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

Resonating the interests of chauvinism? – My response to the two articles by Prof. Michael Roberts

I would like to preface my response to Professor Michael Robert’s two articles (Dilemma’s at Wars End: Responding to Hard Realities and Dilemma’s at Wars End: Clarifications and Counter-offensive). By writing this, I have no wish to devalue my friendship with Professor Roberts. For at the end of the day both of us stand for an inclusive Sri Lanka that recognizes the pluralist nature of its society comprising Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. I am completely with Professor Roberts when he emphasizes this as a central plank in addressing the current conflict.

Disregarding the many allegations raised in the new article, I still cannot find grounds from the two articles to resile from the position I have taken.

In Professor Robert’s view, we are caught between two evils; the fascist LTTE and the populist Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) with fascist tendencies. By implication the GOSL is the lesser evil. Both the GOSL and outsiders (i.e., Sinhalese) consider these Tamils as citizens of Sri Lanka, but Tamils reject this identity and recognise themselves as citizens of Tamil Eelam or Eelavars.

Identity of a people is subjective and can be hardly imposed. As such, Tamil civilians trapped in Vanni are supporters and a potential auxiliary force of the LTTE. This may happen willingly or through conscription and these people have become influenced by sacrificial ideology of the LTTE. A civilian tragedy remains real, but it is being used as a form of political blackmail.

So, in this situation, Dr Roberts asserts that we need to choose between the following two options: 1) eliminating the LTTE’s conventional military capability and 2) rescuing the Tamil civilians who are trapped in the war zone. Pointing out that some consider the defeat of Tigers as an opportunity, he implies that those who chose option 2 to save these Tamil civilians will aid the LTTE.

This is the gist of his position. From my point of view, this position is not only politically naïve but also resonates well with the interests of chauvinism. This is the major weakness of this approach. I believe his position provides the state a political and ideological veneer to justify gross violation of the fundamental and inalienable rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Many associates of Professor Roberts would not expect such an approach in his analysis and a position that will serve extremism.

In my view, to suggest that UN humanitarian intervention on behalf of the Tamil civilians trapped in Vanni is tantamount to helping the LTTE is ridiculous. Perhaps Professor Roberts means that some LTTE cadres whom he is keen to see eliminated may manage to escape with rescued civilians! Otherwise, he has not convincingly clarified how a UN humanitarian intervention could help the LTTE, if the GOSL allowed such an intervention.

There are hundreds of thousands of people still that remain trapped in Vanni. Professor Roberts’ position implies that all those in Vanni can be put into a single basket, “auxiliaries in the LTTE war machine”. He spares no consideration for Tamil civilians, who have lived under the LTTE control for more than a decade, and probably with no avenues to communicate with the outside world. Should we ignore the lives of these civilians simply for the sake of capturing the LTTE leader?

Furthermore, if everyone who worked in the decade long LTTE administration is to be labeled an enemy combatant it will amount to a case for eventual partition of the island, not integration. The fact of the matter is that the Tamil community has for a long time felt alienated and their rallying around a purported liberation movement is a consequence of this. Professor Roberts’ recommendations and way of looking at things will aggravate not ameliorate this alienation.

Professor Roberts while admitting to anticipating some misreading of the article by those with “empathetic hearts”, seems bewildered about “the degree of misinterpretation” attributed to his first article. Furthermore, he suggests the need for learning “how to read”. He takes my criticism of his view as an attempt to brand him as a “heinous warmonger”. In my previous response, I used the word “casts” to mean that the position he had taken on this particular issue, is consonant with the current position of the GoSL and has been welcomed by extreme Sinhala nationalist groups. I did not mean that Professor Roberts has become a war monger or an extreme nationalist. On the contrary, he is not writing in a political vacuum unaware of the manner in which his contributions will be used. In the second article, he maintains and reinforces this position while clarifying certain aspects of the first article.

According to him, Professor Kumar David and I have not paid attention to the way the context of the article was framed and, in particular, I have failed to recognise its deliberately restricted parameters. I appreciate Professor Robert’s position about the limitations one encounters, particularly due to spatial and parametric restrictions of writing and discussing a sensitive topic like this. However, could this become an acceptable excuse?

Professor Roberts goes onto categorise those who do not adhere to his choice, by lambasting the human rights lobby (HRL) being more naïve, asking them to pay more attention to the specificities of context, and to reveal greater political acumen and less extremism. He seems to be unaware that even many dissident Tamils both in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora who have read his article interprets it the way I have interpreted it.

From my point of view, justification of any attempt to wipe out the LTTE at any cost to Tamil civilians trapped in Vanni is not different from the justification by the Israeli and the US governments of Israeli attacks on Palestinian people in Gaza and West Bank. Some of the apologists for this action could not be construed as warmongers but they are apologists for the strategic aims of USA and the expansionist polices of Israel.

