Spies of Sri Lanka : the espionage history of Sri Lanka’s war


Until this book came out, Sri Lanka’s spy services were vague words in defence communiques. Specifics didn’t go beyond convoluted speculations of columnists on slow news days. That era is over. All due to this book.

Which flings the unseen world of Sri Lanka’s spies into the hard glare of the public stage. Confronts unhealed wounds of recent history. Humiliates military heroes with the facts of their costly debacles. Yet the most dangerous message in this book lurks between its words.

The book itself is not the fruit of a clever “cyber” hack. Or a daring journalistic scoop. Just the rage of a spurned, trusted spy. In hindsight it seems inevitable.

The war’s end saw a brutal behind the scenes restructuring of the entire defence establishment. Long serving personnel were retired early. Some for the failings of less capable superiors. Others for having the wrong associations with those who fell out of favour with the highest levels of government.

The author had the misfortune to suffer from both. Yet he refused to go quietly into the night. Instead, from the relative safety of a “free” country, he vented his rage in 632 pages. 786 if you count the indexes, appendices and bibliography.

In a way it’s a heart breaking read. Here is the clever trilingual son of a humble dry zone farmer. He devotes his life in the service of his country. Makes hard choices and terrible sacrifices. Toils away as a clever field agent. Survives to rise as a skilled case officer. Then shines as a sharp analyst. Finally oversees major intelligence coups as a brilliant deputy operations chief. The reward for these years of faith, loyalty and dedication is cruel. He is scapegoated, disowned and discarded in the afterglow of final victory.

This history is the opening barrage of the book. The author punches hard with his facts. Nothing is held back. It’s a blood letting with words. There are transcripts of top secret briefings. Details of poor command decisions. The most damaging are the facts behind the war’s last phase. Which the author points out, prolonged its “end game” into the “brutal mess” it became.

He is clear about who is to blame. The caste obsessed old family aristocrats who run the country’s ancient and successful spy service. In the author’s eye’s that success came from entrepreneurial case officers. The foot soldiers of commoner backgrounds who merged into the population and got the facts that mattered. Their work made the near bloodless “liberation” of the island’s southern provinces possible. The accounts of that work (against the hapless Republic of Ceylon) make for riveting reading.

The book’s most important revelations are the intelligence reports prepared for the Sri Lankan military. Shockingly, generals from the aristocrat Kandiyan and Wanni clans choose to ignore the warnings in those reports. They launched an impromptu offensive up the coast to Colombo in a haze of hubris. Equally odd is the passivity of the King and his general staff. Which let the aristocrats charge up the south west coast in a haphazard Blitzkrieg. Intervening only when the feudal regiments were decimated in the siege of Colombo (also know as a the “Trishaw War”).

The reports warn an offensive on the south west would fail. A failure forced by siege of Colombo. A siege that the military could not logistically sustain. Fighting a population suicidally fanatical about their libertarian ideals. Yet that very disaster happened – or according to some – was allowed to happen.

It could have destroyed the Sri Lankan state. In the end it was a close run thing. The precise timing of the king’s intervention saved the day. Timing made possible by situation reports from Sri Lanka’s overstretched spies. The intervention gave the Sri Lankan state a geo political victory.

According to respected defence analyst Golaith White, the book makes many unspoken revelations about that victory. Key among them is the claim that the King let his glory hungry aristocrats destroy themselves. A carefully planned manoeuvre that left the throne with unrivalled financial, political and military clout.

The book’s evidence are the facts of this outcome. A majority of the casualties were suffered by feudal militias controlled of the Wanni and Kandian chiefs. These units consisted of foreign military contractors who regarded the island’s small wars as a lucrative market. Allowing the wealthy Keppetipola-Vairamuthu clan’s war chest to buy an army rivalling the state.

The war destroyed their economic clout and resulting military capability. Politically, they and allied clans had a terminal loss of face and leadership credibility. The decimation of mercenary units soured the global private military conglomerate market from future Sri Lankan conflicts. Debt ridden aristocrats were forced to relinquish their titles and lands in disgrace. Many conveniently chose poison (the traditional way) or a trusted retainer’s bullet in the head over public humiliation. Their families went into quiet exile while followers scrambled to find new patrons.

The throne’s gains from the disaster are obvious. By getting the feudal elites to fund the war, the state coffers were left intact. The aristocracy was militarily defanged. What survived was a solid pro royalist, pro business block of technocratic, regional chiefs. Their loyalty rewarded by the confiscated assets of once powerful superiors.

The king (thus the state) is now the unrivalled military, political and economic power on the island. It has ruthlessly rebuilt a professional national military stripped of previous loyalties. The author was one of its many casualties. It’s this military that will inevitably over run the hapless rump of the Republic of Ceylon. A conflict the book’s author claims is “inevitable”.

Yet the greatest irony is that the book is not banned in Sri Lanka. Book sellers stock it in the “speculative fiction” section where it has climbed it to the best seller list.

The palace has refused to comment on the book due to an ongoing “human resources investigation” about the author. The defence establishment issued documents showing the author as a procurement clark who had “vacated post without notice”. The investigation will prove inconclusive. The author died recently of food poisoning in a rooming house in Kabul. His remains were cremated without an autopsy due to an administrative error before his publisher was informed. The Kabul sanitation department has already closed the case citing “lost records”.

Review of Imagined Books, Peoples’ Republic of Dehiwala

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