was leading a UN convoy that became trapped in the ever-shrinking area of Tiger-controlled land that came to be known as "The Cage". Eventually, Harun was able to reach a supposed "No Fire Zone" established by the SLA where he set up camp. However, he soon found himself under heavy bombardment, along with thousands of refugees who had flocked to the area on the advice of the government. Having established that the shells were coming from government lines, Harun radioed his coordinates to UN HQ in Colombo, who relayed them to the SLA's battlefield commander, but the bombardment continued. Harun characterised it as "not directed fire, but the kind of indiscriminate covering barrage that is used to shield an advance. But it was non-stop, and it was striking a field full of people who had just eaten their dinners and gone to sleep." His verdict: "the intentional massacre of civilians."

The resulting carnage, photographed by Harun, was indescribable, but worse was to come. As the SLA advanced, the Tigers continued to retreat eastwards, until, by mid-April, they were defending a narrow sand spit separated from the mainland by the Nandikadal lagoon. When the army's final offensive began, the sand spit had become a huge refugee camp, much of it in close proximity to the Tigers' front line, but that didn't stop the SLA from using "massive artillery fire and air sorties" before launching a bloody all-out assault. It's impossible to say how many civilians were killed in the first five months of 2009, but by the time Prahakharan's body was recovered and victory had been declared, Weiss estimates that somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 had lost their lives. A recent Channel 4 report put the number at around 30,000.

At no point does Weiss attempt to glamorise the Tigers, or excuse their actions - he is highly critical of the way they used the Tamil population as a human shield and of the way they violently recruited child soldiers from among their number. But he reserves his strongest condemnation for the SLA - a sophisticated fighting force that had the means to avoid high civilian casualties but chose not to - and for the international community, which collectively shrugged its shoulders at the resulting slaughter.

In his concluding remarks, Weiss wonders: "Given the sudden irruption of China into the neat, progressive assumptions of [the] liberal internationalist order, is it more prudent to ignore allegations of war crimes? A 2010 US Senate committee report explicitly noted that the US risks "losing" Sri Lanka to the Chinese team. Given the advent of Great Powers jostling in the Indian Ocean, does the pragmatic US interest in retaining Sri Lanka in its orbit trump the demands of justice?"

Following this month's screening at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva of an hour-long Channel 4 documentary featuring fresh evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka, pressure for an independent investigation is mounting.

As long as Mr Rajapakse has China in his corner, though, it's hard to see him facing a Mladic moment in the Hague.