Politics & Economy

Ethics of ‘Post-War’ Reconstruction: Resistance to 'War by Other Means'

The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Israeli invasion of Palestine were met with a division of opinion throughout the world. Such division could be observed in the UN Security Council regarding the case of Syria too. However, no such division existed, particularly in the final phase (2007-2009), of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the de facto state of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – in spite of massive demonstrations, marches and fasts organised by Tamils all over the world. Countries that are antagonistic vis-a-vis one another on crucial political issues on the international arena (USA/China, Britain/Russia, Israel/Iran, India/Pakistan, etc.) were united in their support for the Sri Lankan government’s military answer to the nearly six decades long nationalist conflict. The UN agencies that did not leave Gaza during Israeli invasion acted differently in the last phase of war on the Tamil de facto state and left the region at the request of the Sri Lankan government. It was only after the end of the war in May of 2009 that an ex-UN officer admitted that there have been at least 40,000 Tamils killed in the last phase of the war, but this has not been formerly stated.

This shows that the UN was aware of the fact that one of its member states (that of Sri Lanka) was committing a mass atrocity. The position of the UN then, reflects the political stand of the above mentioned powers. The reason for these international actors’ difference of positions/actions concerning the first set of contexts and Sri Lanka lies in the specific character of the Sri Lankan state. Two states, or a political arrangement that dismantles the colonially forged unitary character of the Sri Lankan state would clash with the geopolitical interests of the major powers in the world, mainly US and UK led governments (interested in expanding their military empires into South Asia), and who have been competitively followed by China, Russia, Iran and others (with the China-led extension of an economic empire).

The ethics of international relations concerning the island of Lanka have been constructed on the basis of the need to protect the unitary character of the state against the Tamil national movement and its de facto state. The latter state emerged as a result of Tamil national resistance to over six decades spanning oppression by the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state. The ethic of international relations that justified and legitimised the military victory of the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE –  the main architects of the Tamil de facto state – highly informs the ethic of internationally aided ‘post-war’ reconstruction efforts of the Sri Lankan government. These efforts are geared towards consolidating the unitary state structure through heavy militarisation of the Tamil region accompanied by a process of cultural, economic and administrative re-structuring through Sinhala settlements, acquisition of land for military and local/ multinational business purposes and gerrymandering of constituencies that radically alters the demographic composition of the Tamil region.1  This ethic is in direct conflict with an ethic based on the right of oppressed peoples to resist domination. Therefore, the Sri Lankan context is neither a post-war condition (as in the case of Vietnam after the withdrawal of American troops) nor a post-conflict condition (as in the case of Northern Ireland and South Africa after formal peace agreements have been reached), but a condition where war continues to be waged against the Tamil national movement by other means.

Calculated Politics of Duplicity

On the one hand, war by other means has privileged certain sections of the Sinhala society through access to land, employment and businesses in the Tamil region in the name of ‘post-war’ reconstruction and reconciliation. On the other hand, the unprecedented level of government authoritarianism has led to suppression of resistance emerging from certain Sinhala social groups like fishermen and women, workers in the Free Trade Zone, university students and university lecturers who are also affected by Sri Lankan government’s heavy reliance on global capital that demands the adaptation of neo-liberal economic policies. Not only the former, but also the latter groups partake of the Sinhala supremacist ideology of the unitary state and have supported the war against the LTTE; barring any joint resistance by the Tamils and Sinhalese.  

The heavy militarisation of the state which was supported by the Western actors with a view to consolidating the unitary state structure has resulted in suppression of any form of dissent, including basic freedom of speech that Western liberal democracies claim to uphold. It is the same international actors (including India) who backed a UN Human Rights Council resolution in March, 2012 concerning the human rights violations of the Sri Lankan government. This resolution was nothing but an appeal made to the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of Learnt Lessons and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that the government itself appointed. This commission was mandated by the government not to probe into human rights violations during the last phase of the war, but to investigate into the 2002 peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE which had established parity of esteem between the two parties under the previous government. The LLRC justified the position of the oppressor/victor and criminalised the victim, the LTTE-led Tamil national movement, while legitimising the government’s right to wage a war against the LTTE so to safeguard national sovereignty and security. The human right violations committed by the government were reduced to individual actions of misbehaved soldiers. The chain of command, the military and political leadership was fully absolved. In this way, the so-called international pressure that is said to be mounting against the Sri Lankan government regarding human rights violations (specifically against the Tamils, and generally, throughout the island) has never challenged the unitary state structure. Some progressive countries in the Global South, led by China, opposed the US/UK backed resolution: leading to false polarisation but reinforcing the unitary state. The Sinhala supremacist forces (including some of those Sinhala groups whose voices of dissent have been suppressed) perceive the latter global power block as supporters of Tamil nationalist movement attempting to divide the country for imperialistic gains; and the former, as supporters of the Sri Lankan state deepening the false polarisation locally.

