Colombo, End of war special edition, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


Fidel quotes a Cuban saying that a man is marked more by his times than his family. My times were shaped by armed conflict: wars, insurrections and counter-insurgency; successive wars in the North and East of the island, two insurrections in the South, against a backdrop of Vietnam, the Middle East, Angola, and Central America. History was driven by the dialectic of states vs. armed movements.  To simplify, my times were dominated by the long hot war in Sri Lanka and the long Cold war in the world; their endings and aftermaths.

Too many friends, comrades and acquaintances died to bear enumeration. Life was dominated, distorted and to some extent determined by the conflicts and their cumulative gravitational pull. The greater the number of deaths of those one felt something for, the more difficult to walk away from it all. One then applies what one has to bring it to an end: the analytical intellect to discern, the power of expression to expose and exhort and the will to play one’s part in the collective effort to overcome and prevail. From this I draw some grim satisfaction.

At its outset in the late ’70s, and as a rather dogmatic Leninist in my early 20s, I supported the Tamil armed struggle for what it called national liberation. Temperamentally attuned to Mao who said that the soul of Marxism can be summed up in the words ‘it is right to rebel’, I supported any armed struggle against oppression and the state. I had to learn the hard way, that there were important caveats: it depends on who is doing the rebelling, against whom and for what. I twice participated in quite modest efforts (in the ’70s and ’80s) to launch armed revolutionary action against the state, because I belonged to one of those generations that believed in Fidel’s injunction that ‘the duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution’ and Che’s observation that to be a revolutionary was to aspire to the highest form of human being.  Later I was to understand the hard way, how the form and content of violence is determined by ethos and that the rational, modernist heroism (or heroic rationality) I identified with could not be replicated in the Sri Lankan culture. Dr Newton Gunasinghe used to remark that our culture never contained a code of violence. I extend that insight to hypothesise that some subterranean socio-cultural trait causes violence to swiftly assume the character of barbarism, which is held in comparative check within the state by its insertion into and accountability as a unit of the world system, but rampages unconstrained in anti-state, anti-systemic movements.

By the latter half of the 1980s, I was advocating the military defeat of the LTTE. This is not quite as dramatic a turnaround as it may appear: a great many that supported the Cambodian liberation struggle against the US, turned against it and endorsed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia when the nature of the Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge became discernible—indeed the anti Khmer Rouge struggle was led by former Khmer Rouge. The classic example is that of the global revolutionary Left in the first half of the 20th century. During WW I it held that the contending sides were predatory imperialist nationalists who should be equally opposed and resisted, while a mere decade later it divided between the small antiwar left that held the old views, and the Communist-led majority who supported the broadest united front against fascism, because German nationalism had since undergone metastasis into Nazi fascism. The parallel I draw is with the Tigers’ Tamil nationalism.

Every generation has its challenge, posed by history. Some have it tougher than others. Ours did. Europe in the 1930s and ’40s faced fascism; our forefathers faced colonialism. We faced an intertwining of the two and finally came through. We won. We took the suicide bombs and the casualties of a thousand dead in a night, the refineries aflame and our most visionary leaders blasted to pulp on the city streets; we selected our leaders democratically and supported and propelled them to galvanise the full capacities of the state and society in one massive sustained final heave to overrun and overcome, to defeat and destroy the enemy. The beast is slain; the war is over, the national territorial space unified, the prejudiced among the world’s powerful deterred. This will be recorded in the chronicles. Those of us living here and now have passed the test of extreme times. Some of us didn’t; they confused the fight against racism with the fight against fascism, and, in the name of peace, were appeasers and defeatists, or wavered, or stood equidistant between basically democratic state and demonstrably totalitarian enemy. They were as wrong as the rightly respected internationalist pacifists of World War 1 were rightly reviled in World War II, the ‘Great Anti-Fascist Patriotic War’.

The end of the conflict was bloody, but what did one expect? With their obduracy and exaggerated sense of influence in the world, the Tigers did not surrender or let their people go. With the widely advertised prospect of their external support and chances for external re-grouping they had to be uprooted. With their accumulated crimes and atrocities, the sword of justice and retribution had to complete its downward swing and heavy fall. Those who sought to obstruct it were guilty of seeking unwittingly to prolong the conflict.

