Peace and Conflict

Aren’t we all in this together?

The first film I was taken to – even before I began schooling– was an Elvis movie, so I welcome the news that the best performing single in the history of the US charts is Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation A Little More Action”. Not only would this hold as regards the global economic crisis, a slightly revised version would constitute sound advice as regards terrorism in the volatile South Asian region: “A little less of double standards, a little more action”.

South Asia is correctly regarded as the most dangerous area on earth. It is the point of origin of the terror attack of 9/11 upon the United States. It is the scene of terrorist movements which launch attacks within almost every South Asian state. It is the theatre of cross border terrorism, sometimes suspected to be state sponsored or sponsored by this or that faction of this or that state. It is the zone inhabited by two states with nuclear weapons. It is an area of concern with regards to the proliferation of nuclear fissile material.

Underlying all these contradictions is a social tapestry in which ethnicity and religions spill over existing state boundaries. Terrorism in South Asia stems from two sources: poverty/inequality, which leads to radical terrorism and identity politics which results in terrorism related to ethnic, ethno-linguistic or ethno-religious issues/causes. While one may sympathize with movements that revolt against socio economic oppression and exploitation, what is at issue here are those of strategy and tactics. Strategy inasmuch as movements take up arms against elected governments where there are peaceful means of change; tactics because many of these insurgent movements wittingly target unarmed civilians, and therefore are terrorist in the strict sense of the term.

If any state can claim that a problem of terrorism /counter terrorism sourced in issues of collective identity are not strictly the internal affair of another sovereign state because there is a domestic spillover, that argument would hold true all round. If for instance the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is not exclusively a domestic matter of the sovereign independent state of Sri Lanka because there are those across the waters whose emotions are aroused on the basis of kinship, then does that argument go for Pakistan’s concerns over Kashmir, and if not why not? And if one is irritated by the consistent raising of human rights issues in Kashmir, it should be easy to understand Sri Lanka’s irritation over what it considers gratuitous remarks on human rights issues in the North and East.

If state sponsored cross border terrorism is bad in one part of the region then it was bad in every part of the region whenever it took place, such as the 1980s. If the sponsorship of so-called jihadi terrorism in the cause of Afghan counterrevolution and anti-Sovietism was responsible for blowback in the societies of the sponsors, so also did the sponsorship of terrorism in Sri Lanka blowback tragically on its sponsors—and will do so again, perhaps in different form, if repeated.

If it is reasonable to expect (and pressure) Pakistan to crack down irrespective of pronounced domestic sentiments, on a rooted insurgency, it cannot be wrong for Sri Lanka to crack down on the Tigers irrespective of pro-Tiger sentiment elsewhere.

If it is assumed that it is wrong for sections of one South Asian state’s security or intelligence apparatus to be soft on a cross border insurgency based a perception of strategic utility or flowing from a strategy of denial to rivals, then such a policy should be denounced if practiced by any South Asian state.

We are all in this together; us states I mean. Either we conduct ourselves on the basis that the stability of all states of the region is inextricably interlinked and indivisible, or we continue with the Hobbesian assumptions and the zero sum games. This is a dangerous neighborhood for zero sum games. All states have a vested interest in the suppression of terrorism. All states have a vested interest in making their borders sacrosanct and not subject to negotiation. All states have an interest in defending the principle of sovereignty. The Tigers cannot be considered a sacred cow simply because fanatics in Tamil Nadu have a deep seated attachment for their cause.

The Tigers are a globally known terrorist brand. If, despite their heinous campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations, they are saved by an externally imposed ceasefire or are welcomed to the negotiating table, that will send out the wrong signal worldwide in this Information Age: if you have a constituency that is fanatical enough, you can manipulate the differences between established states (including established democracies) and suicide bomb your way to recognition if not redemption. Is that the signal the world community wants to send out? On the other hand if the Tigers go down to defeat militarily, then a contrary signal goes out: a democratic state can defeat a terrorist army however strong and determined.

Which of the two signals do the major powers and the superpower wish to send out? South Asia and indeed the world need a clear cut victory over terrorism somewhere in the region. Sri Lanka is the closest to furnishing such a victory. To adapt Lenin, Sri Lanka is the weakest link in the chain of terrorism.

In his 60 Minutes interview on November 14th, the first major interview after his election victory, President-elect Barack Obama had this to say: “I think it is a top priority for us to stamp out al Qaeda once and for all. And I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda. He is not just a symbol, he’s also the operational leader of an organization that is planning attacks against US targets.”

