Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, the events Boyagoda recounts of that decisive exchange – a symbolic moment of amelioration that, in reality, didn’t transform into a meaningful drift – where the government officials, the military officers and LTTE frontliners all assemble in one pseudo-hopeful / pseudo-anxious conference leaves the reader with a deep sigh for an initiative lost and a possible path not taken that may have written the history of our times in a different way. The most significant contribution of Boyagoda’s story is that it feeds and nourishes a growing discourse of post-war literature, and for its tangibly humanist approach, reflection, and definition of the parties locked in battle.
A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka, bracketed by HarperCollins as “memoir”, is the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s eight years spent as a prisoner of war, held by the LTTE from 1994 to 2002. This story is documented, as “told to” Sunila Galappatti, a metropolitan individual with trans-continental credentials and coverage, who in this instance works as the medium between Boyagoda and the world, in “telling” what she is “told” by the former Navy heavyweight. A Long Watch, at many levels, provides interesting if not intriguing reading, and chief among them is Commodore Boyagoda’s extremely liberal and facilitating response to the Eelam cause of the LTTE: the extension of which he himself battled against for over a decade as a ranked officer of the Lankan navy. Of many “stories” told by service personnel of the Civil War, Boyagoda’s is perhaps the first I have in my limited experience come across that hails the call for Eelam as justifiable; if not as reasonable.
An interesting point to ponder on is as to when Boyagoda exactly began to see the substance of the basis and ideological foundation of the LTTE struggle: did he already see it as early as the late 1970s, when he was a fresh recruit in whites? Or did he enlighten himself upon reflection, experiencing what he did as an active combatant in the 1980s? Or, was this a dawning upon his own turn of fortunes and his incarceration in the 1990s? Or, alternatively, are Boyagoda’s convictions of the Eelam struggle to be just a more recent assessment, upon retrospection of all that had happened in his life? This, however, is not very clearly locatable in the story “told to” Galappatti almost two decades since the actual events. The only tangibility is that the thesis Boyagoda is seen to channel is one of amelioration and amity – one that looks at the LTTE through a rare humanitarian lens – when compared to narratives of war written by other servicemen such as, for example, Boniface Perera (who wrote a novel in 2012, as an officer of a victorious army titled අවි බිමක හද ගැස්ම). The only cause for caution here, however, is that Boyagoda’s narrative is channeled through a medium. Boyagoda doesn’t speak for himself, but is spoken for by an agent with cross-continental, cosmopolitan, urbane credentials. The only cause for caution would be that the said medium’s voice may/could intermingle with Boyagoda’s own, purifying the story and straining it through a liberal strainer of sorts; but, this cause for caution does not bother me at the present moment.
As a story, Boyagoda’s narrative is an eyeopener for anyone who juggles oranges in the “humanitarian debate” in the context of the Lankan Civil War. For the average Sinhala Southerner, tempered (if not stuffed) by state narratives of pro-military “truths”, Boyagoda offers a humanized and de-demonized profile of the Liberation Tigers, at a time where they were trying to capture the world’s imagination as a capable and responsible de facto State of their own. Boyagoda, through Galappatti, submits the minutiae of his imprisonment along with his fellow Navy cadre Vijitha and 22 other army personnel over a period of 8 years. From Commodore, Boyagoda is overnight shrunk to the rank of Prisoner and the story is also one of endurance and resilience, adjusting to climates and being courageous in the long wait in the face of a hopeless future.
Boyagoda’s captivity is naturally a life-changing, decisive chapter. It makes him rethink life and transform into a “different person” altogether. However, there are two further additional forces that shape Boyagoda’s thinking and outlook, against which he speaks out in the narrative. One is the perceived mistreatment he feels he had to undergo at the hands of his employer, the government of Sri Lanka who, among other things, is the least in alacrity to effect Boyagoda’s release. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Ministry of Defence are frontally charged by Boyagoda on this point. Secondly, the military / navy is scorned for holding a trial against him in his absence and for condemning him for negligence of duty. In a very intriguing passage, Boyagoda gives accounts of how he was put before an LTTE inquest, and was acquitted of any criminal charges based on the evidence presented and examined through a reasonable process.
