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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2641

Building Fires

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“…one morning the bonfires, leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire…”

Neruda (I’m Explaining a Few Things)

The Tiger thrives on catastrophes. His dream would be another Black July. The LTTE has always gained nourishment from the blood of Tamils. Sinhala mobs on rampage, that abiding nightmare of every Tamil man, woman and child, is the stuff of which Tiger dreams are made. If Sinhalese don the barbarian mantle again, the necessary conditions will be created for an internationally propelled ‘solution’ a la East Timor, Montenegro or Kosovo. It was probably in anticipation of such an outcome Mr. Pirapaharan crafted his role, this Heroes Day – that of would-be-statesman.

Though in his speech the Tiger Supremo eschewed his customary sabre rattling style, affecting a rational, sensible mien, the mask was not long in place. The morning after Mr. Pirapaharan’s sermon, a Black Tigress attempted to murder Douglas Devananda; that evening a bomb went off in a popular clothing store in Nugegoda, killing 18 civilians and injuring many more. The Tiger’s barbaric nature is constant, even when he tries to cover it with fair words.

Though Wednesday’s carnage belies Mr. Pirapaharan’s rational and moderate pose, there is no call for complacency on our part. The LTTE needs international legitimacy and acceptance, badly. How else can its operatives freely collect money, buy weapons and bring them home? The LTTE is hoping to regain international support/tolerance not by consistently moderating its own conduct but by using our own immoderation against us. The Tiger is not about to civilise itself; it is merely hoping to use any incivilities on our part vis-à-vis our own Tamil citizens to regain entrée into world stage.

The Tiger needs us to be obnoxiously maximalist, arrogantly extremist; he needs us to violate the human rights of civilian Tamils; he needs Tamils corpses and Tamil refugees, created by our armed forces. The Tiger wants us to sabotage the APRC and refuse to share power with the Tamils; he wants us to antagonise Muslims, Sinhala Christians and the International Community with our intolerance. Most importantly the Tiger is waiting, vulture like, for another Black July in the East or the South.

Some of the international reaction to the events of the last few days demonstrated that the latest Tiger tactic has a reasonable chance of success. The Americans in their statement condemned the Nugegoda and Colombo blasts as well as Killinochchi the mine attack – reportedly by our deep penetration unit – causing the death of eleven school girls being taken for a Heroes Day celebration. We are justly outraged that the dead and injured in the Nugegoda attack included several school children. The dead among the Killinochchi attack too included a number of schoolgirls.

The fact that they were being compelled to attend the Heroes Day celebration does not make them Tigers or even Tiger sympathisers; in Tiger land not just children but even men and women have to do what they are told. If we remain silent or try to justify in some convoluted way the killing of Tamil schoolgirls, supposedly by our military, our outrage about the killing of Sinhala schoolgirls by the LTTE seems a little hypocritical. It is such hypocrisies the Tigers are waiting for and intend to benefit from.

‘Strategically Blind Maximalism’

Just as he did in the missive to the UN General Assembly, Mr. Pirapaharan in his speech focuses on the real suffering of the Tamil people in a war that is not of their own making. Predictably there is no mention of the primary role played by the LTTE in imposing the unofficial Fourth Eelam War on the Tamils, beginning with the unilateral rejection of the Oslo Declaration. The spotlight naturally is on the Rajapakse regime, its lack of concern about civilian safety, its unwillingness to devolve power and its attempts to deprive some Eastern Tamils of their land under the guise of security and development. Confident that the Rajapakse administration will ‘stay the course’, Vellupillai Pirapaharan plays the prophet, hinting at a time when the world will be compelled by Sinhala excesses to impose a de facto/de jure separation on Sri Lanka: “The world’s powers, even while taking forward their own geo-political interests, respect human rights and democratic institutions. Be it this universe, human affairs or international relationships, they all revolve on the wheel of justice. That is why nations like East Timor and Montenegro broke free of their subjugation and gained their freedom with the help and support of the international community. Even now, the international community continues to work for the freedom of nations like Kosovo”.

Eric Hobsbawm calls it ‘strategically blind maximalism’ (The Revolutionaries). It is a malady to which the Tigers are singularly prone (it led to their international isolation). But this affliction is not alien to us either. We suffered from it from 1956 right up to 1987. We were most diseased with it in July 1983. It is to this basest point in our history Mr. Pirapaharan is looking back nostalgically and working towards diligently. If that calamitous moment is to repeat itself, the Sun God and his Tiger Eelam would be made. If we attack the Tamils in our midst, an East Timorese or Kosovan outcome will become an immediate inevitability rather than a remote possibility.

