8.21.2005

“War is not an option”
reflections on the assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar*

This is one of those times when I don’t know for whom I’m writing. I could write for the stateside crowd about who died and who killed him and why it’s important, because the international media isn’t doing a very good job reporting on that. The Lankan blog crowd (see www.kottu.com) is mostly discussing the apportionment of blame, though media everywhere have fingered the LTTE, without clear proof thus far. I'm going for some of each.

The shooting has provoked more (as if there could possibly be more) debate on who and what the LTTE are. The brilliant recent article by Philip Gourevitch (Aug 6 New Yorker?) on the conflict’s history and parameters clearly and properly depicts the LTTE as a horrifically violent, dysfunctionally fascist guardian of “the Tamil people.” The group’s development is basically a chronicle of them killing anyone who isn’t literally with them, especially other Tamil radicals and also Tamil moderates. Still, they control the lands and lives of over a million people in the island, and have quite an elaborate ‘state’ set up in their territory (as defined by the 2002 ceasefire). No one except wacko Sinhala supremacist hardline hawks would claim that the Government (GoSL) shouldn’t negotiate with them, or that peace is achievable without their concession and agreement.

On the other hand, GoSL has committed more than its fair share of horrific war and human-rights crimes. Indi wrote on his website that ‘terrorism’ is by definition the activity of a non-state group. I couldn’t disagree more. Think Milosevic, Rwanda, Third Reich, Herod... the reason we remember these more than, say, Sierra Leone or Armenia (arguably) is that they were state-supported. Because the GoSL is a democracy, it bears greater responsibility to protect citizens than does a Fascist separatist junta.

It is admittedly harder to blame or criticize a democratically elected government, with its necessary evolving cast of officers, than it is to nail the unchanging leadership of a military organization to the wall for the same crimes. We resort to a crude and often ideologically-driven analysis of the magnitude of each side’s atrocities in order to decide who’s right, or at least who’s more wrong. This gets sickeningly elaborated into arguments like “it’s worse to bomb the Central Bank in Colombo than a refugee-filled church in Jaffna because the LTTE really was using churches as cover.” Then we have to decide whether the government’s actions against non-Tamil militants (notably during the dark bloody days of the JVP insurrections) register on the atrocities scale generally.

That we even have this debate over state vs. non-state terrorism is a devastating indictment of the rotten values of the 'democracy' that spawned and perpetuated the horrors we've seen over the past 50 years. The Tigers argue that the Sinhalese-controlled GoSL committed genocide against Tamils and their culture, which is hyperbole and then some, but the underlying truth is that post-independence Sri Lanka has been a long story of aggressive government Sinhalization of all areas of life, from politics to education to economics to religion to geography. If I were Sri Lankan and not a middle-class Sinhala Buddhist conservative I’d feel pretty damn marginalized. That’s a lot of people.

Totting up the numbers dead and sacrosanct places violated on either side is clearly not a step towards resolution. Though it’s odious to quantify terror, in some instances it's important to do so. Assessing the size of the evilness of a terror act helps us determine as a society what measures we will take to prevent its occurring, and what punishments we will condone for its doers. For example, random public sniper attacks are horrible, but racially motivated ones are worse. In a just world we punish the latter more severely because it represents an attack on a category of people even when it doesn't physically harm all of them.

Ignoring the psychological intent of terror implicitly condones psychological violence. I am quite specifically classing terrorist acts as hate crimes because they are similarly motivated and experienced by a large swath of people not ‘directly hit.’ In Sri Lanka, hate goes both (really, several) ways. Additional psychological straitjackets placed on ordinary Tamils, both those living under LTTE control and those not. Vanni residents are held at collective gunpoint and, I think, have mass Stockholm Syndrome. Elsewhere in the country Tamils are told that it’s a Sinhala Buddhist country but, hey, they can live here too if they’re polite and quiet.

We are not looking at a happy multicultural melting pot or salad bowl. Decades of Sinhala supremacist political, academic, and media rhetoric have produced a discourse of ‘Sri Lanka==Sinhala Buddhist,’ which denies the rich hybridities that underlie the island’s cultural and political history. They’re trying to freeze and unmix society’s elements, using a set of bogus claims based on shady historical evidence and preying on ethno-nationalist and demographic fears.

The moral responsibility, as I see it, is with the government—both as a democratically instituted power and as a past perpetrator of terror against its own people. Which is not to say that I've picked my side. I have neither love nor sympathy for the aforementioned Fascist Junta. People seem to forget (or not believe?) that a military solution to the conflict is not possible—you can’t win a war against suicide bombers.

The quotation above comes from a Reuters interview with Tamilchelvan, the LTTE’s no. 2 and spokesman/ideologue. It sounds nice, but the full text reads: “War is not an option, but if war is thrust upon the Tamil people, we will have no option but to face it... So it's in the hands of the Sri Lanka government.” That means, of course, that they’re waiting for any slight provocation. The Tigers have proved themselves untrustworthy, bloodthirsty, pitiless murderers time and again. If I had any power with the GoSL I’d use it to urge the highest moral ground possible, especially given today’s world political atmosphere. We have to win them over, not win over them.

*inspired by and tiny bit excerpted from debate at www.indi.ca

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