This brings out two ancillary points. I am no admirer of the LTTE or of its ideological and military tactics, but I do not hesitate to recognise that it does represent a sizeable proportion of Tamil political spectrum and aspiration. So it is politically untruthful to claim that any true rapprochement can be conducted or achieved without their participation. This will be the reality. Those politicians and bureaucrats who claim a settlement can be gained without the LTTE seem to be deluding themselves. If the Palestinian struggle is anything to go by then even though the Palestinian struggle for nationhood has been repeatedly defeated by the Zionists and their backers, the struggle mutates and starts anew. At the same time the strains of a continual war on the occupier deform their body politic.

He agrees that his reference to World War II was not a strict analogue. Yet, he goes on to emphasise that these analogues are pertinent in this situation. He states that the suggestion for intervention and to stop war is “simply preposterous and simply simpleton”. He seems to imply that all Tamils are willing to commit suicide, if the LTTE asked them to do so. He cannot claim to be unaware that his analogues will be jumped upon with glee by anyone who wants a free hand to go ahead with the war with great force.

It is also preposterous to state that all Tamils would willingly commit suicide if the LTTE asks them; this lacks evidence. The only evidence we have is that the civilian population is trapped in a vice like grip between the opposing forces of GOSL and the LTTE. History is sadly littered with examples of civilian population being punished for their nationality or political preferences, but there are no examples that they want to commit mass suicide.

Professor Roberts compares two different situations while taking only the military aspects into consideration. My view is that World War II situation is completely irrelevant in discussing the current issue in Sri Lanka. This suggestion utterly disrespects those people who have already gone and will continue to face enormous challenges and difficulties. I thought a cartoon by David Pope, an Australian cartoonist, on what the Americans did in Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 would be relevant in this regard.


“Numbers are manifestly significant here in contradiction to Bopage’s contention.” claims Professor Roberts. Perhaps my intention may not have been clear enough when I said: “It does not really matter whether the number of affected civilians is 100,000 or 250,000”. Here I did not say that the number of civilians is not significant. It was the GOSL not I, who stated that there were only 100,000 civilians trapped – not 250,000. The clear implication being the reduced number of civilians should blunt our emotional and political response to the unfolding tragedy. From my point of view, killing Lasantha Wickrematunga, Richard de Soyza or Sivaram, although different in scale from what is happening in Vanni, also represents flagrant violations of the human rights of Sri Lankan citizens, whether such violations are frequent in many other countries or not.

Finally, he concludes that my idea of a safe passage for affected civilians ensuring their protection, canvassed in my response, is already in place. It is true that the GOSL has designated some safety zones for civilians; nevertheless, there have been no modalities developed to allow civilians to access these zones, as they have been constantly subjected to aerial bombing, shelling and artillery attacks by parties to the conflict. These civilians have suffered, and continue to suffer at the hands of the LTTE. To these people, who have been living in these areas throughout their lives, to place their complete trust now in the GOSL forces and move to unknown territories will be an extremely traumatic experience. That is why a humanitarian intervention sensitive to these fears is necessary to ensure safe passage for these civilians.

In the second article Professor Roberts raises another issue regarding the views of dissident Sri Lankan Tamils. As I do not wish to divert from the main issue: the precarious situation of Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone, I will deal with it separately in a brief article.

Professor Roberts goes further and categorises us as Human Rights Extremists (HREs) embodying “the same features as the Sinhala chauvinists and the Tamil Tiger enthusiasts”, and asserts that the position of the HREs “serves the interests of the LTTE and the pro-Tiger Diaspora.”

So, Professor Roberts prescribes only 2 choices, which are clearly black and white, ‘either/or’ options. While doing so, he labels us utopian human rights extremists (HRE) of a messianic hue guided by a ‘black/white’ and ‘either/or’ epistemology perception of the world, what a tragic misconception and misinterpretation he has arrived at!

In conclusion we must not fall for that simplistic Bush dictum “you are either with us or against us”. It has proved disastrous for the world. For, instead of the freedom and peace it offered, the world is a less safe and much poorer place before his reign. We must be intelligent in our political responses; we must prepare for the peace not the spoils of victory. Otherwise we will only repeat the folly that has plagued our country for the last fifty years.

Since the so-called war on terror in Iraq led by the “coalition of the willing”, this sort of binary logic is used to polarize situations, to compel others to either become allies or accept the consequences of being deemed an enemy or a traitor. Thus, in Professor Roberts’ eyes, there is no choice for people who are against both these evils, but to choose between the two evils. Anybody who expresses concerns about the civilian casualties thus becomes a LTTE supporter. This is very wrong and, so is the position adopted by the GOSL and extremist chauvinist forces.

Neither I, nor Professor Roberts, know what the political views of the Tamil civilians are, personal choices they made, or whether they were coerced to do so or not. But I stress these civilians are not collateral damage or, as he disparagingly puts it, “auxiliaries of the LTTE”. They are human beings and our response has to be a humanitarian one, not in an idealistic way but in a humane and practical way. For how well or badly they are treated will determine their response to our vision of an inclusive pluralist Sri Lanka.