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15th November 1998

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Book Review

Urban guerilla war?

By Rajpal Abeynayake

For a sovereign state, Gunaratne, Malinga. The book will be re-launched in reprint this week.

Malinga GunaratneThere is no better story for a novel than that of a besieged frontiersman, but the thing about 'For a sovereign state' by Malinga Gunaratne is that it's no novel. Padaviya, the driest, crustiest of outposts from the back of beyond, was Gunaratne's last frontier, and he mustered a band of assorted like-minded Sinhalese to try and retain this last frontier, and keep it from falling into the hands of Velupillai P's armed marauders.

But there is more by way of story here than just gunbattles and cordite. As the narrative proceeds, the reader is woken up to the fact that some of the toughest battles were fought in the backrooms and the lounges, with politicians who want to save their skins rather than with terrorists who want to usurp the land.

But, even as the story begins, the reader is aware of the fact that this frontier is too close to home for this story to be only a disembodied thrill. The brand of militarism practised by the campaigners of the LTTE is entirely new to the Lankan psyche (this is the early to mid-eighties).The slaughter of civilians in the Dollar and Kent farms, and the massacres of Buddhist monks in Arantalawa are entirely a new phenomenon, unknown to the lotus-eating Sinhala Nimal or Ranjith. The author doesn't fight shy of this indolent quality he sees in at least certain recesses of the Sinhala mind. At one point he says that the Sinhalese are (were) content to be tropical, lackadaisical, thrill- happy wallahs.

The author himself displays some of these spirits when he opens a bottle of Whiskey in the backyard of a Buddhist temple, with the tacit approval of the incumbent monk. The monk at this point is worried more about saving the Sinhala nation than he is about laying down the pancha seela to the last letter.In short, Gunaratne's campaign in those beginning days of the LTTE onslaught was to re-populate the frontier areas with Sinhalese.

He is emboldened and saddened all at the same time when, initially, he sees the reverse happening. Lankans are witness to a pathetic exodus from the Sinhala frontier areas after the Tigers begin their blitzkrieg on the border villages and the Sinhala frontiers.

The book was written before it became impolitic to refer to the Sinhala populated northernmost outposts of this country as 'border villages.' Now, the discourse has evolved to a point where it has been realised that these cannot be 'border villages' if they are part of the Sri Lankan entity. But, the story exemplifies the depths to which the Sinhala mood had sunk at the time when the Tigers first struck. There appears to be a reverse deja vu. The Sinhalese had never been here before, at least not this generation of Sinhalese. Amid the panic, there were various forces which were catalysing to assert Sinhalaness in various ways. From among this polyglot of individuals and forces, was an urbane sophisticated band of Colombo gentry who quickly said goodbye to their urbaneness and decided to give the Tigers hell. They took the fight to where it was, armed the Sinhala villages, and therein snatched a civic victory from the jaws of psychological defeat. Their main tool would be an object lesson for anybody chronicling low intensity conflict and its effects.

Gunaratne mobilised, with the help of sundry like- minded others, a force of people as a bulwark against Tiger hegemonism and expansion.Together they prescribed a buffer of people as an antidote to the guerrilla war of the flea. Realised early in their campaign was that there was a veritable tradition of settlement led by sections of the Sri Lankan political leadership in Colombo.

DS Senanayake was the quintessential frontiersman, down to the very last facet of his personality characterised by the "kele John' chutzpah. For Senanayake, dry zone settlement was a religion. So it was canny to revive this spirit, when calamity struck and the Sinhala peasants were on the run.

There is a revivalism here of the strongest order. Devinda Senanayake, D. S ,. Senanayake's grandson lends the symbolic quotient to this effort, but , there are others such as Ravi Jaywewardene, (the then President's son) who brings his cool headed weapons sophistication into the campaign. Herman himself is, one cannot help escape the fact, the driven energy behind the whole operation, which assumes an air of Leon Uris urgency as the mission gets underway. In an effort to settle Sinhla peasants in the Maduru Oya Mahaveli region for instance, Gunaratne runs a gauntlet of political crosscurrents that are engendered by confused Sinhala sentiments.

On the one hand, a strongman ex- minister pushed the idea of the settlements. But his political enemies cut the ground from under his feet, and the President himself was confused about whether he should appease Sinhala loyalties or appease burgeoning anti- Sri Lankan sentiment in India. Gunaratne gets himself in the slammer for the effort, and is defended by a Colombo lawyer who is himself a Sinhala revivalist in his grain,but is also recruited to talk to the Tigers' negotiators in a normally cozy place called Thimphu. When places like Thimpu figure in the geography of this work, the readers feel he is transported to what is in fact a hazy bygone.

But then, what's striking is that everything has changed since Thimpu and that kind of history, and yet nothing has changed. That same war is still on, never mind that it's now called war number three or something or the other like that.. Sinhala peasants still carry guns to protect their villages in the areas closest to the Tamil populated settlements. And the war is still about land and water. The author broke what he calls the Omarta (The secrecy of the operation) to tell the story, but he says he did it with the idea of solidifying the 'revivalism'. In retrospect, the idea of presenting a people bulwark to the Tigers is 'revivalism' no longer.

It is a fact, and it could be written into a handbook of counter guerrilaism/terrorism. To that extent, this band of sophisticated urbanites can feel like the Sean Connery Bond and buddies who accomplished the mission and washed it all down with a whiskey and whatnot.

But, that's not to make it facile, because this tribe did something to further their convictions and fight for them. Its better than what can be said of fire-breathing conference patriots, who generally spill their guts and gore over conference tables.

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