Photo credit REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte: Special Forces Combat soldiers ride in a parade during a war victory ceremony in Colombo May 27, 2011. Sri Lanka holds a military parade and memorial for fallen soldiers on Friday to mark the second anniversary of the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, which ended a quarter-century civil war in the Indian Ocean nation.
“Revolution is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly and modestly”. – Mao Ze Dong
The matter is rather simple really. What do you do, or more correctly, what does a state do, and what does a leader at the helm of state affairs do, when faced with a situation of a heavily armed movement dedicated to dismembering the country through secession; a movement which has repeatedly resorted to terrorism; has repeatedly returned to war after episodes of ceasefires and negotiations with successive governments of two countries, has finally been outmanoeuvred and is cornered, trapped? What does a state do when such a movement, its cadres back in civilian clothes, has surrounded itself with and embedded itself in a population of civilians, many of whom had chosen to follow the secessionist army when it retreated from its citadel over a decade before and has been touted as a weapons trained militia? What does a state do when such an armed force has placed heavy guns and command centres amidst that populace and is firing those guns and mortars at the surrounding army? What does a state do when the strategy of the cornered terrorist army is to catalyse an externally induced ceasefire and live to fight another day? What does a state, especially a democratic republican state, do when the vast majority of its citizenry are urging a decisive finish to a decades-long plague of terrorism and when its armed forces are straining at the leash to defeat and destroy the beast which has been tormenting the state and generations of its citizenry?
Agree to yet another ceasefire and yet another round of talks, not based upon unconditional surrender – the only realistic option in the situation – but contingent on or resulting in the evacuation of the secessionist terrorist leadership? Or go in, as the Allies crashed into Berlin or Paul Kagame’s troops went into the civilian camps across the border?
When you go in, do you do so flailing about blindly, or while making the risky effort to breach the enemy defences and facilitate the exit of as many of the civilians as possible?
And once you’ve done so to the fullest extent possible, what do you do? How do you deal with the efforts to breakout by the enemy; efforts which include the tactic of embedded suicide bombers in civilian clothes?
And when the final battles take place in the dark pre-dawn hours; a battle which does not entail a surgical strike by commandos against a lone enemy leader but with the elite praetorian guard of the cruellest of enemies; a battle which is fought not with pilotless Predator drones and Hellfire missiles but by foot soldiers who probably come from villages where night raids have left bodies and memories of huddled infants and breastfeeding mothers, against the backcloth of a long struggle which has reawakened historical anxieties of an existential sort, do you expect the final scene to be pretty? Revolution, said Mao, is not a dinner party. Still less is a secessionist war a dinner party. The Russian Bolsheviks led by those epitomes of Reason and modernity Lenin and Trotsky, sanctioned the physical elimination of the Tzar and his family (a ghastly act which Trotsky, the epitome of Western reason and modernity, justified and Bolshevism’s original sin, according to Reggie Siriwardena in the Lanka Guardian), the Italian partisans hanged Mussolini and his woman friend upon capture, elements of the Sri Lankan armed forces fed their co-ethnic and generational peer Rohana Wijeweera into the fire. Not my idea of the ethics of violence, but who practised those ethics anyway, apart from Fidel, Che, the Cubans, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and perhaps some Lusophone African liberation movements? These were exceptions and veritable saints by comparison with the normal practices and practitioners of war in History– History described by Hegel as a “slaughter bench”.
So what now?
Does anybody seriously expect a state, especially one that is sufficiently democratic at base to be responsive to public opinion, to open up the war and its closing stages, which are felt to be a liberating triumph by the overwhelmingly greater number of its citizens, to international scrutiny? Which state has done so, where and when, two years after a victorious war? Why should Sri Lanka be the first in line of a questionable doctrine, when it should be at the back of the queue if there is one?
This is not a matter of a nasty regime defending itself. Liberal democratic Spain, a member of the EU and NATO, filed a case against its most celebrated judge, Balthazar Garzon, who started universal jurisdiction rolling with his admirable decision of Augusto Pinochet, because Garzon sought to open up for possible accountability the crimes committed during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
Each state and society decides on how, when and who by, the issues of accountability and impunity are settled. How can the UK, which let Augusto Pinochet go, and which took 38 years to issue its report into Bloody Sunday with no prosecutions having yet taken place, wag its finger at Sri Lanka on impunity?
Are those who argue that accountability is a pre-requisite for reconciliation and that an international or independent national inquiry is a prerequisite for accountability, seriously hold that an inquisition into the Sri Lankan armed forces will assist rather than wreck reconciliation? Who then will reconcile the rather large armed forces (with the stress on the adjective) with those who seek to or permit them to be placed in the dock for having risked life and limb to liberate the country from one of the most violent militias the contemporary world has seen?
Who will reconcile the vast Sinhala peasantry with that element of urban society and its expatriate cousins, which wishes to put their sons in the dock at the behest of some foreigners or liberal legal doctrines? Who will reconcile an ancient nation which constitutes the vast mass of the island, with the former colonial powers that issue deadlines and ultimatums and a neighbouring landmass from which incursions took place throughout history, and now passes resolutions calling for economic blockades?
Did the pressure from the anti-Castro Cubans in Florida and the economic embargo by the USA lead to a softening within Cuba? Where in the world does a combination of such external pressures and outrageous demands, from historic invaders and occupiers, not lead to an internal hardening?
By which logic does anyone call for a risky lacerating inquiry in the name of reconciliation with a minority, when it the idea of penalising, persecuting and prosecuting a loved and socially rooted, army will incense the vast majority? Who or which is more organic to the country: the armed forces or those who are calling for accountability hearings, so loudly, so aggressively and so soon after the war? Will Sri Lanka’s citizens heed the threatening calls of an ex-colonizer and occupier or the resolutions of the assembly of a neighbouring site of ancient incursions, or protect its elected government, a leadership of its democratic choice and a military consisting of its children?
What makes any intelligent person think that the people of this country will not defend from those deemed intervening outsiders and their local lackeys, those who defended the country—and do so ‘by any means necessary’? What could make an intelligent person think that the majority of Sri Lanka’s citizens do not see the Tiger flags and Tamil Eelam graphics (the map of the island with the North East differently coloured) in the photographs of the demonstrations and events taking place among the re-mobilised and revengeful elements of the Tamil Diaspora in the West? A literate people know that the Tiger is not a self-serving embellishment of the incumbent administration, but the old enemy propelling its front organisations and fellow travellers; its ‘useful idiots’, while straining to leverage the ex-colonial states against Sri Lanka and waiting to leap from beyond the oceans.
How can anyone seriously believe that inter-ethnic reconciliation will be possible, still less accelerated, by or in the aftermath of anything that smacks of victimising the popular armed forces? Accountability hearings AND devolution? Devolution AFTER accountability hearings? Is not the choice one of devolution OR accountability, under this or any other administration? Can any administration that accedes to a full-on accountability hearings, this present one or a successor, follow it up with liberal measures of ethnic compromise and reconciliation and hope to avoid a ferocious backlash? How long would a Wickramasinghe- Karunanayake-Samaraweera administration that moves on ‘accountability’ AND devolution (not to mention neoliberal economic reform) last? Is not an ‘accountability hearing into the closing stages of the war’ – as distinct from domestic inquiry into concrete instances of crimes involving aberrant armed forces personnel—precisely the single measure that will render radioactive any liberal interethnic compromise whatsoever?
How can any serious analyst draw parallels with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, when that was in the context of a negotiated transition from minority rule to majority rule and entailed for the most part, a re-telling of coercive transgressions by the minority against the majority? What would have been the mechanism and practice had the South African outcome been one of outright military victory by the majority forces?
How could a serious commentator draw parallels with the Serbian government handing over Milosevic and Mladic to The Hague? Serbia lost the war as conspicuously as Sri Lanka won it. Yugoslavia broke up or was broken up. Serbia was attracted by the EU option. Sri Lanka is in Asia, and in Asia, as the President of Slovenia (and political science scholar) Danilo Turk put it at a UNESCO Roundtable in Paris a few weeks ago, Westphalian sovereignty prevails. Henry Kissinger emphasised the same point in his new book ‘On China’.
An ancient nation, possibly one of the oldest on earth, with a long chronicled history, a unique language, specific religious denominational adherence and strong identity and consciousness, demographically well-positioned on an island in Asia; a nation which has beaten back a thirty year old ferocious suicide–terrorism and survived an external intervention, a nation with a fairly sizeable population and tough armed forces: does this look like a pushover, or a collective that’s going to bend over for six of the best from a former colonial schoolmaster?
Those doing the pushing see only the target, the incumbent regime, and perhaps the endgame, regime termination, but are poor students of history and politics and therefore do not have foresight or sense of direction. They are oblivious to pattern, process and trajectory, which is one of polarisation and radicalisation: of hardening. Instead of polarisation they may get regime shift or displacement, which ranges from intra regime displacement of the regime’s ‘centre of gravity’, to radical regime transformation.
Under extreme siege, or the collective perception of such, regimes recompose and mutate into or are displaced and succeeded, not a by a neoliberal or liberal one so beloved by the West, the émigrés and urban civil society, but precisely by one that will be widely mandated to resist more resolutely: an organic, probably elected, Praetorianism or Caesarism. Is it inevitably, axiomatically, unsustainable and therefore bound to be but an interlude, however horribly Hobbesian? I don’t know, but one may ask Myanmar or Pakistan or imagine a fusion.
Sri Lanka’s cities were hit hardest by terrorist suicide bombings but its civil society is the least grateful to those who saved it. We didn’t save ourselves; we were saved by the Sinhala peasantry which sent its boys into the armed forces and bloody battle.
The best portrait of the Sinhalese peasant as protagonist came from the pen of Leonard Woolf, in The Village in the Jungle. Silindu –unforgettably portrayed by Joe Abeywickrema in Lester’s movie — slow, superstitious, is repeatedly pushed, prodded and pilfered by the slick Fernando and Ratemahattaya, until, like the water-buffalo, he finally perceives process and enemy and turns, game-changer in his grasp: a double-barrelled shotgun. This is what happened after the years of the CFA, the PTOMS and unilateral appeasement and national humiliation, facilitated by the intermediaries, the compradors, represented by Ranil’s UNP. The Silindu streak in the collective Sinhala spirit and psyche took it to the next level, pushing back right up to ‘the Day of the Guns’ (to quote a favourite American thinker, Mickey Spillane) at Nandikadal. Today, the ‘social media’ savvy civil society sympathisers of the Darusman Report and the Channel 4 spin are the inheritors and continuators of role of the Fernandos and the Ratemahayttayas, connected to the same colonial overlords.
It makes little sense to push such a nation into a corner – to the point of crystallisation of a determination to resist and recoil in the face of an existential threat of incursion into the inviolable and irreducible sovereign space.
True, the physical fate of Silindu and his family was a tragic one, but as the thirty year old Mervyn de Silva, my father, concluded in his Introduction to Leonard Woolf’s Diaries (1961), these poor rural Sinhala folk had “a far greater moral worth than the Fernandos and Ratemahattayas of this world”.