Image courtesy stuff.co.nz
The killing of Osama Bin Laden by chopper-borne US Special forces and Navy Seals is good news and a job well done by that country. Shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers the Sri Lankan papers carried a piece I wrote entitled ‘Why Osama Ain’t My Hero’, a full-on critique of terrorists masquerading as liberation fighters and an explanation of why defence of existing states, most especially democratic ones, against the former is perfectly compatible with the defence of the latter. My rejection of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda was on a continuum with my polemics and politics against Prabahakan and the LTTE, and earlier, the JVP’s savage second insurrection. It also stemmed from my understanding of Lenin’s and Ho Chi Minh’s rational use of violence even on a large scale, and the ethics of violence of Fidel, Che, and the Sandinistas.
At stake are the ‘ethics and politics of violence’(the precise phrase is the late Prof Fred Halliday’s, and I was pleased to discover that the Ethics Bibliography of the US National War College features my book on the subject, with Fidel as the case study). More is at stake: the broadly shared values of rationality, modernity and civilisation.
We Sri Lankans had a 9/11 every year, from the attack on Anuradhapura in 1985. Osama Bin Laden did far less damage to the USA than Prabhakaran did to Sri Lanka. If there is a counter argument of ‘context’ and ‘root causes’ as in “Prabhakaran was only the result of certain policies”, the same argument holds for Osama Bin Laden. Those who reject that line of reasoning in his case cannot legitimately insist on it in the case of the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lanka. If as I do, you choose to comprehend context but refuse to use it as moral excuse or exculpation, you can have the analytical cake and eat it too, but the same must go for the Sri Lankan case: there is a context and a causation (the Treaty of Versailles, the Cold War, ’58 and ’83) but nothing excuses Nazism, al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers.
One joins the USA in its celebratory sentiments and President Obama in his ringing reassertions about Bin Laden, but these are as valid or even more so, with regard to Sri Lanka and the Tigers. How come it is ‘celebration’ in the USA when people spontaneously shout the name of their country and express pride in its armed forces and wave flags outside the White House and ‘triumphalism’ when it happens in Sri Lanka? It is fine when people gather outside Ground Zero and praise the death of Bin laden as justice served for the victims of the Twin Towers, but it is bad form when Sri Lankans, who have been victims of large scale terror and murders of their leaders, express relief and happiness at the death of the man and the destruction of the militia that plagued a generation! Is it that it is ‘fine’ when it is the citizens of the North who do it, but ‘terrible’ when it is those of the global, ex-colonial South? Or is it that the sentiments of the people of certain communities can be ‘hurt’ by expressions of relief, congratulations and triumph, but not those of certain others? Why should Sri Lanka play by these hypocritical hegemonic rules?
To pre-empt any sly assertion that the killing of Osama did not entail civilian casualties, we must recall that it was preceded and is still accompanied by a protracted conventional war in Afghanistan, which spills over into neighbouring Pakistan, and has entailed quite significant civilian casualties — not even the most surgical tactic, Predator drone strikes, are devoid of them when the terrorist leaders are embedded among their kinfolk and tribes.
Analysts and contemporary historians must not forget that the core of the civilians who were with the Tigers were those who had chosen to leave Jaffna with them in 1996 after it had been liberated by the Sri Lankan armed forces in Operation Riviresa, and most Tamils had stayed behind or moved precisely from Tiger control to army controlled areas.
Prabhakaran gambled and failed, or did he? He gambled that using human shield tactics, a Beslan or Moscow theatre hostage tactic used by the Chechen ‘Black Widow’ suicide bombers, but on a larger scale, would either prevent the Sri Lankan state from taking the kill-shot, or generate sufficient international pressure from the West and Tamil Nadu to deter the Sri Lankan state, or that a Jim Jones type collective suicide would make his cause reverberate. It almost worked because there were calls from the powerful and hypocritical for a ceasefire and renewed negotiations with the LTTE – as if we and our neighbours had not been down that road many times before starting with 1987; as if negotiations had not been repeatedly tried and resulted in renewed warfare by the Tigers.
