Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Poverty of Michael Roberts’ Enlightened Humanitarianism

Dilemmas at War’s End, by Prof. Michael Roberts, is an essay of profound importance. Sadly, not for its genius, but to the extent that it provides an abject lesson in the tragic consequences of the failure of one’s moral imagination. I offer this study of it, therefore, as primarily a cautionary tale.

The focus of Roberts’ essay is the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, as the Colombo government moves closer to defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Roberts makes the case that all true humanitarians should give Sri Lanka’s government the leeway it needs to finish the job of decimating the LTTE –- even at the cost of a massive loss of Tamil civilian life.

My task here is to dissect Roberts’ essay to illuminate the gruesome moral foundations on which his case rests — notwithstanding its cultivated air of reasonableness and respectability.

My intention, also, is to reveal that Roberts’ pretence to being driven fundamentally by humanitarian concerns is, at best, a vacuous claim and, at worst, a sinister one — as we observe today the consequences of his moral vision unfolding before our own horrified eyes.

To appreciate this, one needs to closely study the logic of Roberts’ argument. In the summary of his essay that follows, I do not believe I have missed any part of the argument that Roberts would himself consider critical to his case. In each instance, I have stated Roberts’ point and answered it with my own.

  • People calling for a ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and LTTE are driven by “emotion’’ not “reason’’.

This dichotomy establishes Roberts as the sober voice of reason in a sea of emotionally-driven people calling for an immediate ceasefire to end the horrifying loss of innocent life on a practically daily basis.

It is an attempt, effectively, to neuter growing international criticism of the Sri Lankan government’s brutal tactics by implying that such criticism is hysterical, misguided and ultimately immoral.

  • People driven by emotion misunderstand the “context’’ and “pragmatics’’ of the present situation.

Here, Roberts is taking aim particularly at foreign humanitarian organisations, who are deemed to be allowing their understandable despair at the scale of the carnage they are witnessing to interfere with a sober moral assessment of the situation that is unfolding.

  • Ignoring this context risks prolonging the war and will make life no better for Tamil civilians in the long run.

According to Roberts, these well-meaning but sadly ignorant humanitarian organisations risk making things worse for the Tamil people that they are trying to help. For, if they got their way and a ceasefire was implemented, the war would simply continue over a longer period, bringing those Tamils more misery than if it were concluded quickly through the use of the more ruthless tactics currently being employed by the Sri Lankan army.

  • The Sri Lankan government is behaving no more atrociously than Allied forces behaved in World War 2.

Roberts now treats us to examples of how the Allies showed little regard for civilian casualties on the enemy side, or even civilians on the side they were aiming to liberate, so that they could finish the war as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The subtext here is that well-meaning foreigners observing the Sri Lankan conflict have no right to feel morally superior to, or impose a higher moral standard on, the Sri Lankan military. This is a chiefly rhetorical device aimed at implying that there is an element of double standards, if not racism, in their approach.

Here we get the first glimpse of Roberts’ moral vision. It’s worth noting that he is effectively seeking to excuse, if not justify, the bad behaviour of one group of people by pointing to the equally bad behaviour of another group.

  • The Sri Lankan government has behaved, arguably, more honourably than those Allied forces –- after all, it has provided food and medicines to the Tamil population even as it fights to defeat the LTTE.

So, the Sri Lankan government is not just no worse than other well-meaning governments — it is a lot kinder. While fighting a war, it has taken on the responsibility of feeding and providing medical care to the very population its enemy, the LTTE, claims to be fighting for.

That idea must not be allowed to go unchallenged.

For one thing, it is misleading to imply, as Roberts does, that the Sri Lankan government has been graciously providing food and medicine to Tamil areas as a matter of goodwill.

Rather, since the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, it has been vital for Sri Lanka to keep up at least the appearance of being a non-racist, pluralist democracy catering to all its people equally, in order to access foreign aid. Successive governments (the latest one being a notable exception) have sought to present an image internationally of liberating the Tamil people from the LTTE, and thus have been at pains to show its concern for the Tamil people by providing minimal support towards their subsistence.

