29 July 2008

Letter 2.52

The situation here is, as you say, messy. There are two completely different wars going on in Ceylon. One of them, as reported by the government, is daily on the verge of ending (weeks ago we were 'warned' not to become 'complacent') with the complete collapse of the rebellion: the few remaining 'pockets' of active insurgents are being 'flushed out' (the government's phrase) as the rebels, their food and war supplies running out, futilely flee while patriotic villagers cheer and aid the army and police in glorious pursuit. In this war there are a few thousand young people who have been misled by sinister (i.e. unpatriotic) forces. Many of these youths are surrendering and their leaders kill one another and themselves as they see their plans collapsing about their ears; but a few 'hard-core' insurgents still cause a bit of trouble. The main task of the country is the rehabilitation of the surrendered and captured rebels and the reconstruction of damaged areas (which are ever being revealed to us as more extensive than we thought yesterday).

The other war -- the real war -- is not so easy to find out about. Everyone has his own version of what has happened and continues to happen: the isolated farmers, the impoverished villagers, do not have the same experience and background as the Colombo socialites who hold nightly 'curfew parties'. But, from my own observations, from first-and-second-hand reports, the space between the lines of the government's tales, and from snippets from the foreign -- mostly Indian -- press (which the government tries to keep from the hands -- and eyes -- of its citizens), the following version seems likely.

Because the insurgents assigned to the Wellawaya area (at the southeast base of the central highland tea country) opened their attack a day too soon -- whether by error or necessity is uncertain -- the uprising of April 5 fell short of its goal of immediate victory. The government had time to secure the major towns, and to defend some of its positions. An attack on the Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike, never came off. Forewarned, the police of Polonnaruwa post hid in the trees and wiped out a bane of 70 insurgents who found themselves unexpectedly trapped in the deserted police station they had planned to seize. A large cache of explosives was discovered on the University of Ceylon campus, near Kandy, shortly before the uprising, along with thousands of blue uniforms (hidden in the girls' dorms) and battle plans, and the projected attack on Kandy never came off.

Attacks on Colombo were sporadic, unorganized, and doomed. Nevertheless, large areas of the country came into rebel control in the first days of the uprising. Although the rebels numbered only 10,000 to 20,000 at first, and had not the strength to hold ground against sustained attack, in the next two days their numbers swelled to between 75,000 and 100,000 as large numbers of youths -- a few of them pre-teens -- joined up and surged into rebel territory. Weaponless, untrained, and unorganized, these boys -- and girls -- lacked the resources and the heart for fighting and quickly fell back -- or just fell -- wherever the government counterattacked. Vast numbers of them quit the movement as readily -- but not as vociferously -- as they had joined it; those that did not quit made up the bulk of the 30,000 to 50,000 death toll of the first month of battle. But many towns (there are no 'cities' in Ceylon in the American sense: even the capital has only a few hundred thousand people) -- any towns continued to be held by rebels for weeks until they were driven out (along with everyone else) by bombing raids and heavy artillery: many of the towns 'liberated' by the government were reduced to ashes and rubble: it is widely believed that much of the destruction cane after the police-army forces recaptured towns and villages known to have produced many insurgents. My Lai? Shhh! 'Rumor-mongering' is a crime under the Emergency Regulations, and more than one newsman has been thrown out of the country for telling the truth; more -- many more -- than one citizen has been arrested. Perhaps the comparison is not apt -- after all, in most of the world police and military brutality is not an issue, but an accepted fact -- but still, the government has been most reluctant to acknowledge that many of the battles were won from the helicopters which the U.S. supplied (via Britain): after all, Saigon is not so far from Colombo.

As foreign supplies poured in, the army and police (about 25,000 men, backed up by reserves) were able to get the upper hand on the rebels, and by the 
end of the month the last towns were retaken -- although many villages are still under insurgent influence. A four day amnesty at the beginning of the month further weakened the insurgent forces: about 4,000 of them surrendered. These, however, were mostly the late-comers; the original cadre has yet to be broken, and may even be stronger today than when they first set out, their strength emanating from concentration and experience. They have retreated into a number of densely jungled areas where, apparently, they stored massive supplies before the troubles began. With the monsoon expected to begin any day -- rendering heavy equipment ineffectual -- they will not be easy to dislodge. They can be expected to wage continued battle for a long time to come, specializing in guerrilla tactics.

Ceylon, however, is not Viet Nam: since it is an island there is no possibility of establishing an equivalent of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the people are used to peace and may not react to a long siege with the same -- what? equanimity? stoicism? restrained grief? -- that the Vietnamese seem to show. Nor do the combatants have any long murderous tradition of combat to maintain and to maintain them. And, in spite of its ineffectiveness, Mrs. B's government won a sweeping election victory less than a year ago and still retains much of its popularity (though much of this is being dissipated by widely believed -- and probably true -- stories of atrocities, primarily perpetrated by the police). The rebels are a politically rag-tag band of sophisticated (by Ceylonese standards) students and graduates, and simple semi-urban semi-rural dispossessed, and they have put forth a plethora of schemes and programs -- the government has allowed only the most outrageous of these plans to be made known (the rebels lack all facilities -- perhaps interest as well -- to communicate with the populace except by word of mouth, which means, again, that it has no unified program) such as the plan to solve unemployment by killing everyone over 55 years old, and to solve the food shortage by killing everyone under 8 years old. While it is not likely that these sort of programs represent the views of the leaders, the leadership seems to exist only on a very limited and tenuous basis (there are a number of groups of rebels in different parts of the country: communication between them must be a difficult proposition), but the bulk of the populace seem, oddly, to have believed these tales, although they don't seem at all impressed by the so predictable atrocity tales of the government press -- tales which don't sound very atrocious, particularly when compared to the tales one hears of the police. The police in Ceylon, of course, are no more concerned about the poor than are the police anywhere else, but their excesses of the past month -- often revenge killings -- would be a major public issue even in Ceylon except that under the Emergency Regulations public issues -- and even private issues -- are illegal if they are critical of anything the government supports, and you can get 20 years! for breaking that law.

So much for the revolution.

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