“When I was commissioned to do this report, the first thing I was handed was a copy of The Cage. Weiss’s scrupulously balanced account should serve as a guidepost for decision-makers and scholars of international affairs. A book can change the world.”
Charles Petrie, diplomat and author of the United Nation’s “Petrie Report” into the UN’s role and responsibilities during the Sri Lankan conflict
“The Cage is a tightly-written and clear-eyed narrative about one of the most disturbing human dramas of recent years. . . . a riveting, cautionary tale about the consequences of unchecked political power in a country at war. A must-read.”
Jon Lee Anderson, New Yorker staff writer and author of The Fall of Baghdad
“Mr. Weiss accurately lays out the central challenges that regional actors, nongovernmental organizations and the international community face in Sri Lanka: ensuring accountability for possible war crimes, and a life of dignity and equality for all Sri Lankan citizens. . . . This powerful book is a haunting reminder of the price countries in the developing world pay for the flawed choices of their founders.”
Wall Street Journal( link)
“An excellent account of how [the government] victory was won, and of the price paid for the present peace by Sri Lankans. . . . scrupulously fair.”
“The general outlines of this story are familiar. But Weiss, a UN official in Colombo at the time, provides harrowing details, as well as insight into the decades of brutal conflict that brought the two sides to the point where they were willing to commit war crimes.”
Foreign Affairs( link)
“Some of the best coverage of Sri Lanka right now is coming from Gordon Weiss.”
Nick Bryant, BBC News Correspondent
“This shattering, heartbreaking tale of savagery and suffering not only lifts the veil that conceals one of the most awful tragedies of the current era, but also helps us understand what should be done, not just in this sad and beautiful land, but long before other such horrors spiral out of control.”
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics, MIT, and author of Hopes and Prospects
“The Cage is a comprehensive and compellingly readable account of one of the very worst atrocity stories this century. Gordon Weiss is scrupulously evenhanded in describing the terrible excesses of the Tamil Tigers as well as the Sri Lankan authorities. His book is a timely prod to the world’s collective conscience.”
Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All
In the closing days of the thirty-year Sri Lankan civil war, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, according to UN estimates, as government forces hemmed in the last remaining Tamil Tiger rebels on a tiny sand spit, dubbed “The Cage.” Gordon Weiss, a journalist and UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka during the final years of the war, pulls back the curtain of government misinformation to tell the full story for the first time. Tracing the role of foreign influence as it converged with a history of radical Buddhism and ethnic conflict, The Cage is a harrowing portrait of an island paradise torn apart by war and the root causes and catastrophic consequences of a revolutionary uprising caught in the crossfire of international power jockeying.
Excerpt from The Cage
As the mist lifted on the morning of 19 May 2009, a soldier leaned down to a body on the smouldering and largely silent marshland battlefield. He tugged the slack shoulder to free it from the muddy patch in which it lay, and turned the corpse to face the sun. Like the hundreds of other troops inspecting the bodies strewn among the marshy tufts and sandy stretches of this desolate edge of the island, this soldier knew precisely for whom he was searching. Nevertheless, he must have been startled by the fleshy, mustachioed face that instantly stood out from the hundreds of other dead scattered among the mangroves, a face that stared back at him through dull, half-closed eyes, lips barely apart as if to utter a final command.
A bullet had pierced the forehead and the cranial cap was blasted away, but the otherwise intact figure of the corpulent founder and leader of the Tamil Tigers lay where he had fallen some hours ago. His brown face had been drained of blood, leaving a pallid waxwork that seemed to illuminate the oddness of this iconic figure lying in a mud patch, as though it were a discarded picture torn from a page in Life magazine. Despite the dirt, his uniform was neat and undamaged, as if he had emerged from a hidden bunker at the last possible moment to meet his death headlong. A holstered pistol was clamped to a belt around his thick midriff, along with six unused pouches of ammunition, and clipped to his chest was an identity card with his name, picture and the serial number ‘001’. Among the few possessions found in his small kit bag was a bottle of grape-scented hand lotion purchased in Singapore – an incongruous detail that the newspapers in Colombo would later seize on to discredit the fallen leader’s reputation for rigid asceticism.
