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


My essay DILEMMAS (note the plural) was also sent to a circle of friends and has appeared in other outlets, viz., and the Island, 11 February 2009. I thank all those who have provided cyber comments as well as email responses: both sets, as it happens, are quite polarised, with some highly critical and others strongly supportive.

Groundviews was my first choice. One reason for this decision was the fact that I had aired my political position previously in this outlet (notably Roberts, 2008a, b and c) and could reasonably expect one part of the readership to read this piece within that broader framework (mistaken here). Dilemmas was (is) also constrained by space because it was well above the standard length of 800-1500 words permitted by most media sites.

To elaborate my position: I hold that we are caught between two evils that I shall set out as inter-related points.

A. At the broader level we are sandwiched on the one hand between a dictatorial, fascist regime set up by the LTTE as pathway to the SL Tamil dream of nationalist independence and, on the other hand, a populist SLFP-led government that has an electoral mandate, but also has fascist tendencies and an unsavoury recent history involving some atrocities, media intimidation and other misdemeanours.

B. In the immediate context of end-point within the north eastern corner of Sri Lanka one has to choose between watching a knock-out blow being delivered to the conventional fighting machine of the Tigers and catering to the grave dangers faced by those SL Tamil peoples caught in the furnace of a dwindling Tigerland.

Within this backdrop my emphasis in Dilemmas was on the specificity of context at end-point. The character of the Tiger state was pertinent to this reading. While it has always been an authoritarian organisation, note that it has had considerable popular support both within and outside its terrain (see Roberts 2005: 76-82 for e.g. of the former).

Given the considerable support for the LTTE among most of the people within de facto Eelam, we have witnessed a peculiar situation from mid-1990 to 2009: these Tamil people (note there were a handful of permanent Sinhalese residents in the northern Vanni in 2004 when I visited) are considered citizens of Sri Lanka by both the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and outsiders, but they follow the Tigers in rejecting this identity and constituting themselves as Eelam Tamils or Ilavar (Schalk 1997; Roberts 2006 & 2007b).



Subjectivity is central in identity. Relationally-moulded sentiments are more significant in analytical terms than imposed identities (in this instance by GOSL and do-gooders). So we have a dual character to the feelings among the civilians of Tigerland (a territory that varied): there was (is) the identity imposed by GOSL and that adopted by the people under LTTE encouragement or imposition as the case may be. When mobilised for war as they have been recently, whether willingly or through conscription, these Tamils in Tigerland are transformed into auxiliaries in the war machine. But there also are numerous children, aged and infirm Tamils within the rump Tigerland today in February 2009. The issue of civilian tragedy remains an arena for concern: so we confront Point B.

The dangers for these Tamils civilians (even those who are Eelam Tamil and Tiger in heart) are aggravated by the sacrificial ideology of the LTTE (Roberts 2005, 2007a & 2007b). As one Tamil intellectual put it once at a seminar in Colombo “the Tigers have a death wish.” Driven back now against the wall at end-point now, the LTTE is imposing this death wish on the peoples remaining within its reach. Their sacrificial ideology has much in common with that displayed by the Japanese during the first half of the 20th century, especially the self-abnegating merging of individual within larger cause (Roberts & Saniotis 2006). We would do well to remember the mass Japanese civilian suicides at Saipan in June-July 1944 and then in Okinawa around March 1945.

Thus, in brief, the LTTE is utilising the impending “civilian tragedy” as a form of political blackmail directed at GOSL and the world-at-large. I object with all my passion to such forms of blackmail. The responsibility in this particular moment is largely on the LTTE’s head. But that leaves us still with the crunch problem highlighted as Point B. I shall return to Point B and then Point A after a necessary detour that addresses some of the commentary.


While I anticipated some misreading of my text by those with empathetic hearts distressed by the suffering that has been inflicted and is in process, the degree of misinterpretation is quite mind-boggling and suggests the need for an exercise in “how to read.” Let me stress, too, that I was fully alive to the fact that Sinhala chauvinists would use my essay as a prop in their virulent activities. But chauvinism and xenophobia are (alas) alive and kicking already and do not need my articles for their sustenance. Where a chauvinist does deploy my essay it will be selective and it should be manifest that it is an instrumental tactic. Indeed, one could claim that the sins of commission and omission by the human rights lobby (HRL) stir the chauvinists more than any measured evaluation. HRL excesses animate the Sinhala extremists.