The supremacist forces have led the ‘Sinhalese majority’ to believe that the 2002 peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE was a Western imperialist conspiracy against Sri Lanka. Many N.G.Os and academics knowingly or unknowingly project the peace process as a result of the post 9/11 international relations that had a negative impact on the LTTE. A close scrutiny of the sequence of events prior to 2002 peace clearly reveals evidence contrary to both these interpretation. The LTTE had declared a unilateral ceasefire long before 9/11 and advanced militarily to the extent of reaching a balance of power with its counterpart. It was this internal power balance, rather than the international pressure generated by post-9/11 politics ( or a Western conspiracy),  that led to the 2002 peace process which recognised the existing borders of the LTTE-led Tamil de facto state as the line of control between the two parties. In fact it was also clear from the outset of the peace process how the US/UK governments were alarmed by the parity of esteem that was accorded to the LTTE. While the US government continued to boost the Sri Lankan security forces and unilaterally decided to hold a key meeting of the peace process in Washington in 2003 excluding the LTTE,  the US/UK governments exerted pressure on the EU to ban the LTTE in 2006 and dismantled the parity of esteem giving the upper hand to the Sri Lankan government who then unilaterally withdrew from the CFA in 2008 to launch the final phase of war against the Tamil de facto state (where nearly half a million people have decided to settle). The Western conspiracy was not against the Sri Lankan unitary state, but against the balance of power between the two parties in the nationalist conflict, which went against the imperialist interests. States are not forged in a historical or political vacuum. There are geopolitical, economic and ideological factors that determine the making of states. What needs to be examined is who decides their formation, and what are the justifications presented for such formations.

Resistance to War by Other means

Exposing false polarisations and understanding real issues are the pre-requisites for the formation of resistance to the oppression of Tamils, and to myriad types of exploitation of certain Sinhala social classes. There are three key factors that are pivotal to any effective resistance in the island of Lanka. The first one is the acknowledgement that the war is not over but continues by other means, mainly through the militarisation of the Tamil region in an unprecedented manner in order to consolidate the unitary state structure. The second factor is, that as long as the Sinhala majority clings to the unitary state structure, authoritarianism of the government and militarisation of the state will increase: leading to suppression of every form of democratic dissent. The Sinhala groups need to realise that their democratic rights are intrinsically interwoven with the rights of the Tamils to resist oppression under the unitary state. The third factor, is the awareness that reinforcement of the unitary state structure against the Tamil national movement is primarily a part of geo-political strategy of US/UK governments (including India) and their allies in the world, aimed at consolidating their military/political control in the Indian Ocean – against the widening economic empire of China in the region. In this strategy, after destroying the Tamil de facto state and its political leadership – which was an outcome of decades long Tamil resistance – the Tamils have been pressurised to assume the role of helpless victims without clearly articulated political aspirations by forcedly giving up the political demand for an independent state. As long as the oppressed do not have political goals and a programme of action to achieve these, their voices will not challenge the oppressive regimes. They will be pressed to depend upon their oppressors to find solutions for them. It is pivotal for the Tamils to realise that they not only have clearly defined political aspirations, but also that they had concretely achieved these through the de facto state built without the support of any international powers.

Bearing in mind these three challenging factors, in what way could the oppressed Tamils and the exploited Sinhala social classes form a formidable resistance to war by other means in the island of Lanka? The most striking and clearly articulated forms of resistance have taken place in the Tamil region even after the destruction of the de facto state with the death of hundreds of thousands of lives. Amidst heavy militarisation, killings and ban against any form of public rememberance of the dead by the Sri Lankan government, there are individual and collective attempts made by Tamils to resist the status quo. These are not mere expression of grievances and victimhood, but clear political statements that oppose the government and its global supporters. For instance, in spite of continuous persecution many Tamil widows rallied to testify at the LLRC to reveal the atrocities committed by the security forces. The revelation made by the Bishop of Mannar at the LLRC that in the last phase of the war at least 1, 46, 679 people have been unaccounted for, was both a powerful indicator of the brutality of the war and of the courage to expose the culpability of the government and its global supporters. As the pressure mounted on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil political party in the Sri Lankan Parliament, to give up their fundamental political demands, prominent leaders of more than 50 Tamil civil society groups voiced their collective political aspiration for self-determination countering the attempts to reduce the Tamils to helpless and inarticulate victims.2  Through acts of civil disobedience these civil society groups have opposed disappearances, abductions, killings and acquisition of land by the military.3  These groups are part of a broad Tamil national movement and are different from local and international non-governmental organisations which treat Tamils as helpless victims.

