Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Vavuniya

The war in Sri Lanka is not over – get it?

In his ”responses and clarifications’’ to his article, Is the War Really Over?, Lionel Bopage defends himself against a critic’s charge that he doesn’t ”get it” that the war is really over now that the LTTE has been defeated.Bopage clarifies:

“I began my article with the statement that the conventional war between the GoSL and the LTTE has ended. There is no mention of a war continuing in the island. My point was, the political causes that led to the national problem and the war still remain.’’

I have to say, as much as I respect Mr. Bopage – whose heart is most definitely in a much kinder space than the majority of his critics – this defense both disappoints and saddens me. It reminds me that in national conflicts such as these, it is difficult for the oppressed to rely even on the most kindly disposed of their sympathizers for an accurate representation of their plight.

Allow me to explain. Bopage’s clarification is essentially to say that he does not dispute that the war is over. He merely wishes to point out that its political causes remain, and hence the potential for the war to resume.

I advise readers to take a step back and observe the scenario afresh. Anyone in their right mind can see that there is a military occupation of gigantic proportions ensuing right at this very moment. As I write, let history record the fact that hundreds of thousands of Tamil people are imprisoned behind barbed wire by Sinhalese soldiers in the most degrading and humiliating of circumstances, and are dying at an alarming rate – in what ought to be, and might well become, a source of national shame for centuries to come.

Let me spell it out for those who might still have trouble seeing the blindingly obvious – the forcible imprisonment of one people by another is unambiguously an act of war. Especially so, when it is the culmination of a long history of escalating oppression that has reached its peak. What perverse mindset could regard the forced, indefinite detention of virtually the whole of the Tamil population of northern Sri Lanka as anything other than military aggression on the grandest scale?

That so many people are willing to describe the war as over while these circumstance persist is a symptom really of the depravity that colonialism engenders – spreading its tentacles even to the otherwise very kindest and empathetic of people within the society or nation that is doing the colonizing. The failure by almost anyone to describe the current situation of war as ‘war’ stems from an almost wholesale adoption of a paradigm that I find useful to describe as the ‘conqueror’s paradigm’.

This is the sinister paradigm that dominates the discourse at present, at least within the south of Sri Lanka. Once its basic tenets are accepted, its power is such that it can twist and bend reality into something that it is not.

Sadly, too many good people appear to have been lured into the conqueror’s paradigm, readily declaring the war to be over merely on the grounds that there is no actual fighting taking place. This is a vulgar and unforgivable reductionism – indeed, to reduce the concept of ‘war’ to mere ‘fighting’ would be to excuse a whole litany of colonial enterprises throughout history, not least Britain’s one-time subjugation of the Indian subcontinent.

In almost every case of colonialism, you find the conqueror’s paradigm in play – declaring the absence of formal fighting to be evidence of peace. A more mature analysis of the ground situation exposes that peace is a spurious concept that can mean very different things to different people – depending on where they stand in a given set of concrete historical circumstances.

To a conquering people (whose military forces are sent to occupy the territory in which another people live), peace means chiefly the absence of formal fighting – accomplished, in practice, by the elimination of resistance to its own military forces. For a conquered or vanquished people, peace is something completely different: it is what occurs after those same occupying forces are evicted from their territory.

To take what I admit is an extreme example to help clarify the point, ‘peace’ was achieved after Hitler’s successful conquest of various nations of Europe, whose resistance to Nazi rule was effectively subdued. Technically speaking, there was ‘peace’, but that hardly made the prevailing situation acceptable. Likewise, for the British colonialists, there was ‘peace’ in their Indian colony, at least until rabble-rousing nationalists led by Gandhi and Nehru appeared on the scene demanding that they leave the territory.

Even a system of slavery could be considered peaceful from the slave-owners’ perspective, just so long as the slaves aren’t actively fighting back. Such are the dangers of allowing war and peace to be defined by an occupier or an aggressor of some description. (That the war against the LTTE was often portrayed as an ‘internal’ conflict is also part and parcel of the conqueror’s mindset, which frequently depicts occupied territory as part of its own.)