External pressure to terminate the conflict short of victory, leaving the enemy leadership intact, in fact drove a determined state and nation to end the conflict decisively by terminating the enemy. The state had to balance between outrunning interference and intervention on the part of those who sought to use Sri Lanka as a test case for elastic versions of the ‘protection doctrine’ and the need to reduce intensity of operations due to electoral compulsions next door. The specific timing and intensity of the final surge was of course due to external determinants, given that a window could have begun to close if an election in the neighbourhood had gone differently. It was a risk that could not be taken.

Does the possibility or even likelihood that horrors took place in the prosecution of the war, render that war less than just in character? Not unless the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki render the Allied campaign for the elimination of the fascist Axis powers, an unjust war.  (Of course, the just character of the war does not make these attacks less morally abhorrent).

Does the dismal aftermath of the war give the lie to anything I have said here? Not unless the onset of the Cold War, in the aftermath of WWII, renders the strategy of broad alliance against Nazi fascism and total war against it, to have been wrong.

Are these analogies false because what we had here was a civil war and we should eschew all celebration, adopting instead an air of collective mourning because all who died were our citizens? Not of one is aware that in December 1865, the Union armies staged a massive parade with the Capitol as a backdrop, in commemoration of the first anniversary of victory in the US Civil War against the Secessionist confederacy; a celebration which would not perhaps have warmed the hearts of the populace in the Southern states through which the Union armies march to the sea took place.

Could the war have ended differently?  Yes, but the difference could have been for better or worse.  An external intervention to prevent final victory would have led to carnage as the Indian intervention of 1987 brought in its wake , not only the laudable Indo Lanka accord with its enlightened Preamble, but also boosted a simmering Southern insurgency into a civil war which left tens of thousands dead.

Could the war have been fought better, but with the same result? Arguably yes, but the commanders who could have done so were no longer alive or in service (Kobbekaduwe, Gerry de Silva, and Gamini Hettiaarachchi) and when they were, the political leadership of their time was not committed to the full and final military eradication of the Tigers.

Could all or some of this have been avoided or ended better? Yes, but to understand how, why and when we would have to make a detour through a potted history of the conflict and the mistakes of successive Sri Lankan and Indian administrations, the LTTE, the non-LTTE Tamil groups, the JVP and the non-JVP Southern Left.

Given that the Tamil electorate voted decisively against secession in 1970 and decisively for it in 1977, the conclusion is inevitable that Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike should bear considerable responsibility for the birth of the Tamil Eelam struggle. Had the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration, which included the Left parties, not adopted a Constitution which changed the civic contract between the communities embedded in the Soulbury constitution, having ignored a moderate 6 point letter sent in May 1972 by the Tamil parliamentary leader, had it not pursued discriminatory policies of levelling downwards in university entrance, let go unpunished the police firing at the IATR conference of 1974, and jail Tamil youth for years for hoisting black flags, there would have been no Tamil insurgency.

Had JR Jayewardene used his unprecedented 5/6ths majority in parliament and his executive powers as president to fulfil his election pledge, summon an all party roundtable conference and resolve the Tamil grievances he had identified in his winning manifesto of 1977, and had his party barons not turned the 1981 DDC elections in Jaffna into a violent farce, the urban guerrilla war would not have gathered ground and momentum. Had Cabinet Minister Cyril Mathew been prohibited from widely disseminating racist literature through official channels and make inflammatory speeches thereby contributing to the outbreak of anti-Tamil riots of July 1983, had these riots not taken place or had JR cracked down on it sooner and harder (which he was arguably unable to do, owing to the mono-ethnic nature of the army), the Tigers would not have emerged dominant among the Tamils, a great many of whom were looking for a military instrument of revenge for the humiliation they had unjustly suffered.

Had JR Jayewardene not wrecked his country’s nonaligned foreign policy and friendship with India, the Sri Lankan army would not have been prevented by India from prosecuting the offensive on Jaffna (Operation Liberation) in 1987, and the war would have been won.