In countering the pressure coming from the Western powers to give up the fundamental political demands, the grassroots organisations of the Tamil Diaspora and their youth leadership have not only upheld these demands unconditionally, but made alliances with international solidarity groups for Palestine, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, Basque Country, and many other progressive movements in resisting the oppressive regimes and their global supporters. The Tamil youth groups have adopted an anti-imperialist ideology as they grow in their awareness regarding the complicity of global powers, particularly the US/UK governments in the oppression of Tamils. Complicity of the Indian government which has leaned towards the US/UK axis, particularly after the Cold War, is increasingly challenged by a growing number of Tamil activist groups in South India who have in turn attracted many other progressive movements in India towards the Tamil national movement.4

Even though a majority in the Sinhala society overwhelmingly supported the military victory of the government in 2009; in the subsequent three years there have been two strands of opposition mounting against the government. One, against its authoritarianism that suppresses freedom of speech; and the other, against some of its ‘post-war’ schemes in the Sinhala areas that have a negative impact on fishing communities and the workers of the Free Trade Zone. A large number of fishermen and women have protested against the plans to promote ‘post-war’ tourism by destroying their traditional fishing resources in Negombo and Kalpitiya areas. They also engaged in a massive campaign against the rise of fuel prices. The FTZ workers carried out large scale demonstrations against the government’s move to slash their pensions. Security forces and the armed police forces were deployed to curb these protests, killing one fisherman and a worker. Most of the Sinhalese do not see the interrelation between authoritarianism of the government which affects them, and militarisation of the Tamil region that has denied the Tamil people their political demands. The biggest challenge all the progressive forces who work for a just-peace in the island of Lanka face is how to counter the neo-imperialist agenda led by the US/UK axis. There is a lack of awareness among the Sinhala groups that the unitary state structure is part of this agenda. There is also a danger amongst Tamils in relying on international bodies like the UN – which are led by those powers that are responsible for the destruction of the Tamil de facto state – to obtain justice. An attempt has been made to face this challenge by the People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka (Dublin Tribunal) which not only investigated war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil people, but also the responsibility of the US/UK led governments and the EU in paving the way for such crimes. The Dublin Tribunal also recommended that the case of genocide needs further investigation and proposed a Truth and Justice Commission dropping the word Reconciliation.5  This initiative has generated a considerable public opinion amongst the Tamils, some Sinhalese groups, and a large number of international progressive groups while contributing to building solidarity amongst them.

Conclusion

Resistance to war by other means in Lanka can be effective only by identifying real issues and overcoming false polarisations. Despite attempts made by Western powers to reduce Tamils to mere helpless victims Tamil demand for self-determination continues to compound the ethics of ‘post-war’ reconstruction and international relations that is based on the unitary state structure which serves imperialist interests. Resistance amongst Sinhalese to authoritarianism can be effective only by recognising the Tamil demands, and thereby overcoming Sinhala chauvinism that binds the Sinhala majority to the state. It is also the duty of the anti-imperialist forces in the world to recognise the progressive character of the Tamil resistance and help internationalise their legitimate political aspirations. The resistance to war by other means continues amongst the Tamils and a few Sinhala progressive groups with the hope that another world is possible.

Dr Jude Lal Fernando is a research fellow and a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin and is the coordinator of the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka which organized the People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka. | Photo courtesy: Steve Chao - Al Jazeera

Notes:

1. The three pillars of  the ‘liberal peace’ model that has been promoted by the Western powers for post-conflict situations ranging from Bangladesh to Guatemala are separation of military and civilian political leadership, enhancement of the civil society and opening the market for a neo-liberal economy. See a critique of liberal peace by Roland Paris: At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict ( Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004). In the Sri Lankan ‘post-war’ context  the  military administration in the Tamil region has reduced  the  civil administration  to a mere nominal entity and the civil society in the entire island has come under  strain due to fear of persecution while the market economy is thriving at a rapid speed under an authoritarian regime that protects the unitary state.

2. Transcurrent: ‘Public Memo to Members of Parliament representing the Tamil National Alliance from Members of Tamil Civil Society’, 15 December, 2011, http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/6710 ( downloaded: 18/08/2012)

3. Tamilnet: ‘Civil Disobedience against occupying  SL military’s land grab gains momentum’, 18 June, 2012, http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=35308 (downloaded:18/08/2012)

4. Indo Asian News Service (IANS): ‘India, US to assist Sri Lanka military’, 05 June, 2012, http://in.news.yahoo.com/india-us-assist-sri-lanka-military-105056308.html ( downloaded: 18/08/2012)

5. Permanent People’s Tribunal: People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka ( Dublin, Permanent People’s Tribunal and Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka, 2010)

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