The Sinhalese soldier who chanced upon the corpse of Velupillai Prabakharan at the edge of the Nandikadal lagoon on the north-east coast of Sri Lanka had not even been born when the dead man began his career of violent insurgency. In 1975, when just twenty-one years old, and already with a reputed taste for rebellion and guns, Prabakharan assassinated the Tamil mayor of Jaffna with a single shot to the head as he prepared for prayer at a Hindu temple. Although Sri Lanka’s tourist brochures boast of the island’s balmy beaches, its soaring white Buddhist shrines, the warmth of its people and its sweeping mountain tea estates, this brutal temple killing was in fact a more fitting symbol of the young state, marred by ethnic, religious, caste and class warfare.
All through this young soldier’s boyhood, the name of Prabakharan loomed large in the speeches of politicians, and was decried in interviews with the policemen and generals who tried to hunt him and his Tamil Tiger guerrillas down. The few photos that existed of his square-jawed face, either scowling or bearing a shy smile that mocked the cut of his fatigues, had for thirty years featured almost daily in Sri Lankan newspapers and on television screens, above articles detailing the mounting atrocities committed by Tamil Tiger forces. The stocky figure personified the claim of Tamil nationalists to a third of Sri Lanka’s territory and, for the Sinhalese community, a fear of ‘the other’ that lived among them.
Prabakharan’s shy manner and soft voice belied the orders he regularly issued to his guerrilla cells: to bomb buses full of women and children, assassinate heads of state, sink or seize ships, murder child monks and kill prisoners. The mantra of the global Tamil Tiger propaganda network was that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as they called themselves, represented the right to Sri Lankan Tamil self-determination based around an independent state that would be known as Tamil Eelam. The fanaticism and commitment of the Tiger fighters recalled to observers the struggles of other post-colonial liberation movements such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, whose repugnant acts in the name of freedom seemed nevertheless to embody an elemental human instinct for justice and identity. Tamil Tiger fighters strung vials of cyanide around their necks in case of capture, and as a symbol of their readiness to die for ‘the Movement’.
On the sandy spit that morning, the soldier radioed his position to his unit commander. He in turn raised the officer commanding Sri Lanka’s 58th battlefield division – the division that had fought the Tamil Tigers until their final destruction at the edge of the lagoon. The brigadier was driven in a jeep from his forward command headquarters through an abandoned tent city that sprawled across the narrow pockmarked spit, a wasteland of torn plastic sheeting, bodies and burned-out vehicles. Since February, the tents had sheltered around 330,000 men, women and children besieged by the SLA, which pounded the area with heavy weapons in an effort to crush the Tamil Tiger guerrillas operating within the siege zone.
Over many weeks, as the Tiger strength waned, army assaults pierced the guerrillas’ defences, and tens of thousands of civilians escaped in small batches or great waves. They struggled across the shallow lagoon that divided the government and Tiger forces, carrying their weak, wounded, elderly and young. Some were too exhausted or frightened to tend to those who were struck by bullets as they escaped, and ignored those who sank below the surface of the lagoon. The tent city, and anyone injured or left huddling in the trenches, was consumed as government troops moved in for the final kill. It was a conflagration of grenades and gunfire. In their flight, the refugees had left thousands of their dead in unmarked graves or simply lying in the open, discarded in the frantic rush to escape.