Even so, successive governments have also sought, as far as possible, to restrict supplies to LTTE-controlled areas, as well as sabotaging attempts by people in those regions to develop economically on their own. The LTTE has long complained about the economic embargo place on their areas. This has not been a demand for government resources, but for the removal of the blockade that prevents ordinary economic activity from taking place.

Roberts’ efforts to paint the Sri Lankan government as being driven by fundamentally honourable intentions in this regard is laughable.

  • The LTTE, driven by fanatical dedication, established a “command state” in areas that it ran.

This is a weak effort by Roberts to deny any political legitimacy to the LTTE’s cause. The LTTE, a national resistance movement forged through a long history of discrimination and state violence against Tamil people, is transformed by a single stroke of Roberts’ pen into a historical aberration driven purely by some malign political ideology.

  • Many Tamils in the north are actually Eelam supporters, so cannot totally escape responsibility for what they are being subjected to by the Sri Lankan army.

In other words, anyone tempted to feel too much sympathy for those Tamils currently facing the brunt of incessant shelling and aerial bombardments should remember that a lot of these Tamils actually support the Tigers – so can they really complain about being blasted to smithereens?

I guess that depends on whether you think that being an “Eelam supporter’’ is something for which one ought to be severely punished, as Roberts clearly believes.

This gets to the heart of the matter: Roberts’ reductionism.

What many academics like Roberts fail to grasp is that the yearning for Eelam is not a mere ideological objective. It is a yearning borne of decades of systematic oppression – beginning with discrimination, followed by the denial of democratic rights (recall the annulling of the 1977 election, where Tamils in the north and east voted overwhelmingly for independence), and culminating now in the military occupation of virtually all Tamil-dominated areas by an ever-expanding, and increasingly brutal, Sinhalese army.

  • Eelam supporters on the ground are complaining about being bombed by government forces, yet have the audacity to demand that the same government provides them with essential food and medicine.

And the Tamils are an ungrateful to boot! Subtext: Do such a thankless people really deserve too much of our sympathy?

  • A ceasefire at this point would not really help Tamil civilians, because it would only delay the inevitable resumption of violence at a later date.

And even if they did deserve our sympathy, a ceasefire at this stage would only delay a resumption of the Tamil people’s suffering, suggests Roberts. This reasoning is notable for its duplicity. In the previous breath, Roberts is hinting that the ungrateful Tamils don’t necessarily deserve too much of our sympathy. And in the next, he wants us to believe he too is as deeply concerned about their suffering as we are.

The more seasoned among us will have observed a familiar smell here. This is precisely the reasoning that all successive Sri Lankan governments have used in their quest to subjugate the Tamils – they deserve what they’re getting, but it’s all still being done for their own good. The magnanimity of the likes of Roberts, along with Sri Lankan presidents past and present, is truly enough to bring tears to one’s eyes.

  • The Sri Lankan state displays some worrying fascist tendencies, but that is nothing compared with the LTTE’s outright fascism.

Although he keeps urging us to consider the “context” and “pragmatics”’ of the situation, it is Roberts himself who fails to do precisely this.

A careful study of history will show us how and why the LTTE came into existence – as a counterforce to escalating Sinhalese state oppression. The characterization of the LTTE’s resistance as fascism, therefore, ignores totally the specific “context” in which that resistance is taking place.

Roberts views the conflict completely ahistorically — as a contest between two competing fascisms, with one being a lesser evil than the other, and thus more worthy of being supported. He thus elevates the conflict, wholly inappropriately, to the level of competing political ideologies.

The reality on the ground, on the other hand, is that a struggle for free political expression has been underway for decades by a small nation on an island that it happens to share with a neighbouring bigger nation, and where that bigger nation has not only refused to recognize its existence, but has insisted on occupying its territory and bombing its people into submission until they abandon any claim to independence.

The struggle will go on, even if as Roberts hopes the LTTE is dealt a crippling blow in this particular phase of the conflict. In this fight, Roberts has placed himself, wittingly or not – and whether he cares about it or not – at the service of the oppressor nation, the colonizing power.

  • There is extensive Tamil support for Eelam, as demonstrated by the physical evidence of substantial logistical help they’ve given to LTTE fighters. Given this context, the “category of civilian is ambiguous’’.