Substitute Prabhakaran for Bin Laden, the Tigers for Al Qaeda and Sri Lanka for the US, and there you have the Sri Lankan stand. In the interests of regional stability which impacts directly upon global stability, the states of South Asia must adopt a stand on terrorism that is bereft of glaring contradictions and hypocrisies, and states outside the region including major powers and the sole superpower must adopt positions on terrorism which are consistent throughout the region, not widely variant and even contradictory from one terrorist-afflicted country to another.

These are the strictly personal views of the author.

  • Ajith

    I do think the global view on the LTTE has changed drastically now. Even though India would love to trample over Sri Lanka their hands are tied – by the global perception of terrorism. The LTTE is almost forced to not target large scale suicide bombings of public places because soon as they do it they get bad head lines and the sympathy towards their cause is diminished.
    This being their shock and awe tactic previously the org has now been reduced to a mere headless chicken.

    Like many global leader have iterated sadly this battle against terror is here to stay indefinitely. Even after the brute force defeat of the remaining LTTE infantry, small pockets of survivors will resort to small arms guerrilla struggle as common sense would suggest. I personally project at least another 2-5 years before we see an acceptable reduction of violence levels and 10 years before we may truly sort out our difference among the many communities. So we’re in for the long haul here. Unless the LTTE is willing to disarm and negotiate I don’t see an alternative either. We just need to make sure the establishment and think tanks behind the operations are able to sustain necessary political atmosphere until the goal are achieved in the long run.

    The era of achieving goals by violence against the unjustified has passed as the super powers them selves found out the travesty of terror the hard way. If they chose to exert double standards towards the less prosperous counter parts then they will simply be creating breeding grounds for the very enemy they’re trying to defeat. It’s a double edged sword. So I’m not surprised even India is treading carefully despite the ha ho in TN.

  • Ajith

    A perfect example of this “treading carefully” is the US relations with Pakistan during the operations in Afghanistan to this date. At the time just after 9/11 US had battle plans ready to invade Pakistan (this was high on the to do list of Cheny, Rumsfeld as Pakistan had a non democratic leadership and also those 2 are strong believers in spread of democracy through any necessary means), but common sense prevailed as they realised that would escalate the problem and expand the breeding grounds of radicalism from Afghan tribal areas to Pakistan as well. Despite very awkward diplomatic stances to this date they have avoided a confrontation.
    Sri Lanka is in a similar situation (although not quite so) with India atm and I am quite certain they won’t occupy within Sri Lankan borders despite the fact we will see many awkward situations between the two. It just makes sense.

  • Here's a quote from Senator Ron Paul that has parallels to our tendency in SL to create blowback of our own. It is a more thoughtful statement than that of Obama's 'kill Bin-Laden.'

    "I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem."

    For anyone interested, here's the link:

  • jim

    Isn’t it a bloody shame we can’t substitute Mahinda Rajapakse for Barak Obama!

  • Nimal

    No it's not a shame Jim. Barak Obama is clueless about Sri Lanka. Further, Barak Obama is not a Sri Lankan citzen.

  • The Under Dog

    Here’s a quote from Senator Ron Paul about Al-Qaeda that has parallels to the Sri Lankan tendency to create our own blowback. It is a more thoughtful statement than Obama’s ‘kill Bin-Laden’:

    “I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem.”

    Here’s the link, for anyone interested:

  • The problem in South Asia is that there is political oppression and not democracy; this is the mother of evil. If Bush would have termed Pakistan-India-Sri Lanka as the axis of evil I would have totally agreed.

    Political freedom to seek secession or independence – which is their legitimate right accruing from history- is denied in India; a reason why a Tamil lawmaker Vaiko is arrested and kept in custody now. This week, three TNA law makers were questioned in Sri Lanka, for expressing their desire for Tamil Eelam in the North East. The charge was that they acted against the constitution, though they expressed the despearte desire and the will of the people of North East, whom they represent.

    Funnily enough, when Sarth Fonseka, the army commander and Champika Ranawaka a cabinet minister of the government, both Sinhalese, say that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, a statement against the constitution, it is absolutely right and praiseworthy !! Fonseka was even rewarded with an extended term as military commander !!

    Freedom of expression, a fundamental principle of democracy is being grossly violated through legislation and constitution of India and Sri Lanka.

  • wijayapala

    Hi Political Analyst

    "Political freedom to seek secession or independence – which is their legitimate right accruing from history- is denied in India"

    In that case, there are no democracies in this world, since no sane nation will allow secession unless there's a consensus within that nation for it.

    "Fonseka was even rewarded with an extended term as military commander !!"

    Fonseka was awarded an extended term not for his remarks to a newspaper, but because he is thrashing the LTTE left and right [Edited out].