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

Was I wrong to oppose the war?

I used to think non-violence would win in the end. Even with a murderous megalomaniac for an opponent (I mean Prabhakaran, not Mahinda), I believed the offer of an open hand would prevail over the closed fist. Three bloody Eelam wars, each fought with more combatants and fiercer weaponry than the last, was proof to me that this fight could not be won on the battlefield. So when Eelam War Four began with the promise of a final victory, this time using a bold new strategy (more combatants and fiercer weaponry), I assumed it would end as it did the last three times–without an end. I was wrong. When the remnants of the LTTE were cornered, I assumed they would go underground, the hit and run insurgency of the early eighties would begin anew, and Colombo would shudder as Tigers and Tigresses blew themselves up in the middle of our streets, buses, and marketplaces. I was wrong again. It’s been a year since the war ended. No bombs. No hit and run. What’s going on here? Did war win conclusively? I think it did. And what’s more, I think non-violence lost. Not just on the battlefield, but in that place where higher ideals once endured, impenetrable to the cruel logic of the world–our hearts.

I opposed the war. Not on the street with a placard, but in my heart. I believed it was wrong to kill no matter how it was justified. Six thousand soldiers died in Eelam War Four, as did tens of thousands of LTTE members. The President says the civilian death toll was zero. Perhaps he was referring to the many zeroes that follow the real number. Truth be told, we really don’t know. Many. I used to feel bad about it. Whenever I caught myself smiling as I drove down formerly barricaded roads without any fear of dying in a bomb, I would remind myself about the heavy price paid in sons and daughters on both sides and the failure to resolve our differences peacefully. A year after the war, with hordes of tourists pouring into the country and hotels mushrooming in former war zones, I’m smiling all the time, drunk on victory, but I’ve forgotten that when I smile, I reveal bloody teeth.

Has the war really ended? Or will it be like the Great War, the war to end all wars, later renamed World War One because it created the conditions for World War Two a decade later. Now that we’ve won, are we going to forget why we fought in the first place? The vast majority of the country thinks the war over for good, the dispute settled, and any attempt to rekindle it should be sorted out in the most effective way available to us: overwhelming military force. Since independence, large-scale military force has been used three times internally (we have yet to fight an external invader, which theoretically is the reason for a military): the 1971 JVP insurgency, the 1989 JVP insurgency, and the Eelam Wars. One would think that the sheer brutality of these three should make us shy away from the military option and look to non-violent means of addressing our disagreements. But in reality, it has solidified the military option as the only effective method to deal with dissent. Even a peacenik liberal like myself has to admit that if Rohana Wijeweera had been killed in 1971, in all probability there would not have been a 1989 insurgency; and if Prabhakaran had been killed in the Vadamarachchi Operation, there would not have been an Eelam War Two, Three, and Four. With this bloodshot hindsight, ask yourself what you would do the next time a charismatic, idealistic youth with a healthy following turns violent to make himself heard: would you arrest him and talk to him about his grievances, or kill him the first chance you get? Based on our recent history, talking seems to only postpone the inevitable, so we should kill him. A more intellectual proponent of military force (Dayan Jayatilleka?) might suggest that we kill him first, and then talk to his followers. Either way, the lessons learnt seem to be that the best way to avoid the wanton destruction of military force is to use it early before things get messy later.

We are today a nation that wants a powerful military to stamp out the dissenters and different thinkers among us, that wants a government with a Gestapo-like ability to make dissenters disappear, and tolerates a stifling control of our information. We believe that the alternative, ironically, is war. Even more ironic, any politician that offers liberal values and less oppressive governance is viewed as a sell-out to international imperialism, and a traitor to the nation. As proof for this argument, they can always point to Ranil Wickremasinghe’s liberal, media-friendly, appeasement-heavy regime that allowed the LTTE to rearm, regroup, and launch one more war.

Was I wrong to oppose the war? Let’s rephrase the question: if I could press a button and bring all those who died in Eelam War IV back to life (assuming a round figure of about fifty thousand dead) in exchange for a still living Prabhakaran, and a still menacing LTTE, armed to the teeth, and lurking behind every corner in their suicide vests, would I do it? I’m not sure. I wish I could immediately say yes, bring those people back to life; I’ll take my chances with attempted negotiations for another decade or two with the LTTE. But I can’t. I lived it for thirty years, and I’m sick of it. I’m not saying I would order those fifty thousand to be killed to eliminate the LTTE either. I could never do it. I am a coward and a hypocrite, who gladly enjoys the fruits of another’s murderous crime, but without the stomach to commit murder myself.

Mahatma Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to non-violence brought real solutions to the problems they faced in their time. But I’m beginning to believe that their success was the exception and not the norm. I still think that non-violence is noble and right, but like a Christian who goes to church though he no longer believes in miracles, I have lost my faith.

End of War Special Edition