Indeed, the position taken by the HRL also serves the interests of the LTTE and the pro-Tiger diaspora. But their motivation is, as I have stressed in my previous essay, quite different (quite laudable too) from that of the Tiger-apologists. Just because their position assists the LTTE-spokespersons at this moment does not mean that anyone can cast them as “members of the LTTE gallery” in the sort of logic that guides Bopage to brand me. The HRL must continue its work, but with less naivety – that is, they must pay greater attention to the specificities of context, and reveal greater political acumen, less extremism.

Extremism!!! Yes, extremism of a particular sort. The failure of comprehension displayed in Groundviews by Kumar David and Lionel Bopage is quite revealing. It displays a reading of the SL situation in Manichean terms. They themselves stand within a good, moral world opposed to war tout court and opposite them are the warmongers (both GOSL and LTTE). If you say anything in favour of the warmongers, you too are a heinous warmonger.  

I shall refer to this form of extremism in shorthand as HRE, human rights extremism (or extremists). I hope I am not misunderstood: I am not saying that this label applies to all such activists, but only to some, with Bopage and David (both personal friends) as exemplars of the type. The ideology espoused by these HRE has a messianic hue coursing through its messages. But it is messianic without having a base in one of the Great Religions (cf. Victoria 2008). It is one part of world-wide body of secular fundamentalism (sharing space with some Greenies for instance). It is extreme because it is guided by a black/white perception of the world and directed by an either/or epistemology.

Such a stance does not allow for caveats and qualifications. If you are not moderate in the HRE image then you are a demon. As extremists, then, paradoxically, the HRE commenting on Sri Lanka embody the same features as the Sinhala chauvinists and the Tamil Tiger enthusiasts. For the latter, too, are attached to a polarised, Manichean form of evaluation. Likewise, both Sinhala chauvinists and Tiger protagonists too are driven by righteousness, albeit a morality of nationalist passion in contrast to the righteous ethics of the HRE.

The extremism of these HRE is at a particular type of pole, not the hard-headed realpolitik of the “two evils” outlined by me at the outset. Their extremism is not hard-headed; rather it is utopian. Both David and Bopage are in the stratospheric heights: metaphorically let me depict this sphere as the Himalayan ranges, a kind of Mount Meru of ethical righteousness without foundations in the ground realities existing now in the north-eastern corner of Sri Lanka. As such, they have not attended to the manner in which I framed my context in the first essay via title and principle thrust in text.

This ‘framing’ did involve ‘excursions’ on my part. One was a set of “sensitizing reflections” via World War Two. As such it was not a strict analogue. Both “One” in Groundviews and a good friend of mine with international expertise have intervened fruitfully with the observation that human rights law has since moved on and established new conventions. But the latter also noted that these rules have been breached in several subsequent wars (some ongoing). Clearly, a Pandora’s box opens out here. 

The number of Tamil civilians at risk renders this framed setting, the context specified as Point B, an urgent matter. Numbers are manifestly significant here in contradiction to Bopage’s contention. If we adhere to his logic, concerned people must generate the same storm and implement UN intervention whenever 100 people are at risk. In counterpoint I assert that quantity does have qualitative implications.

That said, I grant that, say, 50,000 people at risk renders the instance a significant issue (while observing that my article never denied that – I just asked the HR agencies to reveal greater balance in their presentations when speaking to an ignorant outside world). Thus, the main question is that identified earlier as Point B. Within that context, I inquired how an imposed ceasefire would aid the trapped civilians if and when war erupts again?

David does not address that issue: he is subsumed within his manic Manichean condemnation of Roberts. Bopage does admit that “a cease-fire itself will not in itself … help the Tamil civilians trapped in the war torn areas of the Vanni.” But then insists that an “international body such as the UN [must intervene to] create a safe passage [for] affected civilians and ensure their protection.”

To the best of my limited knowledge during the last month some safe areas have been designated, but have not prevented civilian casualties (as anyone with any awareness of frontline conditions, even at one remove, would have anticipated). This activity is mediated by courageous ICHR personnel and has involved government cooperation (and maybe LTTE too?).

We are constrained here by dependence on tame government reporters and a turbulent world of psy-ops and outright fabrications on both sides, especially by distressed Tamils abroad. The voice of one Mahendran at a hospital in Trincomalee indicates that he reached safety via sea evacuation through this type of process. But it also indicates that “the hospital in the rebel-held town of Puthukkudiyiruppu was shelled, and that many patients were killed or wounded” (Daily News, 13 Feb. 2009). The recent BBC Sinhala news item (2009) as well as Jalaldeen’s report (2009) supports this evidence, while confirming the fact that the Tigers have been an active barrier and even killed some of their own Ilavar fleeing LTTE control.

