Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Sinhala conquest of the Tamil nation

[Editors note: The Poverty of Michael Roberts’ Enlightened Humanitarianism by Martin White, read over 900 times to date, elicited a number of responses among which were those of Nicolai. It is Nicolai’s last response that Martin White takes up at length here.)

Sorry for my delay, Nicolai. Although events have moved on dramatically in the past few days, your questions, raised in a commendably honest spirit, are relevant and deserve an answer. Please also believe me that I speak respectfully to you even when I am being blunt. But permit me first, if you will, to set the scene. Briefly surveying the Vanni landscape, we find that the ‘outcome’ that Prof. Michael Roberts and others wished for – and in fact urged us all to wish for – has now become a grisly reality. The LTTE, once considered invincible, lies in tatters, its leadership obliterated by Sri Lanka’s victorious Sinhalese troops.

Now that the guns are mercifully silent, the northern Tamil masses, already shell-shocked and traumatized beyond imagination, find themselves locked up indefinitely in cages sealed with barbed wire, surrounded by gun-toting men speaking a foreign language, abducting and killing young men on the slightest suspicion, abusing women and girls as the mood takes them, and hoisting flags all about them that bear the menacing, sword-wielding symbol that represents their own proud, ancient nation.

Be under no illusions, Nicolai: the Sinhala conquest of the Tamil nation is what has been accomplished here. And only fools like our friend Nadesan, a self-professed Tamil who delightedly cheered on the Sinhala occupation forces, and knaves like Roberts (and other closet-colonialists) that provided the bare-faced racists with invaluable ideological cover on the international front, would dare to portray this self-evident reality differently.

I am afraid to say (and I promise I do not mean this unkindly, Nicolai), your questions to me sound hollow in the light of recent events. You list the LTTE’s atrocities (I could, in fact, list many more) and wonder whether I am a card-carrying supporter of the Tigers, and if so how I could claim to be in favor of decency. In the first place, Nicolai, it is not my place to be a supporter of the LTTE or not. That is solely a question for the Tamil people of the north and east, who may well have supported them through gritted teeth and an occasional queasy feeling in their stomachs, but who feared infinitely more so, and shrewdly it turns out, what the Sinhala nation had in store for them.

If you must know, personally I often daydreamed about how wonderful it would have been if Tamil people’s resistance to Sinhalese colonialism and occupation had been (or, I should say, remained) of the Gandhian variety. But then I would remind myself of the words of the great Nelson Mandela, that famous ex-‘terrorist’ of the anti-Apartheid struggle, who once pronounced, with characteristic wisdom, that the mode of struggle of the oppressed is usually determined by the nature of the oppressor.

To return to your question, though, I would despair for mankind if the limit of our moral imagination were simply the ability to list atrocities on both sides of a conflict, and to be content to leave it that. Just imagine you were witness to a horrific rape, Nicolai. What you observe, empirically speaking, is nothing more than two people ‘fighting’ – that’s if you choose, like our professor does, to strip it of its historical context. And yet, irrespective of the extent of the atrocities being committed by both sides, I would be the first to berate you if you failed to take into account that on one side was a rapist and on the other side a rape victim – one side fighting to conquer, the other fighting for independence, if you like.

I, and many others I suspect, would call you a moral pigmy if you failed to recognize that distinction, and I would call you a moral coward if you knew it and yet failed to speak out about it. In other words, though we all understand that aggressors and victims are both capable of behaving atrociously, still we can appreciate that from a moral standpoint the rape victim’s atrocities are not necessarily grounds for contributing to, or welcoming, her defeat.

If we can agree, then, at least that morality is about more than simply listing atrocities, my task is only to prove to you that the Sinhala/Tamil conflict is indeed a rapist/victim, colonialist/anti-colonialist scenario – which is in fact easily done. In case you are unaware of it, I would gladly chart for you the progressive escalation of Sinhalese racism – since Ceylon’s independence from Britain – that has taken us from mere name calling to concentration camps.

To sketch out some of the historical detail: we have gone from anti-Tamil discrimination to state-sponsored anti-Tamil mob violence; to the dismissal of a democratic endorsement of Tamil independence in 1977; to the mobilization of a large Sinhala occupation force to the north; to the massive expansion of the Sinhalese military presence; to one of the most ruthless campaigns ever waged against a civilian population; and finally to one of the most insidious, brutal and degrading occupations of the 21st century.

If that’s not enough for you, Nicolai, I suspect it won’t be too long before the tentacles of this salivating colonial monster (that I characterized in my original essay) begins to seek out its next victims – something the late, great Lasantha Wickramatunge was among the few of his own kind to grasp accurately, way ahead of Sri Lanka’s dopey academic class. Indeed, as the noise of the firecrackers down south begins to recede, and we’re left hearing again the crackling of the still-smoldering remains of Sinhala chauvinism’s latest Tamil victims, I encourage you, Nicolai and Nadesan alike, for your own sakes, to be in no doubt as to what has been unleashed.