Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

What’s wrong with Michael Roberts’ enthusiasm for a “knock-out blow?”

Vasantha Raja, Editor,


After reading Michael Roberts’ “Dilemmas at wars end” and his subsequent “Clarifications & Counter-offensive” my curiosity above all was to find out what kind of logic could have led an academic of his calibre to end up in prescribing in effect to the world to be patient until the government’s Sinhala forces (my adjective) annihilate the Tigers’ “conventional fighting machine” (I shall use double-quotes to indicate Roberts’ words.) even at the risk of sacrificing thousands of Tamil civilians. [Presumably, the adjective “conventional” above seems to allow for the possibility of Tigers’ future existence as a guerrilla fighting machine, which in my view would be the more likely scenario. Perhaps, it would be in the government’s interest to kill as many civilians as possible as a pre-emptive act to eradicate future guerrilla-material – Roberts admits “most of the people within de facto Eelam” do provide “considerable support for the LTTE”.]

Let’s turn to the crux of Roberts’ argument which he clearly states in his “Clarifications & Counter-Offensive”:

“We are caught between two evils”, he says. So, we have to look for the lesser evil to support at least within this particular “context”. According to Roberts, on one side we have the “dictatorial”, “fascist” LTTE. On the other side we have a ‘populist’ government with “an electoral mandate” – from the Sinhala majority of course – but with “fascist tendencies” and “an unsavoury recent history involving some atrocities, media intimidation and other misdemeanours”.[It would have been more accurate to say: a government on its way to fully-fledged fascism. But let’s ignore these subtleties for the time being. ]   

Roberts now finds it easy to choose the ‘lesser evil’ between the “fascists” and those with “fascist tendencies” – for brevity, let’s call the latter ‘semi-fascists’. [In fact, many Sinhalese seem to support the war on this basis.] Obviously, our support in this “immediate context of end-point” should go to the semi-fascists, Roberts concludes.

Then he presents the second part of his argument: In the “immediate context of end point”, he argues, the choice is between a “knock-out blow” to the Tigers, on the one hand, and saving the Tamil civilians “caught in the furnace of a dwindling Tigerland” on the other. And on the basis of the ‘lesser evil’ choice, he thinks, it logically follows that all rational people should support the “knock-out blow” by the ‘semi-fascists’ (my phrase) on the “fascists”.

But, the question is this: what if the government’s plan is to annihilate a substantial portion of what it sees as ‘future guerrilla material’ – i.e. Tamil civilians – right now, and put the rest in concentration camps within Sinhala regions for the foreseeable future?

In fact, many suspect on good grounds that such plans and preparations are being hatched by sinister forces within the state. Do such possibilities bother Roberts’ academic conscience at all, I wonder?

In my view, “the grave danger” Tamil people face from the approaching Sinhala forces is far greater than the problems they face due to Tiger-politics. As far as the overwhelming majority of the Tamils (both inside and outside the “Tigerland”) are concerned the greater evil is the Sinhala military, not the LTTE. Thus, when Roberts uses the term “we” in deciding the lesser evil he cannot claim to be talking on behalf of the majority of Tamils. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils who hit the streets of world capitals recently are a testimony to that. They, with generations of experience behind them, instinctively knew the real dangers their brethren are threatened with.

The problems Tamils have with the LTTE leadership are of different nature. When I visited Jaffna in 1994 during my BBC days to do some programmes I had the opportunity to experience the war and interview a few Tiger leaders. [At that time Jaffna was the LTTE capital.] There, I asked the LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham a few questions about the undemocratic nature of Tigers’ rule. He simply answered: “We’re constantly living under war conditions. For democracy we’ll have to wait.” That night I stayed at the huge Jaffna hotel which was virtually empty. And through out the night I could hear shells being fired every five minutes or so from the military frontline. And during the day I watched with tears in my eyes little kids running to their homemade bunkers whenever the sound of a plane comes. I said to myself: “democracy”.

So, let me repeat: the problem with the Tigers is of a different nature. Tigers’ heavy reliance on military methods, I believe, stemmed essentially from an ideological separatism; and it was this kind of politics that led to their ‘mini-state building enterprise” – which I think was a disaster. It was separatist politics that prevented an alliance among democratic forces on all sides. The resultant sectarianism of the LTTE was an impediment to the systemic transformation of the island as whole.