In the minds of the conquering nation, peace has now been established – as the firecrackers amply testify. In stark contrast, hardly any Tamil, either in Sri Lanka’s north/east nor in the massive Diaspora, was seen dancing in the streets celebrating the Lion’s victory over the Tiger. Why should this be?

This is what those who adopt the conqueror’s ‘peace’ paradigm inevitably fail to understand. For the Tamil people, forcibly uprooted from their centuries-old habitat and languishing now in army camps run by foreigners, the war against them is far from over – it is continuing.

Get it?

The only difference now is that those facing the brunt of military aggression and occupation have been disarmed. And as a consequence, they have literally become defenseless against the occupier.

The hostile reaction to anyone who attempts to point out this stark reality is, in a sense, easy to fathom. What the victorious side sees is other people disturbing their hard-won peace, which is really only peace as the conqueror defines it. And this is but one example of the abuse of language in the present circumstances.

A cursory look at websites such as this one reveals many more. Consider that other favorite word of the conquerors – ‘moderates’. These are simply those people on the ‘other’ side who are willing to submit to the conqueror’s concept of peace. The moderates are the ‘good’ Tamils, distinct from the ‘extremists’, or people who refuse to submit to that definition. (Tragically, they only bring to mind the ‘good’ black intellectuals or ‘good’ black policemen of the Apartheid era, considered the darlings of the establishment precisely because they were ready to beat their own people over the heads in the service of their racist masters, sometimes for money, but often just out of plain servitude. Such ‘moderates’ have existed throughout the history of anti-colonial struggles, giving much-welcomed succour and comfort to their occupiers).

The slaughter, military occupation, mass confinement and forced assimilation of one people by another (the culmination of the progressive escalation of persecution) are all documented facts. It is testimony to the power of the conqueror’s paradigm, then, that there can be such a remarkable degree of denial about the glaring colonial character of the present situation.

Anyone who dares point this out (in the spirit of The Emperor’s New Clothes) is accused of everything from ‘bias’ to ‘hate speech’ – more words that help to conceal the blatant colonial dynamics of what is actually going on.

This is how ideological hegemony has always worked. And Marxists, who have read in detail about such things, should be able to grasp what I am saying perhaps more easily than others. They should be able to comprehend, at least in principle, just how a colonizing nation might spawn its own language and concepts that work to legitimize its power over another.

That is exactly what has happened here, and yet too few people seem to be conscious of the power that the conqueror’s paradigm wields over their own thinking. Just as the concepts of ‘war’ and ‘peace’ have been monopolized by the conquering side, so too have words like ‘equality’ and ‘pluralism’ – longtime favorites among Sinhalese peace-mongers particularly. Like ‘peace’, these two words also necessarily mean something totally different to the conqueror and to the vanquished.

Interestingly, the people who spew such words usually take care to leave them conspicuously undefined. That is because to spell out what pluralism and equality means to them would only illuminate the vast difference between the two national mindsets that exist on the island – thus undermining their pretence to be rising above the petty nationalism that they accuse others of inflaming.

Equality can mean, of course, one-person-one-vote, and I am sure that this is what many writers on this site in fact envisage – even though they know that this would perpetuate a system inherently stacked against a permanent national minority that would be eternally vulnerable to discriminating laws and abuse (the original source of the conflict).

So we must be careful. We should not assume that just because someone expresses a devout commitment to peace, pluralism and equality that they are in fact sincerely committed to any degree of kindness, sensitivity, morality or justice. In fact, and particularly when they leave these concepts undefined, their words might amount to little more than rhetorical attempts to disguise the colonial nature of the ground situation.

You can be sure that no kind of true ‘equality’ is on the table for the vanquished nation – and by that I mean an equal political relationship between the two peoples, in the sense of both being free to determine their own direction if they so choose (which, of course, they may not). For, if true equality was on the table, there would have been no need for all the fighting these past three decades, which was undertaken by the conquering side precisely to crush the concept of nation-to-nation equality.