Had JRJ not shut off the safety valves by holding a referendum instead of the scheduled parliamentary elections, and had he not unjustly banned the JVP on trumped up charges of participating in the July 1983 anti-Tamil attacks, he would not have had a second southern insurrection at the time of the indo-Lanka accord, thwarting or retarding the implementation of devolution. In that event, with devolution implemented to the agreed extent and on schedule, the IPKF could have gone flat out, and won the war.

Had Premadasa followed up his twin achievements in overcoming JRJ’s legacy — defeating the JVP insurrection (which was already taking targets in the city while shutting it down repeatedly) and restoring sovereignty by sending off 70,000 Indian troops from Sri Lankan soil — with a third achievement, bringing his forceful personality and management skills to bear as Commander-in-Chief in full support of his appointees Generals Kobbekaduwe and Wimalaratne in a determined quest to win, instead of attempting to be ‘non interfering’, ‘above the fray’ and ‘letting the professionals handle it’ while hoping for the Tigers to negotiate or implode, he and we would be living today in a more developed, modern, egalitarian, pluralist Sri Lanka as full partner of the Asian economic miracle.

Had DB Wijetunga agreed to the military’s plan articulated by ‘Lucky’ Algama, of a Jaffna offensive, instead of inquiring whether it will cause casualties, the war could have been shortened.

Had Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga viewed her electoral victory accurately as not solely a massive mandate for peace but also the result of the LTTE’s serial decapitation of the UNP; had she prudently picked the 13th amendment (which as India Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao just recently reiterated,  should be regarded the ‘fulcrum’ of provincial autonomy) or the Mangala Moonesinghe proposals (which Madam Bandaranaike had signed off on) as the start-line, and not overshot the mark and wasted time and political capital on a federalising ‘union of regions’ package; had she presented the more moderate August 2000 draft in 1995; had she settled upon Devananda and Siddharthan as her Tamil political partners instead of pursuing the mirage of a negotiated peace with the Tigers right through to 2005; had she as commander-in-chief, ordered the Tigers to be encircled and destroyed in the liberation of Jaffna (Operation Riviresa) instead of letting them escape with the civilians into the Wanni;  had she used her courageous cousin Anuruddha Ratwatte in the role President Rajapakse deployed his brother Gotabhaya; had she not patronised and encouraged the Sudu Nelum antiwar movement which conducted  pacifist propaganda in the Sinhala areas while the war was raging – thereby hampering morale and military recruitment; had she given full command and free rein to the best professionals such as Sandhurst-trained General Gerry de Silva instead of the mediocre General Daluwatte; had she not squandered the opportunity of rousing global sympathy for Sri Lanka’s war and against the Tigers immediately after their suicide attack which blinded her in one eye and instead switched on the Norwegian peace track; had she not picked Norway, with its obvious Tamil Diaspora  instead of Japan (which neither a Tamil lobby nor granted the state any military aid); had she not wasted the opportunity for a full on counter-offensive with the rapid induction of airpower, presented by her own sterling defence of Jaffna in 2000 after the fall of Elephant Pass; had she not delayed in authorising the LRRP deep penetration raids on the Tiger command structure until after the Katunayake attack; had she not turned her back on the possibilities opened up by the US ‘global war on terror’ by making key speeches in London and Delhi proclaiming that ‘terrorism cannot be defeated by military means’ (which Mahinda Rajapakse has given the lie to); had she not sabotaged the Karuna rebellion by permitting the LTTE to pass through the Sri Lankan naval cordon and land in the rear of the Karuna rebel forces; had she not marginalised Lakshman Kadirgamar and negotiated a post tsunami joint mechanism with the tsunami-weakened LTTE which gave them equal representation with the legitimate state in its top tier and a 5:3 advantage in its vital middle tier, with a headquarters located in the Tiger controlled Wanni – then she could have won the war, implemented a reasonable autonomy arrangement and constructed a progressive pluralist society.