The battlefield was now silent – the groans of the wounded and dying expired. The brigadier walked the final few hundred metres across waterlogged grasslands, surrounded by his bodyguards, who shielded him against any surviving Tiger still lurking amid the charred and battered terrain. The brigadier examined the plastic face and swollen carcass of his fallen adversary, the insignia and pistol and the contents of his kitbag. He plucked the identity card from the chest of the dead man, and turned to proclaim the death of Velupillai Prabakharan, the ‘Supreme Leader’ of the Tamil Tigers, to the troops mustered around him. Then he beckoned to a staff member, who handed him a field radiophone, and rang through to the SLA commander based at the Ministry of Defence Joint Operations Headquarters in Colombo. Major General Sarath Fonseka in turn telephoned the news through to the man who had appointed him to lead the army: his former comrade-in-arms and now the most powerful man in Sri Lanka, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
If the Sinhalese possessed an equal to Prabakharan’s ruthlessness, commitment and grit, it was the defence secretary, a yeoman from the island’s Sinhalese south. Gotabaya was no politician or insipid bureaucrat. A tough fifty-nine-year-old former colonel in the SLA, he had fought in some of the hardest engagements against the Tamil Tigers in the 1980s, when he had very nearly been killed. In 2005, his brother Mahinda had enticed him back to Sri Lanka with a promise of full support for a war against the Tamil Tigers – should he win his own planned bid for the presidency. Gotabaya, then retired from the army and working as a computer manager at the law faculty of the University of Southern California, always believed the SLA had been consistently betrayed in the field by weak political leadership. Mahinda’s prospective presidency promised revenge, glory and the possibility of a new political dynasty built on a military victory that had eluded the Sri Lankan government for almost three decades.
Within months of the end of the war in 2009, General Sarath Fonseka and Gotabaya Rajapaksa fell out with each other, with Gotabaya accusing the general of treason, and Fonseka accusing the defence secretary of war crimes. In 2006, however, with victory over the Tamil Tigers still a dubious and distant prospect, the two men had begun planning the eradication of the Tamil Tiger menace once and for all. They persuaded China to provide them with the arms they so badly needed, and began training troops and refining deployment and operational tactics in preparation for the bloody war that was to follow. For the duration of this final stage of the civil war, Fonseka and Gotabaya worked closely, buoyed by one military success after another, as the army slashed its way through Tiger defences to the north. That morning, after taking the news from Fonseka, Gotabaya informed his brother, the president, that Prabakharan was dead and Mahinda’s place in history assured.
Back in the northern marshes, four soldiers carried the bier carrying Prabakharan’s body through a crowd of hundreds of weary and excited soldiers, each of whom raised his weapon above his head, like Roman legionaries cheering the fall of a Teutonic chieftain. Bearing their load steadily, they marched along a rivulet while troops lined the banks and leaned forward to snap pictures of the scene on mobile phones – images that soon spread throughout Sri Lanka and around the world to the watching and waiting Tamil diaspora. An army photographer caught the triumphal procession in a photo that made its way to the front page of the New York Times the following day. The lifeless and dishevelled body, picked over by so many hands, traverses a sea of smiling green-clad soldiers, whose outstretched arms might have been raised in a salute had it not been for the mobile phones grasped in their hands.
As the sun rose higher, the soldiers slowly bore the bulky corpse through the muddy pools of the bog and lowered it on to a dry sandy bank for closer examination by an SLA forensic team. The experts studied the uniform and the great gaping wound in the skull. They compared the pudgy face with the few photographs that existed of the reclusive Prabakharan, including those from a family album that had been found in an abandoned bunker the month before. They also took a swab from his mouth for a DNA comparison with the body of his son, twenty-two-year-old Charles Anthony, anointed heir to the Tiger leadership, whose body had been recovered from the battlefield and positively identified just two days earlier.
The forensic teams had already identified the bodies of the other senior Tiger leaders as they were dredged from bogs or dragged from the dune faces where they had fallen. They laid the fighters in long, stinking ranks, their corpses engorged, burned and mutilated, their arms outstretched, their flesh marked by chemical burns or cyanide, their faces contorted. When their noms de guerre appeared in the television broadcasts that day – Nadesan, Puleedevan, Charles Anthony, Kittu, Manimekala, Kannadasan, Rangan, Arul Vendan, Anna Thurai, Soosei, Rangan, Thomas, Purani, Bhanu – they read like the rolling credits from an epic and familiar film, one that had been watched many times. It was a reminder of the peculiar intimacy of the savage conflict that had consumed this small island nation for thirty years. Each name had been a minor hero in the pantheon of Tamil fighters who stood up to the Sri Lankan security forces, men and women deified by the hopes of the Tamil people. Tamils in Sri Lanka and around the world mourned the deaths of their too mortal gods.