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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2857

Mirror Images and a Silver Line

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"…a lucid invitation to live and to create in the very midst of the desert."
Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)

Telling are the different responses to the LTTE’s barbaric attack on Somadevi Vidyalaya and the Kallaru village; the attack killed several Sinhala civilians including a child and injured several more. As the government spokesman correctly pointed out, most of those who condemned the Vaharai and Vallipunam incidents are silent or are prevaricating over the Kallaru attack. Similarly many of those who are condemning the Kallaru attack today were either silent over the Vaharai and Vallipunam incidents or tried to justify/excuse them. Ironically the excuses some of the Tiger apologists are using now, over Kallaru, mirror the excuses we used then (over Vallipunam and Vaharai), which in turn were mirror images of the past utterances of Tiger apologists to justify the unjustifiable and to excuse the inexcusable.

The differing reactions to Kallaru, Kebithigollawa, Vaharai and Vallipunam attacks demonstrate that both sides acknowledge the victims only if they were victimised by the enemy; if they have been victimised by our side (or the side we support) then they become invisible, or at least, not quite victims – ‘unworthy victims’ in the words of John Pilger: "For the men, women and children blown to pieces in Baghdad, the solidarity we extended naturally to the London victims (of the terrorist bomb attack – TG) was denied; we were not allowed to know them…. A crime is only a crime if the perpetrators are ‘them’ and not ‘us’" (Freedom Next Time).

The excuses used by the Tigers and their apologists in response to the Kallaru attack make interesting reading – ‘we did not do it’, ‘we did not mean to do it’, ‘we targeted the army camps in the area’ etc. – because they are disturbingly similar to the excuses we dished out over the Vallipunam and Vaharai attacks (the macabre website pioneered by the Tiger intelligence chief Pottu Amman, Tamil editors, even said that the Kallaru villagers were being used as ‘human shields’ by the Army). And the outrage we correctly and justly express over the Kallaru attack, the very words we use, could have been used against us over the Vallipunam and Vaharai attacks. In that sense the Kallaru attack is not only a reminder of the essential and unchangeable nature of the Tiger; it is also a warning of just how deplorable, and just how counterproductive, such attacks are.

The Tigers are terrorists. The Kallaru attack is minor in comparison to their past atrocities and the atrocities they are bound to commit in the future. The Kallaru attack therefore would not demean the LTTE; on the contrary it becomes the LTTE because a terrorist has to commit acts of terror, by definition. However, Sri Lanka, as a democratic state, must operate by a different code of conduct, a different moral-political perspective. In this context the statement by the government spokesman that the Army did not retaliate to the Kallaru attack as the Tiger shells came from populous areas in Vaharai is a welcome sign of lessons learnt and of further mistakes avoided. It is a course correction that must be adhered to since it is not only correct but also advantageous. After all what if we counterattacked after Kallaru and our shells killed Tamil civilians? The Kallaru outrage would have seemed less outrageous because the moral difference between the Tigers and Sri Lanka would have become lessened. We would have gained nothing and lost much by such a counterattack.

A Way Out ?

Happily for Sri Lanka these bleak times have been made less so by a silver line on the horizon – the majority report of the Experts Committee. The fact that there is more than one report is not remarkable given the composition of the committee. That, in any case, is democracy. What is significant is that while the private media gave much prominence to the contents of the majority report, the government media did not. Perhaps this reticence is necessary to avoid a premature explosion, given that the JVP and the JHU have already rejected the majority report. But at some point a political confrontation with the forces of Southern extremism will become unavoidable (just as the war with the LTTE was unavoidable, given the nature of the Tiger) if the government is interested in coming up with a political solution that is primarily based on the majority report.

The million dollar question is what will the government do next? The four reports has been presented to the APC which is expected to study them at length. What happens or does not happen there is the key. Given the rejectionism of the JVP and the JHU the government will have to proceed with caution but the possibility of this necessary gradualism eventually becoming a deliberate delaying tactic cannot be ruled out. Since the LTTE is not interested in a political solution and in fact would do anything to sabotage one, there will be little pressure nationally to act on the experts committee recommendations. After all, the Oslo Agreement died an unnatural death, when the Tigers did a volte face on it – because the Southern parties were only too happy to oblige. However the international community and especially India is likely to take a keener interest in the issue and keep it alive. Sadly this international factor is the only countervailing pressure to Northern and Southern extremism, perhaps the only way to compel the SLFP and the UNP to turn the potential contained in the majority report into an actuality.

