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.