Sri Lanka in July 2009
Sri Lanka: view from the ground
This was the first article I had published on Le Monde diplomatique
Even those Sri Lankans, including Tamils, who were dubious about their government’s decision to pursue the military option against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are relieved that the venture appears successful. They also are surprised at the reaction to the victory by nations such as the US, the UK, India and Israel, and the sharp criticism about civilian casualties and displaced people.
From Sri Lanka, it feels as if the Tamil diaspora in the UK, Canada, US and Australia has overly influenced the media in those places. People in the West seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were confined to a narrow strip of beach under shellfire from government troops, and are now herded into concentration camps. I do not wish to downplay the suffering of those in the north, but the reality is that Tamils are spread throughout Sri Lanka and many are prosperous and influential.
A distinguished Tamil journalist based in Canada, DB Jeyaraj, wrote: “The Tamils need to remind themselves that the LTTE, despite its prolonged campaign, has ultimately achieved nothing for the Tamil people. If the LTTE had converted the military strength it once enjoyed into bargaining power at the negotiating table, the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been much better off. It did not and in the process has brought misery and despair to the Tamil people.”
Dr Noel Nadesan, editor of Uthayam, a Tamil newspaper in Australia, wrote: “The Sri Lankan president deserves the congratulations of all Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnicity. More than any other community, the Sri Lankan Tamils owe him their thanks for ending their misery.”
As a Tamil blogger remarked: “I hold no brief for the Sri Lankan government which, unfortunately, is growing more despotic by the day”, but he wondered why Sri Lanka should have agreed to a ceasefire when it had the Tiger leader trapped; it was unlikely that, in similar circumstances, the US would let Osama bin Laden escape.
Hillary Clinton has criticised Sri Lanka for being too tough on the Tamil Tigers — and Pakistan for not being tough enough on the Taliban. (In Swat there are up to two million displaced civilians. There is a shortfall in humanitarian aid and NGOs are pulling out.)
The current Indian government promotes reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Memories of India’s previous interventions are still acute in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi’s government funded and armed Sri Lankan terrorists, including the LTTE. In 1987 an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tried and failed to disarm the LTTE. Tamil sources asserted that more than half of the victims of the IPKF 1987 offensive were Tamil civilians and Brigadier Manjit Singh admitted: “We could not differentiate between the LTTE and the civilians.” In October 1987 Indian troops stormed into Jaffna hospital, throwing grenades and firing, killing 70 doctors, staff and patients.
Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian, argues that the Sri Lankan army had similar problems recently, noting that “the category ‘civilian’ is an ambiguous category”, because the LTTE command-state integrated civilians into the front line. Roberts makes a comparison with the end of the second world war, when the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender and carpet bombed civilians (and exploded the atomic bomb) to attain that goal.
The Sri Lankan government was taken by surprise when Israel, in spite of or because of, its actions in Gaza, accused Sri Lanka of indiscriminate military action and violations of human rights in fighting LTTE terrorism. Israel supplied military hardware and expertise which were probably significant factors in the LTTE’s defeat.
The writer and journalist Neil Ascherson has written about the way the British delude themselves that they built and divested themselves of their empire in a decent fashion, although, in fact, “In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.” The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, was involved during a recent visit to Colombo in a shouting match with Sri Lanka’s defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who felt it necessary to remind Miliband that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. Miliband has been complicit in US rendition and torture and Britain continues to allow the US to use the British colony of Diego Garcia, from which it expelled the inhabitants, for those purposes.
A recent report by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, found that accountability in the US has been “deplorable”; few would doubt that the US has killed civilians and used torture in Iraq. In Britain, Miliband proposes that an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in Iraq be held in secret, but Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: “There is only one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this government. There are 179 reasons [179 dead soldiers] why the military want the truth to be out on what happened over Iraq.” Major General Julian Thompson said that the military wanted to be heard in public “the allegation that a British government manipulated intelligence to take part in an illegal war.”
Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN has said: “Sri Lanka is not the case of an army of occupation invading and occupying another country. Sri Lanka’s army is a military that serves a constitutional democracy, a military that fought a war strictly within its recognised borders against a separatist, terrorist militia, with whom the state had tried to arrive at a peaceful settlement on numerous occasions. Therefore, we will not have forced upon us formulae and paradigms derived from entirely different contexts.”
Because those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, should the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process; others argue that reconciliation is impossible if war crimes are not investigated (perhaps more bitterness is felt among the diaspora than among Tamils in Sri Lanka).
The reconciliation process in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland have been cited. There is no doubt that Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered discrimination and there has, in the past, been horrific anti-Tamil violence. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. The government was fighting terrorists, not trying to wipe out the Tamil population. In Sri Lanka a democratically-elected government increased its popularity with voters by overthrowing a de facto unelected, totalitarian military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory, and intends to restore democracy to that area. In Northern Ireland peace was achieved through long negotiations when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its arms and put its goal of a united Ireland in abeyance. The LTTE went into any “negotiation” with an uncompromising demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam.
There are arguments that the government must blame itself because of inept PR and censorship. Certainly, the news has been manipulated under the cover of “prevention of terrorism” and press freedom will continue to be threatened. Anti-terrorism laws (perhaps not as draconian as in the UK or US) remain in place and many investigations into attacks on the media remain unresolved.
President Rajapakse’s reputation is high with the Sinhalese majority and he should now have the political capital to reach out for the hearts and minds of the Tamil community and bring them within a unified nation without fear of backlash. It is to be hoped that other governments and the international media will help the nationbuilding by supporting reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction.