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

A response to Michael Robert’s Dilemma at Wars End: Thoughts on Hard Realities

This is a response to Michael Robert’s article published on Groundviews recently titled Dilemma at Wars End: Thoughts on Hard Realities.

I am disappointed that a historian of Dr Michael Roberts’ stature and humanitarian sensibility is seduced by the triumphalist rhetoric of the current Sri Lankan government. There are countless examples currently and in the historical records that show that questions of competing identities and nationalities are only resolved when the issues fuelling such questions are addressed; otherwise they fester and deform the body politic of a nation state.

Dr Roberts’ article seems a pure academic exercise in isolation of the material realities of the world. One cannot discuss the issue of bombing a civilian population out (however small that could be) in isolation.

Dr Roberts unfortunately takes an extreme position and alleges that advocates of all other views as do-gooders. In doing so, he casts himself firmly in the camp of the war-mongers and extremist nationalists. His arguments justify any actions taken by any juntas or reactionary regimes all over the world against their own people.

In particular, let me make the following comments:

  1. If, as Dr Roberts points out, the Sri Lankan government insists that the Sri Lankan Tamils are citizens of one country, one would think then that GOSL armed forces have a fundamental responsibility to protect their lives and treat them no differently from the other citizens of Sri Lanka. Suppressing and denying the cultural and linguistic identity of Sri Lankan Tamils will not solve the national question in the long term: it will only dull the embers and the conflict may flare again. The mere fact of Tamils living in LTTE controlled areas  is no justification for denying them their basic human rights.
  2. I agree a cease-fire itself is not in itself going to help the Tamil civilians trapped in the war torn areas of the Vanni. However, there is an urgent need for the involvement of an international body such as the UN, to create a safe passage to affected civilians and ensure their protection. Such a humanitarian exercise must be linked with a political solution which genuinely devolves power to address the issues that gave rise to the war in the first place.
  3. It does not really matter whether the number of affected civilians is 100,000, or 250,000. The bottom line is, they are citizens of Sri Lanka and they should be treated with dignity and respect. All Dr Roberts is doing is providing GOSL and the state a political and ideological veneer to justify the gross violation of the fundamental and inalienable rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
  4. The example of World War 2 is both disingenuous and inappropriate, I believe. It is disingenuous because the evidence on the waging of total war on the civilian population of Europe and Japan was in many instances a crime and prolonged the war. The fire storms created by carpet bombing of civilian areas of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo caused the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and are now seen by many progressive historians as war crimes. The extreme position of the Allies denied vital oxygen to the progressive elements in the German armed forces to sue for peace. It also did not in any way halt or greatly affect the war effort of the Axis powers. The dropping of Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the nuclear age and its attendant horrors.
  5. World War 2 is also an inappropriate example because the reasons, enormity and the complexities of that conflict are completely different to the reasons for and the solving of the National Question in Sri Lanka.