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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2342

The War, the Tigers and the People

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"The fear of barbarians is what is in danger of turning us into barbarians".

Tzvetan Todorov (The Fear of Barbarians)

The Second JVP Insurgency ended on the day Rohana Wijeweera (and the entirety of the politbureau, bar one) was killed. Had he remained a free man, the Insurgency would have survived, albeit with less effect and virulence. The Rajapakse administration is expected to announce the end of the war on the Independence Day. But the Eelam War will not be over so long as Vellupillai Pirapaharan is alive; instead it will merely shift to a different mode – from a conventional war to a guerrilla war. As the LTTE reverts to hit and run tactics, a new spiral of violence will begin.

Rohana Wijeweera was killed in November 1989 but the effort to remove the politico-economic underpinnings of the Insurgency began months earlier - with the demand for the withdrawal of the IPKF and the launching of Janasaviya Round I in the JVP stronghold of Hambantota – and continued long after the JVP leadership was eliminated. There is no comparable effort today to deal with the ethnic problem or to win over the civilian Tamils. These critical absences will play a significant role in Mr Pirapaharan’s comeback strategy. It is already happening in the 'liberated' East where extra-judicial crimes by the power-wielders are spewing fear and discontent among the populace. Despite stringent security, the Tigers have managed to carry out a number of attacks against Lankan Forces and the TMVP in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The East seems to be heading the Afghanistan way and the North is bound to follow suit – unless there is a major attitudinal and policy change on the part of the Rajapakse administration.

In 2002, the Coalition Forces won the conventional war in Afghanistan. But the Taliban leadership (not to mention Osama Bin Laden) survived and as Mao pointed out, "Only the total destruction of the Red Army would constitute complete defeat in the civil war" (Six Essays on Military Affairs). The invasion of Iraq and the downgrading of Afghanistan in the list of US priorities was a mistake. But even more damaging was the insufficient focus on nation building efforts. In 2002 most ordinary Afghans had been happy to see the Taliban decamp; they had backed the Coalition Forces initially. But the Coalition Forces squandered the chances of cementing this support. The governing was handed over to a handful of warlords who were only interested in augmenting their power and wealth. Their conduct made a mockery of both democracy and the rule of law. They abducted, murdered, tortured and harassed ordinary Afghans, with impunity, and in the name of anti-terrorism.

The Americans made matters worse by using aerial bombing and shelling in their attempts to kill Mr. Bin Laden and the remaining Taliban fighters/leaders. The combination of economic neglect, political repression and military terror antagonised the populace, compelling them to turn back to the only available alternative, the Taliban. “Letting Afghanistan rot for four years after the war of 2002 was a tragic error. The Americans, who were then responsible for the Southeast, showed a cavalier disregard for reconstruction, treating the region as a hunting ground for Special Forces. On successive trips to Afghanistan I saw local people go from pragmatic and relatively hopeful to sulking and disappointed to bluntly antagonistic” (The UK Guardian 10.12.2006).

A similar outcome is likely in Sri Lanka, given the Sinhala supremacist agenda of the Rajapakse regime. The Rajapakse administration’s approach to the Eelam War lacks any political component. The All Parties Conference is said to be readying its final proposals but these are unlikely to be generous enough to win over the Tamils. Faced with international pressure to devolve more power to the North and the East, and Sinhala extremist pressure not to go beyond administrative decentralisation, the regime will procrastinate. In the meantime a concerted effort will be made to impose the Eastern model on the North (in a more concentrated form, since the North is not multi-ethnic). The ethnic problem thus will remain unresolved - a boon to Mr. Pirapaharan (and to his successors) in his efforts to rekindle a guerrilla war.

The Fate of the Civilians

Armies – most Armies – tend to retaliate against civilian populations seen as 'enemy'. It is up to the political leaders to ensure that the Army is prevented from giving into its natural inclinations. The IPKF won the conventional war against the LTTE but ended up enmeshed in a debilitating protracted unconventional war. The Tigers deliberately provoked the Indian Army into attacking civilian Tamils as a way of negating the enormous fund of goodwill India and the IPKF initially had. That way the LTTE managed to deprive the IPKF of Tamil support, rebuild its base and stay alive and active. The Lankan State and the Lankan Forces do not enjoy such popularity or trust among Tamils and the LTTE’s task will therefore be much easier – as is already evident from the events in the East.

The manner in which the civilians, caught in the strip of territory still under LTTE control, are treated by the advancing Lankan Forces is both telling and consequential. Because of the unofficial censorship the people in the rest of the country are unaware of the tragedy that is unfolding in the North. And even if the whole truth was known, we may not have cared, any more than the Israelis cared about the suffering of the Gazans. The Head of the ICRC for South Asia, Jacques de Maio, is warning of a major humanitarian crisis: “Hundreds of people have been killed in the past two weeks according to approximate figures the ICRC compiled from sources including hospitals and the Sri Lankan Red Cross. Much of the fighting has been ‘intrinsically incompatible with full respect of the basic rules of the law of war,’ de Maio said. Embodied in the Geneva Conventions, they include the protection of civilians, precaution, distinction between civilian and military structures, and proportionality. Virtually no humanitarian aid has been able to enter Vanni in recent weeks, he said” (International Herald Tribune – 27.1.2009).

