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Selected Writings - V.Siva Subramaniam
War on 'Terrorism': Fundamental Concepts Re-Examined
- Sri Lankan Case Study
17 March 2007
An important legacy of the 9/11 twin tower tragedy is the abuse in the use of the term ‘terrorism’. Regimes with strong genocidal records resort to it to cover up the genocidal crimes, cynically demonizing any resistance maliciously attaching the label ‘terrorism’ to them. Regimes eagerly jump into the anti-terrorism bandwagon solely to gain international support (arms and aid) that they do not deserve.
A classic case is Sri Lanka. It excelled in hiding its genocidal crimes for over five decades and kept the aid tap open unaffected. These regimes take cover by overplaying the day to day battlefield actions in an on-going civil war as terrorist acts. This tactic diverts focus away from their culpability for creating the civil war conditions in the first place. Slowly but surely the international donors are gradually seeing through this deception.
At the risk of repeating, the study narrates Sri Lankan history focusing on developments crucial to identifying issues critical to resolving the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. Much water has flown under the bridge in the last five decades that key issues have been clouded out by sensational battlefield incidents. This takes the eye off the critical issues to resolve the ethnic crisis. The developments narrated reveal the extent to which the goodwill between the two communities was callously damaged by Sri Lankan regimes implementing an agenda to reduce the Tamils to an inconsequential minority.
The debate today overlooks the gravity of the genocide and state terrorism used in furtherance of this agenda; thus to trivialize the regime's role in bringing about the civil war conditions. In war both sides resort to the use of force. The regimes exaggerate the use of legitimate force by the radicalized resistance as terrorism. Hence the confusion internationally over who is the perpetrator of violence and who is the victim of the violence. The objective of this narrative is to clear this confusion for proper perspectives to emerge. This is essential for finding a viable solution to the ethnic crisis.
‘Terrorism’ – need for caution in defining and identifying it
To correct the damage that the misuse of the term ‘terrorism’ cause to the fight against terrorism the definition of the term needs urgent refinement and the criteria for applying the term to regimes or organizations also needs substantial improvements. The definition has to bring ‘state terrorism’ within its ambit. Addressing such shortcomings will improve the moral grounds of the global fight against terrorism. This will also alleviate the tragic sufferings of the legitimate resistance fighting regimes that abuse human rights and use genocidal violence.
Genocidal regimes create conditions driving peaceful non-violent resistance to the use of legitimate force. Penalizing such resistance while genocidal regimes escape penalties is morally unjust. Weak minorities resort to the use of force in self defense specifically to survive genocidal oppression. The moral case for resistance to use legitimate force in these circumstances is strong and urgent.
Precedents – recognition of a role for resistance and use of legitimate force to resist state terrorism/genocide
The world witnessed interesting developments in recent decades when a few genocidal regimes were held to account. Though not very precise the precedents provide scope for improvements in setting the criteria to bring regimes that not only sponsor but engage in state terrorism amounting to genocide within the ambit of ‘terrorism’. Other interesting developments include the implicit acceptance of the use of legitimate force by resistance facing genocidal regimes. The genocide in the former Yugoslavia was ended with the victims gaining independent statehood. To this day the entire world has not labeled the resistance to the Yugoslavian regimes as ‘terrorists’. So were the groups that fought the genocidal oppression of Saddam. The international community in fact supported (and encouraged) the use of legitimate force, armed the resistance and militarily intervened to end the genocide.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India adopted a similar approach to the resistance groups in Sri Lanka supporting, training and arming them to check the excesses of the Sri Lankan ‘state terrorism’ and rejecting off-hand the Sri Lankan demand that the resistance groups be treated as terrorists. Arming the groups tacitly meant accepting the legitimacy of the use of force to resist the terrorism of genocidal states. Numerous states (Bangladesh, East Timor amongst others) were born out of resistance that used legitimate force. In every one of these instances the use of legitimate force by the resistance had the support of the international community. Applying the label ‘terrorism’ to all resistance without making provision for groups fighting inhuman oppression denies a role for legitimate resistance and condones the genocidal crimes of oppressive regimes. The latter is morally inhumane.
Half a century of genocide in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan state has for over half a century successfully camouflaged its genocidal crimes on the Tamil minority although the crimes neatly fit into the (dictionary) definition of ‘genocide’, namely: ‘systematic measures for the extermination of a national, political, cultural, religious or racial group’. Successive regimes equated the slow reaction or inaction of the international community to condoning the crimes. Thus the regimes continued commit the crimes with impunity. The result, the Tamils as a community has been virtually decimated. The regime that is now in power is taking its genocidal oppression to levels unparalleled in the history of the Tamils.
Genocide – Administrative phase; non-violent resistance for minority rights
The term ethnic cleansing gained currency when the former Yugoslavia broke up. The Tamil minority experienced the oppression of ethnic cleansing way back from the 50’s. The arid North starved of development required a sizeable portion of the Tamils to live in the South to earn a livelihood. The state’s ethnic cleansing was to rid the South of these Tamils by cruelly depriving them of their livelihood (education, jobs, promotion, land allocations etc). Conditions were made so unbearable, compelling the Tamils to flee North and further into India across the narrow stretch of water.