Bopage’s pathway, then, is in place albeit fitfully because of frontline conditions. However, other HRE and international voices seem to be going further and demanding the cessation of fighting from both parties. So, we are back to my central question within the context specified as Point B.

But there is also the further thought within my previous essay: will this not aid the LTTE? Does this mean that UN and foreign intervention secures Prabhākaran and key LTTE personnel a place at any table that is set up? A lead item in the British paper Independent manages to refer to the “defeat of the loathsome Tigers” as “an opportunity,” while in the same breath demanding that GOSL should show restraint and should “minimise casualties” (14 Feb. 2009).

Analogues from WW Two are quite precisely relevant here. Standing in February 1945 the Allied armies were advancing into Germany from both east and west. Suppose that at this stage some cosmic power intervened and asked them to halt their military actions so that they could reduce civilian casualties and sit down to consider Germany’s future with Hitler and his key cohorts? The suggestion in both instances is simply preposterous and simply simpleton.

Dissident SL Tamils commenting on websites have a far better understanding of the immediate priorities, while still distressed about the civilian crisis. In brief, they argue that the LTTE has passed its use-by date and that the SL Tamils need a new leadership to fight for their rights in the face of a hawkish government catering to Sinhalese hegemony. In effect, they are alongside the redoubtable journalist, DBS Jeyaraj, who in early May 2008 some seven months ago, on the 32nd anniversary of the LTTE’s emergence, contended that the LTTE was “living in a world of delusion” and needed a transformation (www.transcurrents, 19 Jan. 2009).

Here, I endorse the measured voice of Jayadeva Uyangoda: “Only after the dust of the LTTE’s military defeat settles will the Sri Lankan Tamil community get an opportunity to assess where it is, the nature and extent of the political space available and what shape its politics could take” (2009). He is obviously informed by the understanding that a federal scheme or devolution cannot be addressed when there are two armies and navies in the same territorial arena. I am also in qualified sympathy when, in a welcome shift to political pragmatics, Kumar David argues that “the Tamil nationalist movement must put politics in command and engage with broad struggles on social and economic issues” (2009). The discussions and processes in this field must perforce work within the “Indian reality” as spelt out with insight by Dayan Jaytilleke (2009)

This brings us to the realm of my Point A, a sphere that I was not addressing in my previous essay. Here I am in total agreement with Lionel Bopage’s opening statement: “questions of competing identities and nationalities are only resolved when the issues fuelling such questions are addressed.” But I remain stunned (indeed, I am quite distressed) that he jumped to the conclusion that I was not attentive to this because he has failed to discern the deliberately restricted parameters that I had designed through title and text.

In pursuing this goal Sri Lankans (and helpers) will have to confront all the obstacles outlined by Uyangoda, viz., from hawks in government to virulent JHU, JVP and SLFP elements to a triumphalist Sinhala populace, et cetera. For several years now both Shanie (e.g. 2009) and Tisaranee Gunasekera have been validly referring to the force of a Sinhala “supremacist government.”  That tendency is major obstacle.

Again, about one year ago I raised numerous issues as one part of a pluralist argument in “Addressing the Nations of Sri Lanka” (2008) – with the pluralist recognition of Sinhalese and Tamil nations (add the Muslims too) within the Sri Lankan nation being a central plank in my approach, one that was in accord with Chandrika Kumaranatunga’s appeal in 1994/95 for a compromise that restores dignity to the SL Tamils. One such contention was presented as metaphorical question: “can one erase Tamilness by government fiat and military power? Can one beat the Tamils into submission? What does kapana-kotana-gahana [slashing, bayoneting, hitting] do to the sentiments of the Tamils?”

Thus, today and in the months to follow, if some elements of the Sinhala-dominated bureaucracy and military proceed to treat some Tamils as dirt (nīca, sädi, kunu kasala sahita) during their face-to-face exchanges, the victory in the hot war will be undermined. As it is, many Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula and Vavuniya locality and even Colombo tell us that they are second class citizens. For anyone to wave this grievance away is not only foolish; it betrays tunnel-vision.

Juxtaposed against such momentous prospects and issues, the tunnel-reading displayed by Bopage and David is of minor significance. We must remember, after all, that all three of us have one outstanding commonality: we are marginal people in the Lankan context, lacking institutional foundations, plastic explosives, guns and goons. As for the pen, well, ………… ask Lasantha Wickrematunga’s kinfolk what happened to him.


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