This is the point in the argument where the true decadence of Roberts’ perspective – disguised until now – is revealed in all its glory. He is personally handing over the hammer and the club to the Sri Lankan army to beat Tamils over the head with. He has now dispensed with professing his love for the Tamil people and any concern for their welfare. Instead, Roberts is firing the pistol that launches the turkey shoot.

His outrageous remark that the “category of civilian is ambiguous’’ because of apparent physical evidence that Tamils have helped the LTTE with logistics in the past is a disgraceful justification for indiscriminate attacks on the Tamil population as a whole, and as such it deserves to be treated with contempt.

Such depraved statements — emanating partly from Roberts’ failure to understand the Tamil independence struggle in the context of its historical evolution — must throw doubt upon the humanitarian credentials he is at pains to demonstrate, and on the basis of which he presumably requests an audience.

Any true humanitarian should vehemently reject his calls for indiscriminate violence against Tamils to be allowed to continue – however “reasonable’’ these calls are made to sound.

  • While their logistical support is obvious, it is hard to be certain how many Tamils are “happy’’ to support the LTTE without having an “army of flies on many walls’’ to report back to us.

The weakness of Roberts’ case now starts to become even more obvious. Having acknowledged significant Tamil support for the LTTE, as seen in their extensive logistical support, Roberts realizes that this assertion sits uncomfortably with the other key plank of his argument – that the LTTE is fascistic and stands basically in opposition to the Tamil people.

Unless he’s able to establish some doubt in our minds as to the level of popular support the LTTE actually has, he cannot claim that they are fascist tyrants standing in the way of Tamil people’s freedom. Hence, we are treated to the quaint idea that “happy’’ support for the LTTE cannot be determined without having an “army of flies’’ on people’s walls.

Let us look more closely at the logic being used here. Roberts has, remember, already told us that the Tamil people and LTTE are so indistinguishable that the very category of a Tamil civilian is at best questionable.

On the other hand, he has told us that the LTTE’s defeat should be welcomed by any right-thinking person because they are a bunch of tyrannical fascists oppressing their own people.

Both lines of argument point to the same conclusion — that the Sri Lankan army should not be hindered in its mission to defeat the LTTE by any means necessary by bleeding-heart humanitarians overly concerned about the “civilian’’ carnage.

And yet these two planks of his argument are entirely inconsistent – that Tamils and the LTTE are indistinguishable, on the one hand, and that the LTTE is a force that is oppressing the Tamil people, on the other.

The problem Roberts has is that if the Tamil people and the LTTE are indistinguishable, as he suggests, this implies a certain democratic legitimacy to their cause – hence his tyrannical characterisation of the LTTE would be undermined, and thus, too, Roberts’ case that one should welcome the defeat of the LTTE.

If, on the other hand, the Tamils might not be with the LTTE, as Roberts suggests in the next breath, then it would obviously be pure callousness to target Tamil civilians in such a ruthless manner in order to defeat the LTTE.

In his heart, Roberts wants the indiscriminate targeting to be allowed to continue, and he therefore winds up in the doubly dishonourable position of being entirely inconsistent in support of a nefarious cause.

He is effectively saying that the Tamils may be considered to be, and considered at the same time not to be, with the LTTE — whichever is the more convenient argument for allowing Tamil men, women, toddlers and babies alike to be mercilessly slaughtered with the minimum amount of outrage and opposition.

  • The stark choice we face is between the two moral imperatives of delivering a knockout blow to the LTTE’s conventional military machine and catering to a humanitarian crisis.

One wonders how Roberts could dare appeal to our moral instincts after what has gone before. But he does so shamelessly. This point forms the basis of his war “dilemmas’’. Is it better to hasten the defeat of the LTTE or cater to what he sees as a temporary humanitarian crisis?

Armchair warriors have a long and undistinguished tradition of couching moral dilemmas in terms outside the frame of reference of the people facing the direct consequences of the war that academics of Roberts’ ilk are in effect supporting.

To a Tamil in Vanni today, the defeat of the LTTE does not mean quite the same thing as it does to Roberts. The people who are corralled in army-run concentration camps (or rehabilitation centres, as Roberts might prefer) know too well the nature and intent of their “liberators’’.

