The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil WarVerso, 2014, 368 pp., $26.95
From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka—the small, teardrop-shaped island nation south of India—was the scene of Asia’s longest-running and arguably deadliest civil war. Fought between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority government and the separatist Tamil Tigers, the decades-long conflict left many parts of the country in ruins and inflicted untold physical and emotional scars. But today, only six years since the Tigers’ defeat, those scars seem to have fully healed.Visit north and east Sri Lanka, where the war raged most cruelly, and signs of the country’s newfound peace abound. Formerly bombed-out roads have been mended, along with a railway line that had been dormant for years. A cluster of luxury resort hotels has recently been built, catering to a resurgent tourism industry. The economy, too, has undergone a growth spurt. According to new estimates by the World Bank, the small island country is one of the fastest-growing economies in South Asia, projected to maintain 7 percent GDP growth next year. Such news is boon for government leaders anxious to recast Sri Lanka’s global image. Post-war Sri Lanka, as the late President Mahinda Rajapaksa remarked in a speech last year, is a place where “bitter memories should be written on sand as they get wiped away.”In her evocative debut book, The Seasons of Trouble, Rohini Mohan shows how those memories are still raw, splintering the psyche of Sri Lanka and impeding true reconciliation. Mohan, an investigative journalist, spent five years documenting the lives of three Tamils as they struggled to live in a post-war society still bitterly divided and riven by ethnic mistrust. Sarva, a young nautical engineer, is detained by Sri Lankan state forces on accusation of being a spy; Indra, his distraught mother, sets out on a mission to save him; and Mugil, a former child soldier, tries to begin her life anew as a mother.Running through each masterfully told story is a constant sense of foreboding: Sri Lanka’s popularly cherished peace is dangerously fragile.When Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained its independence from Britain in 1948, it was hailed as the post-colonial state most likely to succeed—“the best bet in Asia”, according to its first Governor General. Such boasts were not entirely ill founded at the time. Strategically located, Sri Lanka was blessed with an abundance of natural resources, a healthy, well-educated populace, and vibrant, democratic political system. Moreover, on the eve of independence, Sri Lanka was untarnished by the communal and political violence that bedeviled nearby India and Burma. Independence came smoothly and peacefully to Sri Lanka.Nearly a decade after independence, however, long-simmering ethnic hostilities began to surface. Many Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhist, sought to rectify what they perceived to be the disproportionate influence of Tamils, a largely Hindu group that makes up about 11 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million citizens. Successive governments adopted a variety of discriminatory policies to marginalize Tamils. Sinhala was made the official language of the country, affirmative action for Sinhalese was instituted at universities, and Buddhism was accorded the “foremost place” in Sri Lankan society. The policies stoked Tamil resentment and, eventually, militant nationalism, which took its most cruel form in the creation of the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers waged a relentless guerilla campaign against the Sri Lankan government for an independent state in the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka’s north and east.In their monomaniacal pursuit of a Tamil homeland, the Tigers mastered the use of suicide bombings, killing thousands of innocent civilians; murdered anyone who dared to question either their cause or their ruthless tactics; and forcibly conscripted scores of Tamil youth and adults to join their armed struggle. At their height, they effectively controlled northern and eastern Sri Lanka, administering it as a sovereign, totalitarian state.The Tigers’ grip on power began to erode in 2005 after Rajapaksa was elected President. Rajapaksa, along with his brother, Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, vowed to exterminate the Tigers by any means necessary. Between 2006 and 2009, the Sri Lankan military, aided by new armaments from China, pursued a vicious campaign of shelling and airstrikes on Tiger-controlled areas, which ultimately brought about the unanticipated defeat of the rebel group. But the scars of war, as Mohan brilliantly illustrates, are still present, lingering on in the lives of everyday people.At the start of his story, Sarva, lured by “a promise of adventure”, is set to embark on a long-anticipated trip to Europe when he is abducted on the crowded streets of Colombo and taken to a secret detention