Are Boyagoda’s views and outlook of the LTTE and the Civil War, then, also influenced by his own disgruntlement and apathy towards the government and the Lankan militia? This is a reasonable question, as prior to captivity we see Boyagoda as a righteous solider, but not one who necessarily went the extra mile to question the misdeeds of his own party. For instance, Boyagoda speaks of military killings of its political enemies carried out in times prior to his captivity. Though he personally distances himself from such misconduct, he does not openly lobby against these crimes either. He remains a passive loyalist of the regime he is employed by, though in the narrative (“as told to” Galappatti twenty years later) he chooses to pin them down as acts of will by the state military: “I think at that time the forces handled the LTTE and the JVP in the same way — they did some killings, then came back and said ‘job done, everything under control'”. He speaks extensively of military looting of Tamil homes in Karainagar, and of the efforts he made to try and discourage such plundering. A calculated naivety at times takes over the narrative when referring to murder of civilians carried out by the military, as seen in the following passage:
“Sometimes, trying to stop refugees fleeing to India naval boats would open fire on the vessels in which they were travelling. I believe these were killings that began as misjudgments not as murders. But then sometimes, afterwards, not knowing what to do with the evidence, they would pour petrol on to the boats and burn them, with the people in them… I would ask one of my crew over the radio if something was happening and the reply would come… ‘No sir, it’s a barbecue'”. As and when and as it happens, Boyagoda indirectly is complicit of the crime in making no issue of it, though two decades later these accounts are spoken of with implicit disapproval.
An organization that is stripped by Boyagoda’s narrative is the Lankan government, whose arrogance and selfishness in policy, and its indifference to its own employees detained by a political enemy is well documented. The years of his captivity coincide with the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, with Anuruddha Ratwatte as Deputy Minister of Defence. Boyagoda, as a prisoner, feels that the government does very little to secure his release or sustain his welfare (and that of the other 22 detained along with him). The ICRC and the families of war prisoners are given the credit for maintaining the prisoners’ morale, whereas the government is seen not to care for soldiers taken as prisoner, as the government bureaucracy considered them no different to “soldiers that are dead” in battle.
Says Boyagoda of the Lankan government: “through thirty years of conflict the government prioritized what the Southern people wanted”, which is not entirely a flattering assessment of the country’s ruling elite, though he hits the nail dead on its head in a general way. “If Tamil people were not safe in the South and were safe in the North, then that was their homeland — the government had conceded that”, he argues. Even more disarming and focal of government corruption is where, fresh in captivity, the LTTE navy chief Soosai points out weapons and military vehicles to Boyagoda, adding: “gifts from Premadasa” Allegations of the government providing the LTTE with arms and infrastructure to fight the IPKF – one of the most controversial open secrets / allegations – is given a rounder shape thus. Are these liberal and accommodative sentiments of the Tamil plight ones which Boyagoda always had, from his formative days as a soldier? Or, are these prison-hardened feelings, of a Commodore who felt abandoned by the system? Are these among the revisions he would have made in adjusting his outlook in the course of a tested life of detention?
Subsequently, Boyagoda’s release is secured by an “exchange” of prisoners, as the government — after what is hinted to be several false starts — agrees to release LTTE Black Tiger “Kennedy”, who had been in government custody, being trapped during the attack on Palali air force base. Contrary to Boyagoda’s experiences with the LTTE, Kennedy is reported in the Asian Tribune of 2002-09-30 as having said to have been “tortured…and treated with contempt” by the Lankan military. The swapping of Kennedy with Boyagoda and the release of other prisoners – from both sides – were “news-making” headlines in a time where a stalemated peace process was nearing its inevitable end. Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, the events Boyagoda recounts of that decisive exchange – a symbolic moment of amelioration that, in reality, didn’t transform into a meaningful drift – where the government officials, the military officers and LTTE frontliners all assemble in one pseudo-hopeful / pseudo-anxious conference leaves the reader with a deep sigh for an initiative lost and a possible path not taken that may have written the history of our times in a different way.
The most significant contribution of Boyagoda’s story is that it feeds and nourishes a growing discourse of post-war literature, and for its tangibly humanist approach, reflection, and definition of the parties locked in battle. Boyagoda cedes how the Sinhala army/navy prisoners – who were being moved from place to place depending on the security situation – and their jailors of the LTTE gradually form a dynamic and an easy-relationship dictated by circumstances. He showcases the maturity, discipline and application as well as the humanist outlook of cadres like Selvaratnam, Mudalvannan and Newton. Though fighting on opposite sides, the LTTE cadre and the Lankan military support the same Cricket team and exhaust each other playing Cricket and badminton in the camp. Upon their ultimate release, both parties – the jailers and the prisoners – bid difficult farewells to each other. As Boyagoda tells us, this is not everyone’s story, but his story alone. But, it is a story that urges us to see the complex and unobvious moments and transactions – ones that fall outside the absolute narratives we are dealt with by uncompromising nationalist agendas and so forth – and the ultimate human aspect configured into the context which we for convenience call the Civil War. It also moves us to reassess the unnecessary and meaningless excess of the carnage, of the lack of remorse and compromise with which the final touches were put to the Civil War in May 2009, where a mature and civilized approach could have redeemed much for a post-war future and posterity.