The Cage by Gordon Weiss

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The Cage by Gordon Weiss

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: Trying to explain those harrowing images of Tamil refugees from northern Sri Lanka in 2009 was bound to be fearful and gruesome, but this history of the Tamil/Sri Lankan conflict paints a truly depressing picture of a society in turmoil, at the whim of international power games.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099548478

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The history of Ceylon, and latterly Sri Lanka has at its centre an undeniable contradiction. A nation which espoused and proclaimed peaceful Buddhism was caught in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the recent past, a conflict peppered with suicide bombings, mass killings, rapes, torture and imprisonment, and more than a hint of genocide. Gordon Weiss was intimately involved as a journalist and as the United Nations Spokesman in Sri Lanka for two years of the almost 40 years conflict, and has produced a detailed account of the background and eventual denouement of this conflict.

And Weiss's book indeed reflects an exhaustive approach to detail, both in its core text and in ten copious notes and appendices at the end of the text. The political changes, the ins and outs of civil structure within Sri Lanka, and most of all the fascinating ideological techniques which have been used to create a unified national identity for this island all make 'The Cage' a dense read. Weiss does use description and individual stories and incidents to give this book a greater sense of human scale, so that behind (or often in front of) the political machinations of the complex state, the reality of life on the ground isn't lost.

But the effect of this is not to lighten the mood, for the unremitting sense of tragedy grows as the country lurches more and more towards civil war, the sense of foreboding as the political figures become more extreme, and as the gangs of thugs create more havoc and mayhem. This is not a pleasant read, and in fact the incidents of human experience which at first create a sense of anger at injustice and selfishness finally end in creating a crushing weight of doom and helplessness, one imagines similar to that felt by the besieged population of the Jaffna peninsula itself.

There is a balanced account here, for while Weiss is clearly condemnatory of the Sri Lankan political leadership and military, he doesn't ignore the Tamil atrocities, nor the exercise of terror which with which the Tamil leadership clung onto their shrinking population in the last days of the conflict. But it is clear that from the standpoint of this ex-UN representative, it was the ruthlessness of the state and state officials, their repeated mouthing of placatory messages to the international community but their continual persecution and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians as well as Tigers that was the most reprehensible.

After 250 pages of mainly this unremitting horror, Weiss's post mortem does tackle what he hinted at previously, the major issues, the network of global political power games which allowed this to happen, the geo-politics which numbed the world and ruled out intervention, or even strong protest. The book acts as a testament to what happened when a state creates a 'wall of managed silence', when a little local dispute is too troubling to be centre stage, and so the most extreme solutions can be pursued to their bitter ends.

If you wish to read more of the physical atmosphere of both the beautiful country but also the human and personal circumstances of those who live there, then Love Marriage by V V Ganeshananthan is fictional account which sets a romance in the same desperate context.

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