The Tigers have never been concerned about the safety and the wellbeing of civilian Tamils. Therefore they are unlikely to permit any mass exodus from the area still under their control. President Rajapakse has given the Tigers 48 hours to free Tamil civilians. What will the government do when the Tigers do not comply? Will it resume shelling and bombing, arguing that the dead and the injured are the fault of the Tigers? Can a responsible democratic government, which is trying to unify the country, act in such an uncivilised manner?

According to a report in the website Countercurrents, the American Ceylon Mission Church at Suthanthirapuram came under aerial bombardment on the 28th of January, killing 17 and injuring 39. What is particularly worrying is that this Church was located in a ‘safe zone’. This is the sort of carnage the LTTE wants to see happening. Therefore the government should expect the Tigers to misuse the safe zone, to position their guns in it, precisely in order to provoke the Lankan Forces into retaliating. The blame for resultant tragedies should accrue to the Tigers as well as to government, particularly since it is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of all Sri Lankans, including Tamils living under Tiger control. Just as Hamas’ acts of provocation did not justify Israel retaliation which harmed civilians, Tiger provocations cannot be used to excuse counteractions which injure or kill innocent men, women and children.

The humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in the North may be unavoidable; but its existence cannot be denied, as the government is doing. While the Tigers are primarily responsible for this tragedy, the government is not blameless either. It was the government which ordered the expulsion of those international organisations which were providing the civilians in the Tiger controlled areas with many basic facilities. True, the Tigers made off with a large quantity of the aid provided (just as the powers that be in the South misuse public funds and public goods for personal advantage). But to deprive the civilians of a necessary support structure simply because it was being abused by the Tigers is as unconscionable as Israel imposing a blockade on Gaza to prevent the Hamas from bringing in weapons.

Geographical unity is important but it is not the same as national unity. Sri Lanka cannot know either peace or normalcy if her minorities do not feel a sense of belonging. Alienating the minorities in order to achieve geographical unity will undermine national unity. Causing massive civilian deaths, even if they result from the LTTE’s refusal to permit a mass exodus, will rebound to the discredit of not only the Rajapakse administration but of Sri Lanka as a country.

Opening New Frontiers

Sri Lanka cannot be turned into a Sinhala Buddhist country without a massive campaign of religio-ethnic cleansing; but it can be made into a country under Sinhala Buddhist domination. This would make sense from the point of view of the dynastic project of the Rajapakses since the Family’s main base is Sinhala Buddhist. Therefore, the ending of the conventional phase of the Eelam War is likely to bring about more national strife instead of national reconciliation.

The signs are already evident. The amended Anti-Conversion Bill is to be presented to the parliament in the near future. This Bill is a sop for the Sinhala-Buddhist lobby. Without the Bill the JHU, for instance, would find it hard to face the electorate at the next poll and the Buddhist party is a key ally of President Rajapakse. Enacting this Bill over the objections of almost the entirety of the Christian community will alienate yet another minority, but this does not seem a matter of concern for the administration. With the Tamils now in their place, the administration obviously feels it can afford to take on other ‘uppity’ minorities.

The JHU wants the post-war era to be akin to Dutugemunu or Gajaba Rule. With such a mindset a sufficiently generous political solution is unlikely to see the light of day. A likely scenario is for Minister Tissa Witarana to put forward a proposal and for Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa to oppose it on the street; the President can then assume the pretence of even-handedness and send the proposal back to the drawing board – until it is needed to satisfy some foreign power, for a few days.

The Rajapakses and their Sinahals supremacist allies refuse to accept the very existence of the ethnic problem. They do not understand the complex nature of the relationship between the Tamil people and the Tigers. Most Tamil people, even when they are anti-Tiger, would not be happy with a Sinhala leadership which is reluctant to share power with the minorities. Thus it is not simply a case of ‘liberating’ the Tamil people from the clutches of the Tigers, as some majoritarian supremacists confidently believe; the Tamil people need to be convinced that they will always be safe in Sri Lanka, that there will not be other 1956’s and 1983’s, that they can with perfect safety give up the Tigers. How successful the LTTE would be in reigniting a guerrilla campaign would depend on whether President Rajapakse can convince the Tamil people that they do not need the Tiger and can repose trust in the Sri Lankan state. This is an unlikely prospect from an administration which identifies itself as the legatee of 1956 and is busying itself with a religious version of Sinhala Only.

- Asian Tribune -

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