This is why I believe the destruction of the Tamil mini-state by the Supremacist Colombo-state will contribute a great deal for a paradigm-shift in Tiger politics. Conditions for a unified struggle to defeat a ‘semi-fascist’ regime – in other words, to remove Michael Roberts’ lesser evil – are emerging fast. The government seems to sense this. It knows the prospective existence of Tigers as a guerrilla force (minus a separatist ideology) would be far more dangerous than its mini-state building with separatist obsessions.

Hence, as opposed to Roberts’ ‘knock-out prescription’, I believe, the ‘fascist’ circles within the state would see this as the best opportunity to wipe out as many civilian ‘Tigerlanders’ as possible, while putting the rest in concentration camps. Once the Tigers are off the map it wouldn’t be too difficult to terrorize other Tamils residing in Jaffna, the east & in Colombo too. This, I believe, would be the more probable scenario to follow a knock-out blow – which Roberts sees as saving of the Tamils by semi-fascists.

In conclusion, let me return to Roberts’ “the immediate context of end-point” and categorically urge all sensible observers to reject Michael Roberts’ analysis of the “hard realities” and do everything possible to prevent genocidal attacks on Vanni people. The UN & the global leaders should urge the SL Govt. to immediately arrange a ceasefire with a perspective to negotiate a political solution with the LTTE rather than becoming party to a grave war-crime.

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    How did "fascist tendencies" become "on its way to full fledged fascism"? A "tendency" isn't evidence of an inevitable transition. Furthermore, how did "fascist tendencies " become "semi-fascist"? I wonder whether Prof Roberts would prefer to revise his assessment from "fascist tendencies" to "fascistic elements"or "elements with fascist tendencies"? And how does the fact of aerial bombing become evidence of the nondemocratic or undemocratic nature of the administration or state doing the bombing? Is the argument that democracies do not bomb while fighting back against secessionist and or terrorist armies/militia? C'mon guys, one of the first acts of President Obama was to sanction a Predator drone strike that killed some Taliban fighters, but also accounted for some civilians……

  • ishan

    for once and for all,, please get this to your head. NO MORE NEGOCIATIONS WITH LTTE>>> you guys dont get the point…

  • The Nazis or fascists here are the Sinhalese Buddhists and their state.

    "Buddhists don't kill a dog but can kill a Tamil" is the philosophy behind the killing, murder, genocide and cluster bombings. Sri Lanka(SL) is broadcasting this Buddhist cult philosophy to the world by its brutal actions on Tamils. And there are paid personnel by the state to defend this philosophy.

    The Sri Lankan state is following this policy with a clenched fist. It is defiant and arrogant to requests by the world to stop this brutality because the state is drunk with thirst for Tamil blood. The attitude of the state to the others is "shut up".

    This matter is at such a worse state because Britain and India have been "humbugging" to Tamils and supporting the genocidal activities. Both India and Britain are happy with second class treatment of Tamils, human rights violations and genocide.

    Tamil Eelam is the only solution for this problem. Political and true history supports this. But India and Britain are against the freedom of Tamils. Why? Historians know the reason.

  • informer

    It seems that you have left the country over 20 years ago and don't know the situation clearly. Too bad. You are like the blind guy who caught the tale of an elephant.

  • Observer

    I have in the past worked for an intelligence agency in limited capacity. And let me tell you during times of engagement, there is ALWAYS US & THEM. In my experience there are never neutrals – no matter how neutral they seem. Part of the intelligence’ job is to accurately clarify who are us and who are them. I totally understand what Prof. Roberts is trying to say and I also understand why some of ya’ll are peeved at his sentiments. In fact the very reason for this rebuttal is for you to clarify whether Prof. Roberts is with “us or them”.

    Most of you haven’t been in the midst of a battle to feel the intensity and stress to understand this. When battle lines are drawn and enemies are clearly identified, armies get to work that they have been training all their life for. And it ends when the job is done. And here’s the point most of you don’t understand. There is an option to save lives. It is called surrender. It entitles absolute impunity from harm to the surrendering party and in fact sometimes it is enough grounds to call upon an independent force to ensure their safety during the surrender.

    So across a clearly defined battle line, the attacking army can and will exert force (without the need for a ceasefire) upon the enemy until such time there is surrender. Welcome to war. Most of you will never work in the defence establishment.

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    That's true of serious politics as well. Lenin identified the central issue of politics as "Kto-Kogo?" meaning literally "Who-whom?" ("Who wins, who prevails over whom?") Carl Schmitt demarcates 'the political' as a field defined by "the friend/enemy distinction". Mao identified the main question as "who are our friends? who are our enemies?"