Lesser number of Tamils meant that the Tamils become a politically and economically manageable minority. Resistance to such oppression was constitutional; a Gandhian style passive resistance. The forum for the resistance was the press, public platform and the parliament. An impassive state reacted by deepening and extending the scope of the oppression. The disenfranchisement of the Tamils (of the up-country) or 10 percent of the electors reduced the parliamentary strength of the Tamils by over 50 percent. The political rights of the Tamils were seriously eroded.
Ethnic cleansing; naked (state sponsored) phase; resistance; minority rights through federal autonomy.
In view of the substantial erosion of minority rights the non-violent Tamil resistance demanded a federal form of autonomy to prevent further erosion of minority rights. The plank for autonomy was to continue as a constitutional non-violent Gandhian agitation. The regime viewed the demand for federal autonomy as upsetting to its agenda to marginalize the Tamils politically and economically. The regimes’ ingenious search for reasons to justify suppression of the resistance’s autonomy demand was to introduce the spectre of Tamil separatism. The oppression that followed was on a scale harsher than that of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The bogey of Tamil separatism: state sponsored violence for ethnic cleansing
Political dishonesty was an important hallmark of the leadership of the Sri Lankan regimes. The political players who controlled the state and shaped the opinion of the majority community willfully (not through political naivety) misled the majority equating the call for federal autonomy to a call for separation. This view was pushed hard despite the glaring success of the federal systems in the USA and India in avoiding separation.
That there was a groundswell of support for federal autonomy repeatedly confirmed in massive electoral endorsements is widely known to the international community. Labeling them separatists the regimes aroused deep seated emotions amongst the majority against the Tamil minority throughout the country. The regimes thus added mob violence to its arsenal; another more lethal ethnic cleansing weapon of repression. Sri Lankan history is littered with a record number (1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 1983 and 2006) of episodes of mob violence.
Politically the message to the Tamils was that the violence to come will be on the scale not that was experienced by the peaceful satyagrahis at the Galle Face green and thereafter in the streets of Colombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka in 1956.
This was to be the beginning of a ruthless form of genocide; an ethnic cleansing to end the ethnic conflict once and for all. To the regimes any resistance peaceful or otherwise was inconsequential. Peaceful Tamils living outside their traditional homeland in the midst of the majority for a livelihood and therefore the most vulnerable were to be cleansed out first and shipped back as refugees to the North and East.
The massive movement of Tamils out of the South to their areas of normal habitation recurred after each episode of mob violence. Instead of providing alternate means of livelihood, the regimes ensured that the displaced Tamils were excluded from selection for new land allocations in their traditional areas of habitation. What hope was there for these displaced and desperate Tamils when the offending ethnic cleanser was the state itself?
Ethnic cleansing - implications
In effect the state engineered ethnic cleansing brought out into the open the deep communal divide and its geographic dimension that made a mockery of the regime’s case for a unitary state as opposed to a federal form of autonomy. It meant the end of the mixed living of communities in all areas in Sri Lanka or the beginning of communal segregation in geographical areas. The regimes destroyed the very foundation of the unitary state (one time the holiest of the holy) which it championed. The lip service to a united Sri Lanka with all communities living in harmony, enjoying equal rights was for the consumption of aid donors. In the meantime the ethnic cleansing agenda that was creating a de facto separation geographically was continued.
Another dimension to using mob violence for ethnic cleansing was to force large number of Tamils to flee overseas. The most notorious occurred in 1983. The international community reacted to the gravity of the genocidal violence that created the exodus accepting (the more compassionate accepted more) distraught Tamils in large numbers as refugees. To the Sri Lankan regimes it was a blessing as it facilitated in implementing its agenda of reducing the Tamils numerically into an inconsequential minority.
Tamil resistance – continues the Gandhian non-violence model
Despite such level of oppression the Tamils who were for decades stubborn converts to ahimsa (Mahatma’s non-violence and satyagraha) kept the agitation political and non-violent. The slogan that resounded in the Tamil homelands was ‘Ghandijikku jai’. At the people’s level centuries' old history, kinship, shared language, religion, culture, people to people contact and natural emotional attachment for the brethren across the narrow Palk Straits fuelled the regimes’ bitterness and suspicions about Tamil loyalties.
Thus despite all the professions of friendship, the regimes resurrected the historical memories of past Indian invasions to arouse deep popular resentment towards India whom they viewed as the Big Brother at its doorstep. The regimes gave expression to these feelings even in international forums. Minister Jayawardena snubbed Sri Nehru (PM) at the Japanese Peace Treaty signing ceremony in San Francisco in 1954. PM Kotalawela’s public snubbing of Sri Nehru at the Non-Aligned Conference in Bandung Indonesia in 1953 was ruder still.
