Book Review: Sri Lanka: The New Country

I was excited when I discovered Sri Lanka: The New Country online. The book came out recently and -- having covered the country for many years -- seasoned journalist Padma Rao Sundarji seems well-placed to write a longer work on post-war Sri Lanka. The book has benefited from the author's own research and her travel to Sri Lanka over the years.

In the preface, Sundarji says the following about the book:

And since not many attempts have been made to speak to the Sri Lankan army which continues to be depicted as a kind of nameless, faceless bully force, hungry for power over and colonization of north and east Sri Lanka, there are debates with the brass of the army who commanded the last phase of war too.

Unfortunately, genuine "debates" with Sri Lankan military officials do not actually appear in this book. She does, however, interview some key people within the Sri Lankan military, yet this process appears to be more of a platform to praise the military and justify any wrongdoings they may have committed.

Moreover, throughout the text, Sundarji repeatedly references (either herself or through her interactions with others) the possibility of a reemergence of the Tamil Tigers (the group that fought for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka's north and east during the country's civil war). Unfortunately, the specific April 2014 incident Sundarji mentions, where three Tamil men were killed by government forces for purported attempts to revive the Tamil Tigers, remains mired in controversy and ambiguity and the Sri Lankan government (including the military) has hardly been forthcoming about the matter.

Additionally, the book is laced with references to the misguided notion that Sundarji (and others) have fabricated. Namely, that the Sri Lankan government is wise to maintain current troop levels in the northern and eastern provinces in order to prevent the resurgence of the Tamil Tigers. The book is inundated with the author's strong opinions, but her thoughts on militarization strike a particularly discordant note; a more nuanced rendering of the current state of affairs would have added gravitas to the text.

Let's be clear; the Tamil Tigers were a ruthless group and dozens of countries proscribed them as a terrorist organization. But to this day, nearly six years since the conclusion of war, no credible evidence has been presented which suggests they are regrouping within Sri Lanka.

This is an accessible and, at times, entertaining book. Some people may really enjoy it -- particularly those sympathetic to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country's former president who oversaw a decisive military victory against the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

There are some nice vignettes about the author's travels throughout the country and it's sometimes refreshing to learn about Sundarji's various conversations and interactions with a diverse host of Sri Lankans. That said, people wishing to read about Sri Lanka's complex history and current state of affairs from a more balanced perspective may wish to pass on this one.