It has succeeded in this aim, for the time being at least, by holding all potential believers of that ‘other’ concept of equality in a state of physical captivity. That is the underlying nature of what we are witnessing. As events unfold, the truth of this will become increasingly apparent to any gullible doubters.

This is why I have to conclude that it is not merely, as Bopage says, that the conditions for war to re-emerge are present. Rather, the fact of the matter is that the war is still going on. Colonialism is necessarily an act of war. Anyone who does not see that has, wittingly or not, bought hook, line and sinker into the conqueror’s paradigm.

According to the conqueror’s paradigm, to speak of ‘nations’ at all is divisive, regressive and risks rekindling the war (which is, of course, ‘over’). The worst kind of apologists for colonialism, perhaps, are the ones who invite us to pretend that there are no nations at all in Sri Lanka – not even a Sinhala one with its own distinct language and culture! I also notice the growing incidence of, juvenile ‘we-are-all-the-same-really’ commentary — the insane logical conclusion of which is that no nations at all exist on this planet. Take that barren path if you so wish, but it is not the world I or most people recognize, nor one that I would particularly care to live in. (As it happens, I staunchly refuse to deny the tangible and meaningful reality of a Sinhala nation, whose mostly beautiful culture I believe must be admired, supported and respected).

It is testimony only to the depth of racism that still exists in the country that some people would sooner deny their own Sinhala nationhood than acknowledge a Tamils’. It is sad, but that is the sort of intellectual and moral corruption and degeneration that colonialism breeds. Instead of reckoning with the racism that underpins their colonial urge, these critics perhaps hope to drown out their guilt by wailing at those who, on principle, refuse to extend the same degree of courtesy to the colonizer as to the colonized.

They wonder why we can’t just give the colonizer his due respect without being ‘biased’ against him? In the conqueror’s paradigm, talk of nations is despised for being ‘unbalanced’ instead of being seen for the honorable thing it truly is – empathy towards a subject people facing a brutal occupation. In the midst of military aggression that now includes the denial even of the freedom of movement, it is we, ironically, in the conqueror’s paradigm, who are spreading ‘hate speech’ by speaking up for the real victims. That is why I say the conqueror’s paradigm is not only misleading; it is sinister.

Indeed, how thoroughly ugly racism is. Speaking of which, the term ‘racism’ itself is probably the most abused of all. Within the conqueror’s paradigm, those who call for the occupying forces to release the Tamil people whom they are holding captive against their will and to respect their political independence, are themselves perversely brandished racists.

In other words, the racism here is not to be found in the desire of one people to extert control over another — heaven forbid! No, racism is the yearning of those people to be free from that very control. In this way, the conqueror transfers the base instinct to his victim, and then accuses anyone who expresses sympathy for the victim as encouraging racism.

Sometimes I think that living in denial about the reality of the situation must be so much easier. While these critics have the opportunity now to pontificate endlessly on what kind of solution the conqueror should be willing to ‘give’ to the vanquished, they seem blissfully unaware of the fact that a brutal, racist military occupation is continuing apace – sowing the seeds, as Bopage at least understands, of further resistance and mayhem.

Those critics lack the wisdom, not to say compassion, to understand that the fundamental problem today – and for the foreseeable future – is the unconscionable, indefinite occupation of one people by another (reminder: an unambiguous act of war) that cannot help but terrorize and traumatize a population and increase their will to fight another day. You can dress it up any way you like. You can hurl words like peace and pluralism about till your jaws ache. But you can’t erase the colonial dynamics of the ground situation, which is making itself felt each and every moment to the people facing it.

Indeed, as they stare out blankly at their captors through the barbed wire fences, by night and day, all they can dare to hope is that they won’t be the next one to be hauled away for questioning by their foreign prison guards – or that it won’t be their daughter who next gets to sample the victor’s justice.

Those people, I am certain, are in no doubt that there is a war still going on.