Bogey of separatism- deployment of armed forces in the North – beginnings of state terrorism
To counteract the widening agitation and sympathy for the resistance that came from India provided the pretext for the regimes to deploy armed forces in the Tamil areas supposedly to check illegal immigrants. Army checkpoints (which still remain) dotted the Tamil areas. These became the instruments of a new form of harassment of Tamils. At the check points the Tamils had, to avoid arrest, produce documents to prove that they were not illegal immigrants in their traditional areas of habitation. The resistance resented these humiliating checks and the army deployment or military occupation. The chant Ghandhikku Jai became ‘Chelvanayagam (the Tamil Ghandi) thukku jai’. In effect it was the resistance’s call for a federal solution and withdrawal of the army from Tamil areas. There was no terrorism or terrorists around anywhere in Sri Lanka then.
State terrorism’s virulent phase; radicalized resistance - the use of legitimate force equals bogy of terrorism
The history of modern Sri Lanka is a story of mob, police and army violence. The mounted police violence on the peaceful satyagrahis in 1956 in the Gale Face Green is reminiscent of the attacks on Ghandiji and his supporters by the apartheid regime in South Africa. The more enlightened and humane world condemned the atrocities. Like the state instigated killings of Tamils in 1956 in Gal Oya, the streets of Colombo and most towns and villages in the South the killing of Tamils continue to this day proving the proneness to violence and terrorism of the regimes. The hapless Tamils then an unarmed minority bore all the pain without being provoked to use force. State violence had reached a threshold that resistance had to react appropriately.
Violence enters the resistance ethic
The guilt for introducing violence into the ethnic politics falls squarely on the Sri Lankan state. Equating federal autonomy to separatism built a fear psychosis amongst the majority that using any level of violence to deny the minority a federal solution was the one and only solution to the ethnic issue or indeed its own survival. This view drummed into the populace for decades locked the regimes out from making any compromises.
Five decades passed (and many more will pass) by and the regime’s charade of sham peace talks will continue forever. A noteworthy feature of the peace charade is that it is cleverly timed for the donor countries’ yearly meetings to keep the aid tap open. An open aid tap indirectly funded the genocidal crimes of the regimes for decades which it used to rearm during the recent ceasefire to restart the civil war with vehemence recently.
A radicalized resistance; civil war; emergence of a de facto state; cease-fire
The de facto geographical segregation of communities, the disillusionment of sections of the Tamils with non-violence and the political process gave birth to a more radical form of resistance in the 80’s. This resistance was insignificant in the early 80’s. In dealing with the incipient radicalism the regimes demonized it as terrorism just to unleash a reign of terror on the entire Tamil people.
At the beginning the radicalized resistance comprised numerous groups that showed daring and commitment in the field but the lack of direction advantaged the Sri Lankan regimes. Through a process of attrition (natural) this weakness corrected with the viable groups emerging and strong enough to take on the regimes on the ground and establish a de facto state. The international community reacted and brokered a ceasefire as a prelude to a just and fair settlement of the ethnic issue. With nearly four years of peace Sri Lanka seemed poised to take off economically.
A disaster – a radical genocidal regime invents the bogey of ‘terrorism’
The hopes of a durable peace were dashed when the present regime was elected on a platform to find a military solution to the ethnic conflict. The dark days of the civil war returned with a vengeance with daily reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilians, artillery firings, heavy civilian causalities, killings, kidnappings, civil rights violations, economic blockade, starving conditions in affected areas and disappearances after arrests. The regime’s record shows how violent prone and genocidal it is. There is a virtual siege in the Tamil areas. By cutting all communications (post and telephone) with the outside world the regime is targeting the overseas Tamil community.
There is much anxiety amongst them about the safety of kith and kin back in the Tamil areas. The regime(s) replaced the bogey of ‘separatism’ with the bogey of ‘terrorism’ in its diplomatic offensives to export the civil war overseas to get the overseas governments to do the dirty work for them and harass the Tamils overseas undertaking humanitarian work intended to alleviate the intense sufferings of the Tamils back in the Tamil areas. What label is better than ‘state terrorism’ and ‘genocide’ to best describe a regime that unashamedly tries to take its war to the very Tamils it drove overseas not long ago? The international community is cautioned against being beguiled by the pretences of fighting ‘terrorism’ by a regime with an obnoxious genocidal record.
Terrorist label – Is it appropriate for the regime(s) or the resistance?
The above narrative exposes the risks in simplistically labeling all resistance as terrorists. The international community is urged to take an objective and detached view at the genocidal record of the Sri Lankan regimes before going to bed with such a regime especially the one now in power. All forms of support (moral, aid. arms) will prolong the sufferings of the Tamils which the resistance alleviated to some degree. Sympathy and support of the international community for the suffering Tamils is most crucial. The Tamils as a people appeal to the international community to treat the Tamil resistance as a legitimate movement of the Tamil people democratically endorsed in election after election. The Sri Lankan genocide is not second in its severity to that of the former Yugoslavia. The international community is urged to adopt its Yugoslav policy model in responding to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.