And the people whose lives are deemed by Roberts to be worthy of being sacrificed in pursuit of the destruction of the LTTE comprehend perfectly that the current military onslaught is simply the logical conclusion of a racist urge to suppress their longstanding, legitimate and just yearning for independence.

To a Tamil cowering now in the jungles of Vanni, tending to their terrified children amid the persistent blasts of artillery, and witnessing the regular pulverizing of their friends and relatives by the Sinhala army, the fundamental “dilemma’’ as Roberts chooses to frame it is, at best, a tasteless insult.

  • The call for a ceasefire at this juncture by woolly-minded humanitarians is thus misguided. Imagine as Hitler’s defeat was immanent that we negotiated with the Nazis simply to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

The Hitler analogy in relation to the LTTE is, again, grossly misleading. Hitler was essentially a colonialist, seeking to subjugate other nations under German control.

That is more akin to what the Sinhalese leadership is aiming to do, bombing and maiming Tamil civilians on a massive scale in order to wrestle control over areas in which they have lived for centuries.

Roberts’ case rests on the fallacy that the LTTE’s demands are unjust – like the Nazis’ – and the moral “dilemmas’’ that he wrestles with flow from that assumption. Once you have pitched the Sri Lankan army as the lesser evil in this conflict, and the Sri Lankan government’s cause as the nobler one, it is all too easy to draw the Nazi analogy and thus dehumanize the Tamil people and urge us to be tolerant of their indiscriminate slaughter.

  • A political solution involving devolution or federalism is anyhow not workable while two armies exist on the island.

In other words, Roberts is saying that the LTTE’s defeat is a precondition for a political solution. That is sheer nonsense. There is no reason to suppose that a power-sharing agreement could not be reached allowing the co-existence of two armies on the island. It depends on whether one considers the Tamils to be a nation with a right to their own armed forces under any political agreement.

Roberts clearly does not believe they are a nation, and thus is predisposed to reject any claim to an army of their own. But to suggest that power-sharing is impossible while two armies exist is mere assertion disguised as fact.

  • The tendency towards a “Sinhala supremacist government’’ is an obstacle to a political settlement, I agree.

Finally, Roberts acknowledges that the emergence of a Sri Lankan government with “supremacist’’ tendencies is a potential danger.

Once again, had Roberts developed more sensitivity to the historical specifics of the conflict, he would realise that the existence of a Sri Lankan government with increasing supremacist tendencies is no surprise or accident, but quite a logical development given that supremacism has always been the driving force behind the majority nation’s efforts to subjugate the island’s minority nation.

All that we are seeing today is the result of the escalation of that supremacist tendency to its maximum frequency – reflected in the near-total occupation of traditional Tamil lands by Sinhalese armed forces. A more pragmatic, less ideological, observer than Roberts would have no trouble seeing this glaring reality.

Furthermore, the conflict will not, as Roberts optimistically hopes, end here. For its fundamental cause – Sinhala supremacism – is now at its most virulent.

This will become clear the moment president Mahinda Rajapakse tries to introduce power-sharing proposals – if he ever chooses to do so, which is itself doubtful. The emboldened Sinhalese nationalism that he has unleashed by his apparent crushing of Tamil resistance to Sinhala rule will cause his Sinhalese brethren to now ask: why do we need to share power with Tamils when the problem of LTTE terrorism has been eradicated?

And that, sadly, will ensure that Tamil resistance will resurface in most likely an even more virulent form — for colonialism necessarily meets resistance.

Mr. Roberts’ recommendation to allow the Sinhala armed forces to finish their task without all those bothersome howls of horror from interfering humanitarians is really something quite reprehensible.

It amounts to appeasement of a salivating colonial monster that has grown as large and fearful as it can possibly grow. Indeed, the next stage of the Tamil liberation struggle begins here. And it will get fiercer, fueled by the callousness with which it is being suppressed right now, egged on, sadly, by the likes of Michael Roberts and his rather quaint preference for “reason’’ over “emotion’’.

If those are the conclusions flowing from Roberts’ enlightened reason, I’ll take emotion any day of the week