facility by Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism police. There, he is beaten and tortured by interrogators hoping to coerce him into confessing an association with the Tigers. At one particularly haunting moment, Sarva is suspended from the ceiling by his ankles over a bucket of petrol and is ordered to sing the Sri Lankan national anthem in Sinhala.This kind of barbaric treatment was not uncommon, as it was shrouded in secrecy, administered outside judicial process, and endorsed by the government’s draconian policies. When Indra finally finds her son and sees him for the first time, he weeps, “Get me out, Amma. I can’t bear this any longer.” Indra dedicates herself fully to her son’s release, and the reader journeys with her every step of the way, from her frustrating dealings with Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy to kind but unhelpful NGOs. Her unfailing efforts ultimately lead to Sarva’s release, escape, and eventual exile to Britain.The most captivating character, however, is the book’s final one: Mugil. Her story opens during the final phases of the war, when she witnesses the rape of five female teenage LTTE recruits by Sri Lankan soldiers. Traumatic experiences such as this, and the exceedingly thuggish behavior of the Tigers, cause Mugil to become disillusioned, and she eventually decides to leave after more than a decade of service.But Mugil soon faces another set of demoralizing challenges. At the end of the war, she finds herself, along with 76,000 other Tamils, in a barbed-wired refugee camp controlled by the Sri Lankan military. Mugil concludes the camp is “no different than an open-air prison.” When she returns to her village with her husband and children, home seems foreign. Compulsory Sinhala has been instated in her son’s school, elaborate war memorials built marking military victory, and old Tiger cemeteries converted into to Sri Lankan army football fields. With her hometown seemingly snatched from her, Mugil comes to the somber realization that she is “living in someone else’s country.” In the end, she too is detained and beaten by the Sri Lanka’s Gestapo-like state forces.As the sixth anniversary of the war’s end approaches, the Sri Lankan military, which is entirely Sinhalese, still occupies and surveils Tamil-dominated areas. Likewise, over the years a culture of impunity has taken root. To date, Sri Lanka retains the world’s second-highest rate of enforced disappearance and has yet to account for serious war crimes, including the reported killing of as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war. The newly elected President, Maithripala Sirisena, has made a series of conciliatory gestures toward the Tamil minority, but many analysts contend that he has neither the political will nor capital to implement substantial changes in the near future.The international spotlight is seldom focused on Sri Lanka, but since the defeat of the Tigers, military strategists and analysts have begun to cite the “Sri Lankan option” as a new way to resolve long-running ethnic insurgencies. The Sri Lanka model, as detailed most comprehensively in the Indian Defence Review, consists of several complementary parts: employing scorched-earth tactics, or put simply, allowing the military “to win the war at whatever cost, however bloody”; what the article dubs a “go to hell” approach, blatantly disregarding international criticism and humanitarian laws; and finally, “regulating the media”, which in most instances means imposing a media blackout in war zones. The model is defined by an overarching principle: brute military power, not political settlements, is the only way to defeat violent insurgencies and bring about lasting peace.According to a study by the International Crisis Group, many countries, including Israel, Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, and Colombia, are studying Sri Lanka’s model as a way to solve their own conflicts. And although the United States is not one of the countries listed, a convincing argument can be made that it adopted an approach similar to Sri Lanka’s in Iraq, where it decimated Sunni insurgents but failed to adequately address legitimate Sunni grievances and the politically divisive polices of Nouri-al-Maliki.If the current debacle in Iraq weren’t proof enough, governments seriously contemplating Sri Lanka’s model would be wise to read The Seasons of Trouble. It isn’t a traditional political study, but Mohan doesn’t intend it to be. Instead, by focusing intimately on the lives of three individuals—their daily struggles, the shared hurt and trauma— she has produced an ambitious, thoroughly engrossing work that informs the mind while simultaneously unsettling the heart. The most striking feature of the book, however, is its vivid portrayal of the dire consequences of Sri Lanka’s example. The war may be won, but with the root causes of it unaddressed, the conflict still remains unfinished, erupting outside the battlefield in predictable yet still painful ways.