The appearance of the majority report places not just the President but also the Leader of Opposition in a bit of a tight spot. Just as Mahinda Rajapakse has to consider his extremist allies, Ranil Wickremesinghe cannot ignore the signal of the Tiger. The LTTE would not only reject the majority report but would also want to prevent the APC from adopting even a watered down version of it. The possibility of Mr. Wickremesinghe working behind the scenes with the JVP and the JHU to consign the majority report to the rubbish heap of history is a very real one.

Together the two major parties can push through a solution if they so want. It must be remembered that the JVP was able to do as much damage as it did in 1987 because it was backed by the SLFP; the infamous Pettah meeting which sparked off the anti-Accord riots was presided over by the SLFP (Mrs. Bandaranaike was herself present at this meeting). In any case a solution will have to be put to a referendum and if the two parties back a proposal based on the majority report, the referendum can be won, freely and fairly (and it must be won freely and fairly). The JVP and the JHU will have a harder time opposing a proposal which has been endorsed by a majority of the electorate. They will try, but their opposition will then be devoid of the crucial legitimacy factor.

The lessons of the international war against terrorism are clear – force alone cannot defeat terrorism. Force is necessary but so are the political reforms, the social reforms and the economic reforms. In the Lankan context this necessitates a package of political reforms. That is why the majority report of the experts committee is a good starting point which must be followed through.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel

The report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (set up with the blessing of the White House and the Congress and headed by James Baker) is yet another nail in George Bush’s Iraq war and the policy perspective underlying it. Unlimited counter-terror cannot win wars against terrorism; neither can superior fire power; the ‘anything goes’ doctrine does not work, and in fact is profoundly counterproductive. We should be thankful that objective factors prevent us from following the Bush doctrine on war against terrorism – because it has failed. George Bush’s war against terror has weakened the US politically and militarily (the US army is too overstretched to be able to respond to any threat elsewhere) while strengthening the terrorists it was supposed to vanquish.

The bad news is not limited to Iraq; the war in Afghanistan is also headed in the wrong direction. The Taleban is making a comeback, just a couple of years after they were supposed to have been effectively finished off. Some of the reasons: "The failure to provide local security — or even a semblance of impartial justice — helps explain why so many Afghans have lost confidence in the pro-Western government of President Hamid Karzai, and why a growing number are again turning to the Taliban for protection" (New York Times – 5.12.2005). The other factors include grinding poverty, soaring unemployment and lawlessness (the US backed warlords often conduct themselves in the manner of bandits and killers) making a mockery of the promise of liberation which many Afghans believed and hoped for after the repressive Taleban years.

These latest developments are causing a rethinking on the part of many American allies, such as Canada. As the Defence Minister of Canada, Gordon O’ Connor said "The way to solve this problem is by bringing prosperity to the people of Afghanistan. If they're living a secure, enriched life under the government of Afghanistan, they're not going to want to side with the Taliban" (Toronto Star – 8.9.2006).

In both Afghanistan and Iraq the US is not really bothered about civilian casualties. The right to retaliation is seen as an absolute, irrespective of consequences. No amount of force is thought to be too much. In both places the US armies had a free hand, unlimited resources and, for a long time, very favourable media coverage. The US army was enthusiastic about the mission it was undertaking. As the New York Review of Books commented in a review of Robert Kaplan’s new book ‘Imperial Grunts:> The American Military on the Ground’: "A feature of Kaplan’s account of America’s ‘imperial grunts’ is his celebration of their unabashed American nationalism…. The fervent, inward-looking nationalism he identifies and celebrates in the US military does not encourage any sustained interest in other societies." (The Mirage of Empire – NY Review of Books – 12.1.2006). This inability look beyond American needs to the needs of the Iraqi and Afghan people has been a costly error, too strategic to be corrected by the presence of local allies. If you see the people as the enemy or even as expendable victims, then your mission is bound to fail, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it comes to going to the limit of the law and beyond it in combating the enemy, Israel is in a class of its own. Being the pet of the US and using the Holocaust guilt of Western powers (plus of course its very strategic location and role) Israel had been able to get away with practices other less-favoured countries cannot even dream of. For example Israel follows a policy of demolishing the dwelling of any Palestinian which had sheltered (knowingly or unknowingly) a ‘terrorist suspect’. But none of these tough measures have succeeded in breaking Palestinian resistance because the main political issues remain unresolved. Until there is a political solution to the Palestinian problem, Israel will not know peace. And that solution cannot come so long as the Jewish state remains a prisoner to archaic ideologies about ‘chosen people’.

The experience of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan and the experience of Israel in the Palestinian territory demonstrate that the American Way and the Israeli Way are not examples to be emulated but fatal mistakes to be avoided. And unlike the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan a troop withdrawal (rapid or gradual) is not an option we have in Sri Lanka. That is why we have to get it right, because North-East is not a far away country and the Tamils are not foreign people.

- Asian Tribune -

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