Had Ranil Wickremesinghe not abjectly signed an asymmetrical CFA which did not reflect the actual balance of power between the Sri Lankan state and an LTTE which had begun to be weakened by the first LRRP hits on its command structure (‘Lt Col’ Shanker being killed in Sept 2001); had he not agreed to disarm the anti-Tiger Tamil groups without mentioning the issue of decommissioning under international auspices of Tiger weapons; had he not been a model of supine appeasement and responded resolutely to Tiger abductions and killings of Police and army personnel even in the city and suburbs of Colombo; had he not undermined the morale of his military by the Athurugiriya DMI ‘safe house’ raid and the ensuing interrogations, the dispute with the Jaffna army chief over the HSZs, the intervention in which a Tiger ship was allowed to go unscathed from a Sri Lankan navy ambush; had he not allowed free passage for sophisticated electronic communications equipment for the Tigers, not to mention the broadcast of Prabhakaran’s warmongering ‘Mahaveera’ speeches through the Rupavahini; had he used his ‘American connection’ to present Sri Lanka as a frontline in the global war on terror instead of providing an excuse for the Tigers in Washington to the effect that military means should be used against ‘international terrorists’ and not the Tigers (who were manifestly no longer ‘national’ when they blew up Rajiv Gandhi); had he used his supposed international connections to strengthen the Sri Lankan military or secured a public Western commitment so that either could have served as a deterrent to the Tigers – then perhaps the inflation of Tiger territory, power and ego would not have taken place to the extent that they planned and for and publicly proclaimed the imminence of ‘The Final War’ (HRW Dec 2005).

Had the government of India (GOI) not got itself caught in the cleft stick of tactically supporting an armed secessionist movement while strategically supporting a united Sri Lanka (as Thomas Abraham jr pointed out); had GOI taken the sage counsel of PN Haksar (Madam Gandhi’s former Principal Secretary) and opted for serious worldwide diplomatic pressure instead of military pressure on GOSL; had Gamini Dissanaike and Vardarajaperumal’s 1988 Delhi proposal for triangular joint military action against the Tigers involving the IPKF, the Sri Lankan armed forces and the EPRLF been accepted by GOI; had GOI signed a defence pact with either Chandrika Kumaratunga or Ranil Wickremesinghe or simply provided sufficiently robust military assistance to Mahinda Rajapakse while delivering it by tranches linked with political reform, the Tigers could have been deterred or defeated, with a political settlement in place for the Tamils.

Had the Tigers avoided political and military cannibalism and formed a united front with all the Tamil groups, using the TULF as its politico-diplomatic front instead of murdering all other Tamil leaders; had it avoided civilian casualties and treated captive soldiers humanely as did the liberation fighters in China, Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Nicaragua; had it not murdered actual or suspected dissidents within its own ranks (Mahattaya); had it not killed every leader who reached out to negotiate with it or for it ranging from Rajiv Gandhi through Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran to Premadasa; had it not waged war on the Indian peacekeepers when the Sri Lankan armed forces had been confined to barracks and it had been given seven of twelve seats plus the chairmanship of an interim council for a merged Northeast in Sept 1987; had it not, in its arrogance and false consciousness (encouraged by some segments of Tamil society),  turned its back on the examples ranging from the Nepali Maoists to the Sinn Fein/IRA of knowing when to negotiate and sincerely enter the mainstream;  had it not, quite simply underestimated the Sinhala leadership, the Sri Lankan armed forces, the Karuna loss and above all, the Sinhala people, it would not have wound up exterminated on the banks of the Nandikadal, beyond the pale, unwept and unsung the world over because of its Nazi-like barbarism.

Had the JVP, following its unfair proscription, avoided the temptation (or natural inclination) to play the ultranationalist card and instead showed empathy for the pain of the Tamils after July ’83 and reached out to the non-Tiger Tamil groups of the ‘Eelam Left’, namely the EPRLF and PLOT, on the basis that they were all being oppressed by the same government/state; had it simultaneously reached out to the other anti-UNP/anti-state elements in the south, starting with Vijaya Kumaratunga, it could have widened its own strategic space and unleashed a wholly different political dynamic. If it had known to abandon its armed struggle with the election of Premadasa who reached out to it, it could have been an important part of a progressive, patriotic coalition, propelling pro-people change. The new blocs and dynamics would have pre-empted Prabhakaran’s war or won it swiftly.