Prabhakaran was wrong in assumptions one and two. This is what we Sri Lankans have to thank President Rajapaksa for, because no one but the political executive could have said yes or no to external pressure including projects of evacuation which would have permitted Prabhakaran to slip through. Prabhakaran was wrong in assumption three, because collective mass suicide through exposure to Sri Lankan military assault (“suicide by cop”) was prevented by the military’s willingness to take casualties in dangerous operations to penetrate the bunker–trench complex and create openings for the escape, each time, of tens of thousands of civilians.
However, Prabhakaran’s third gamble may have posthumously paid off at least in part, going by the current intense campaign against Sri Lanka. All wars including the on-going one in Afghanistan, entails civilian casualties. The taboo is the intentional and avoidable killing of civilians. Sri Lanka’s war was not characterised by the intentional, avoidable killing of civilians. As a policy, Sri Lanka sought to minimise civilian casualties. Sri Lanka’s military policy was not the intentional targeting and killing of civilians. As in Afghanistan, as in drone strikes in Pakistan, civilians died as an unavoidable result. Is a ‘no fire zone’ a zone into which the military does not fire even if it is taking heavy artillery fire from within it? Or is it rather a zone into which the military does not fire at random, but only does so in a targeted fashion in order to suppress heavy artillery and mortar fire coming from within?
The US used B-52, B-1and B 2 strategic bombers, designed to carry nuclear weapons, in bombing raids on Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which were far more lightly armed than the Tigers with their heavy guns, fledgling air force and established naval arm. Sri Lanka did not violate the criterion of proportionality in the force it deployed in the last war, including the last phase of the last war. The civilian casualties were not only unavoidable, but were a fraction of those who had died in the wars that the Tigers unilaterally waged even after a reformist solution was available in 1987, and a fraction of those who would have died had the Tigers not been terminated and the war continued for the next thirty years.
This does not mean there were no brutal excesses as in any war, but these were not a matter of policy; they were exceptions, which will be dealt with within and by Sri Lanka, institutionally, just as every state and society deals with them. Why should Sri Lanka be an exception?
There is an attempt to catch Sri Lanka in an accountability trap. Iraq was accused of possessing WMD and asked to submit to external inspection. It did, and the absence of WMD did not prevent the horror that was visited upon it. The panel report is not, as Gordon Weiss has it, Sri Lanka’s Srebrenica Moment. There, 8,000 men women and children were taken prisoner and executed. What is being sought to be staged is Sri Lanka’s WMD Moment. The question is posed, if Sri Lanka is innocent of charges of war crimes why not prove it by means of an international independent inquiry? That’s a ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ type of question. How independent is independent; independent of whom or what? How international is international? And why not start with other states whose wars, including those of conquest and annexation, inflicted far more casualties and ended much more than two years ago?
The UN Tribunal in Cambodia is an inquiry into war crimes committed by the defeated Khmer Rouge, not into the conduct of the armed forces of the government of Cambodia which, in alliance with Vietnam, overthrew the Pol Pot regime. In Sri Lanka, with the equivalent of Pol Pot and his henchmen dead, the so-called international community wants an inquiry into those who overthrew “South Asia’s Pol Pot”, as the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist John Burns designated Prabhakaran.
The milder method of a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ is also inappropriate. From South Africa to Guatemala, these have been present only in situations of a negotiated peace, never an outright military victory. Had the Tigers been pushed by the West and sympathisers in the Tamil Diaspora into adhering to the CFA, instead of, say, assassinating the Foreign Minister, we might have had one of those to go with it—though, it must be noted that the Northern Ireland peace process did not contain any Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Bloody Sunday report took 38 years.
The Darusman panel’s call for an ‘independent international inquiry’ is nothing less than singling out of our sovereign country for a “strip search”. Is there anything that suggests that an island nation with a written history of millennia and a collective identity (‘imagined’ or organic, constructed or primordial) even longer; a country that is not a failed state, or located in Europe or across the Mediterranean in a common region, but in Asia, will subject itself or succumb to that unfair and intrusive violation?