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Tamil Tigress: My Story as a Child Soldier in Sri Lanka's Bloody Civil War.

TAMIL TIGRESS: My Story as a Child Soldier in Sri Lanka's Bloody Civil War

Author: Niromi de Soyza

Published by: Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011, 308pp, A$32.99.


In May 2009 the government of Sri Lanka declared an end to a civil war against the separarist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in which more than 100,000 people died. Led by the tyrannical figure of Prabhakaran, who was himself killed in 2009, the LTTE were as much a danger to fellow Tamils as to Sinhalese, effectively winding up other Tamil political movements. Tigers themselves could be executed by their superiors for a range of arbitrary reasons. Tigers wore cyanide capsules and were not supposed to be taken alive--many would commit suicide rather than be captured when the army finally overran their positions in 2009. The LTTE developed and extensively used suicide terrorism, employing the so-called 'Black Tigers' (many of them women), to sow dread amongst the majority Sinhalese population and to take the lives of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. As a result, a lot of countries declared the LTTE a terrorist entity. Yet for many Tamils angry at what they saw as government atrocities, the Tigers were the only option they could conceive of, particularly as choices narrowed.

This is the background to Niromi de Soyza's memoir of life as a guerrilla soldier (now an ordinary mother living in Sydney), the importance of which is an explanation as to how a studious, middle-class seventeen-year-old (perhaps therefore not the 'child' one conjures up from the title) defied the wishes of her family to join a (female) Freedom Bird unit. The events described here occur in the late 1980s before the Tigers routinely recruited large numbers of women: de Soyza's version has her actively seeking out membership from sceptical recruiters. This leads us to two themes--status and gender.

Prabharakan's ideology was officially secular/leftist, albeit with the heavy dose of Tamil nationalism and a cult of Prabharakan's own personality. Simultaneously with the separatist struggle against the unitary state of Sri Lanka, it represented a challenge to the caste structure of Tamil society. But one's place in society permeates this book. On the back cover de Soyza is described curiously as 'mixed race', which is in fact a reference to the fact that her (northern) father was from the Tamil community that arrived in Sri Lanka in the second century BC (the Sinhalese from northern India having already settled a few centuries prior), while her (eastern) mother hailed from the merchant class of Tamils that had arrived during British times. This had significant implications for de Soyza as the product of a non-arranged marriage; her father's family strongly disapproved of her mother. Once de Soyza is a part of the Tiger movement she is confronted with the fact that most of her comrades are from a different socio-economic background. Although she has romanticised life in the jungle through her poetry, she struggles with the realities of living a poor forest dwelling existence. With the decision of the Tigers to bring women into combat roles--and later to employ them to devastating effect as suicide bombers--Prabkharakan preached equality for women, even if the leadership hierarchy remained male. The LTTE then attempted to proscribe and curtail romantic connections for Tigers, male and female, in order to keep the insurgents focused (an exception was made for Prabkharakan himself, who was married). The author relays a conversation with LTTE deputy leader Mahathaya (who went by the nom de guerre 'the Crocodile', a reflection of his cruelty) in which he tells her: 'if you fall in love, you'll lose your resolve to die'. In this story Mahathaya subsequently executes a male Tiger for the supposed crime of falling in love, although not his female admirer. (De Soyza notes that Mahathaya himself and 250 of his loyalists were in turn executed by Prabkharakan, in 1994, as the leader sought to consolidate his power.)

There is much in this book about the ordinary life of a guerrilla, including the particular challenges for a female combatant, and also accounts of engagement with enemy belligerents--largely India's intervention force troops during this time period. In one devastating conflagration de Soyza loses a number of people close to her. It may be this side of the book, featuring just a few hints of overblown action prose, which saw Tamil Tigress selected by Australia's Council for the Arts for its 'Get Reading!' initiative as one of '50 books you can't put down'. One important element of this book lies around de Soyza's decision to join the Tigers, which offers the reader insights about the way in which alienation develops. Feeling compelled to 'enlist' in the LTTE based on her belief that the Sri Lankan government had persecuted Tamils, de Soyza overlooked the megalomania of the Tigers because they represented courage to many ordinary people fearful of the state. In terms of putting her life on the line, she writes: 'If I was going to die soon anyway, I might as well make myself useful in the meantime.' Later, when considering Tiger atrocities towards the enemy, one identifies a common moral equivalency argument: 'Yes, they started it first, I told myself, and so the Tigers were right in teaching them a lesson.' Finally de Soyza, shocked by the internal disciplining and execution of some members of her unit, left the Tigers having concluded that there would never be peace as long as violence was the means to attain it.

De Soyza's memoir is to be highly recommended for its insights, although one should not expect a memoir to be the standard work of history on the subject--it is best read in conjunction with other literature. It needs to be pointed out that Tamil Tigress, which one gathers was written probably twenty years ago and is only now being published, has been challenged for its veracity in some other media outlets. Much of this discussion, however, comes off as heavily partisan (a real feature of the discourse around Sri Lanka) and unnecessarily pedantic. One needs to allow for the difficulties of memory, and even the challenges of attaining a complete knowledge of events one lives through even when contemporaneously recorded. De Soyza's book remains a rich story of a terrible war, and contains details and insights that would seem incredibly difficult to fake if they were not lived through.

Dr Anthony Smith is a fellow of the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.
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Author:Smith, Anthony
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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