Had the non-Tiger Tamil groups, especially those of the Eelam Left, gathered under a single umbrella, they would have been able to counter the LTTE’s dominance, and also bring together instead of dividing as they did, the non-racist Sinhala Left (from Vijaya and the SLMP to ‘Vikalpa’, the SJV and NJVP) which was in effect divided along the lines of affiliation with PLOT and EPRLF. When the anti-racist Left finally united on Dec 26th 1987 (in the ‘Desamber Visihayavenida Vyaparaya’ , the Dec 26th Movement), it was too late, with student leader Daya Pathirana murdered a year before and Vijaya Kumaratunga having two months to live before extermination by the JVP. North-South Left unity took place episodically at Vijaya’s funeral. Had Vijaya survived he would have been a powerful propellant of progressive change during the Premadasa presidency either from within or outside the government. Instead there was a Left-on-Left civil war within the overall Southern civil war, with former foes the State and the pro-devolution Left fighting shoulder to shoulder, first under JRJ and Gamini Dissanaike and then under Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne. The anti-racist Left played a significant role in strategy, policy and tactics, in the military defeat of the JVP’s second, and this time Pol Potist, insurrection which ended with Wijeweera reportedly being fed while alive to the flames at the Kanatte crematorium—a fate which he and the JVP could have avoided had it not used lethal violence against civilians and its Left rivals.

Had it not been for the excess and lopsidedness of Chandrika’s ‘package’ and PTOMS, and Ranil’s CFA, Sinhala fundamentalism would not have enjoyed the surge it did. Sinhala ultra-nationalism, which had been marginalised under ‘Premadasa-ism’ to the point that its key ideologue was sacked by the then VC of Colombo without a social ripple, had reached such a peak a decade later that it was conceded 40 seats by Chandrika’s negotiator Mangala Samaraweera, over the protest of Mahinda Rajapakse, then PM.

Sinhala ultra-nationalism was the default option of the Sinhala people in the face of the existential threat posed by Tiger aggression and the vacuum created by the failure or partial and inadequate success of more pluralist, progressive, cosmopolitan or liberal-leaning leaderships in the core tasks of protecting the citizenry by defeating fascism, reunifying the country, reasserting the state’s monopoly of violence and defending national sovereignty.

The Tigers began to hit the Sri Lankan military and police within weeks of the election of Mahinda Rajapakse. Far from adopting a bellicose stance, Rajapakse had to buy time for the military to re-train and rearm, since the army chief had asked for three months. Rajapakse made a speech in which he asked the Tigers not to mistake his Buddhist forbearance for weakness. The LTTE and its supporters were so inebriated by their misplaced sense of superiority, they scoffed at what they thought was Sinhala bluff and braggadocio. It was still later, after the Tiger suicide bomb attacks on the army commander and the Secretary of Defence, and the eyeballing over the Mavil Aru sluice gate, that the Sri Lankan armed forces moved, but his time did so with the clear strategic goal of defeating the Tigers militarily. It was accompanied by the only ideology that had not discredited itself by that time, and was in fact ascendant: Sinhala nationalism and ultra-nationalism.

Thus the war was inevitable, defensive, waged by a legitimate authority (a recognised state, with an elected government) against an illegal and illegitimate enemy which had repeatedly returned to war despite the availability of space for negotiations and reforms, of alternatives to war. In short, it was a just war in its essential character (Augustine), though perhaps not entirely in its methods (Aquinas) of occasional ‘Battle of Algiers’ urban counterterrorism.

Does the absence or delay of a just peace retrospectively delegitimize a just war, and does a just war preclude the prospective struggle for a just peace? I think not. Many who fought together against the Nazis in that most just of just wars, then fought politically for a just peace, sometimes against their former allies: the Left fighting for national liberation, progressive domestic change and against imperialism, the Right against Communism and Soviet expansion.  It is of course, rather difficult for those who did not participate in one or other role in fighting a just war, to fight credibly for a just peace. This is why the coalition for a just peace must be broadened by liberating the main democratic opposition of a leadership which stood opposed, or at best, sat on the fence, during a historic and just war of the people-nation.

End of War Special Edition