There are many factors which favour such a catastrophic denouement. There is Sinhala hubris, the feeling that for the first time since the Accord, we can dictate terms to the Tamils. Some Sinhala hardliners may see a use value in a mini-Black July, as a necessary precondition for a Pax Sinhala, (to teach the Tamils their proper place in the new order). The regime may not move decisively to prevent such a calamity. Restoring order in the South while facing the Tiger in the North would be tantamount to fighting on two fronts, for which we may lack the wherewithal. More dangerously some segments of the regime could play an active role in creating/sustaining the conflagration. The main opposition party is weak and disorganised; it may also think to benefit from ‘great disorder under heavens’ (a malady to which both the UNP and the SLFP succumb to when in opposition). A segment of the JVP may see the danger; but any attempt at damage control will be stymied by the party’s ‘deshapremi’ majority. The growing economic hardships too could play a decisive role. Some segments of the populace may feed the fires in the hope of gaining financial benefits through looting. The old myth of wealthy minorities povertising the Sinhalese can serve the rioters with their ‘just cause’. Most of these factors were present in July 83; they played a major role in creating and sustaining the carnage.

The Tigers seem to be veering, once again, towards the tactic attacking civilian targets in the South in the hope of igniting a Sinhala backlash. In the last couple of weeks the LTTE carried out several mini-operations ‘behind enemy lines’, such as the killing of peasants in Ranminitenna and Mahawilachchiya and the destruction of a transformer in Matale. There is a real possibility of another Nugegoda, on a larger scale, becoming the catalyst for another Black July.

‘Be afraid, be very afraid’

Like the LTTE, the Rajapakse regime is partial to ‘strategically blind maximalism’. It has little understanding of Tamil sensibility and even less comprehension of global realities. Sometimes it acts as if the Tigers and the Tamils are one, and Tamils must be punished to tame the Tigers – its inaction during the Trinco mini-riot (until the Indian Prime Minister called) and its aborted attempt to expel North Eastern Tamils from Colombo lodges are cases in point. In the last week there were reports of Tamil civilians dying from our air and ground attacks. The worst is the Killinochchi blast, said to have been the work of the deep penetration unit, causing the death of eleven children who were being taken for a Tiger Heroes Day ceremony. If true, this is an act that cannot be condoned in any way. The attack on the VoT tower seems another blunder particularly since we failed in our aim of stopping the broadcasting of Mr. Pirapaharan’s speech (we should have known that the Tigers would have an alternate arrangement in place). That attack reportedly caused several civilian deaths. The statement by Reporters without Borders accusing us of violating the Geneva Convention cannot be dismissed lightly (the Americans can do so with near impunity; we cannot). We are slowly but surely piling up avoidable errors. If we respond to some particularly gruesome LTTE atrocity with another Black July, every sin of the Tiger will pale into oblivion and we will indeed find ourselves in the Indonesian or Serbian territory.

The latest statement by the Human Rights Watch is a yet another indicator of the danger of acting without due regard for civilian safety. According to Brad Adams, HRW Director for the Asian region, “Both the Tigers and government forces are brazenly violating the laws of war by targeting civilians or failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants. These callous attacks only add to the suffering and grief of ordinary Sri Lankans” (November 30, 2007). Though it is unarguable that in wars innocent suffers, the focus here is on a distressing lack of interest on the part of both sides to minimise such suffering. It is natural behaviour for the Tigers but not so for the Lankan state, not only because it is a democracy but also because, be it Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, the victims are our own people. And if the Tigers can convince the world that the Lankan state is unwilling to protect its Tamil citizens, the case for separation would be considerably buttressed.

Vellupillai Pirapaharan in his speech makes a point that warrants our particular attention: “Sadly, the Sinhala nation is moving….on a path of destruction. It is trying to destroy the Tamil nation and, in the process, it is destroying itself. This beautiful island continues to soak in blood”.

The Tigers have been the curse of the Tamil nation for the last twenty years, assassinating its best sons and daughters, luring its bravest to their deaths, replacing its renown for cultural and educational attainments with notoriety for suicide bombers and child soldiers. The Rajapakse regime displays a worrying tendency to follow suit. It has embraced the LTTE’s total war strategy, subordinating all objectives, needs and values to the war (and the good life of its own). Sri Lanka is in danger of becoming a country characterised by under-developing people, economic regression, growing intolerance and a breakdown in law and order. If these trends continue, the Southern Sri Lanka too may become a place non-conducive to human habitation – and the world may think that partition is perhaps the only possible solution for Lankan crisis. When moderate solutions are not forthcoming, that critical absence creates spaces for extremist actions.

- Asian Tribune -

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