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Special Report No: 34 

Date of release: 13th December  2009

Let Them Speak

Part VII

Misunderstanding Terrorism and the Importance of Root Causes


7.1. A Time for Reckoning: Where Have we Failed?

7.2. Dangerous Miscalculations about Terrorism

7.3. Stuck in a 60 year Groove: Progressive Poisoning of Atmosphere

7.4. When Politics is Depraved and Old Soldiers Refuse to Fade Away: Facing up to Anarchy at the Door

7.1. A Time for Reckoning: Where Have we Failed?

The war, its end and aftermath has left us all with a task of reckoning. This is not a task just for the Sri Lankan Government, or the Sinhalese in whose name it acted, or for those who supported the LTTE from the privilege of exile (who are to a great extent responsible for the misery of their fellows). It is also the duty of those of us within the Tamil community who opposed the LTTE’s politics and practices, and who tried to expose what it was doing to the people in the name of liberation.

We, and others who share our views, too are imbued with a sense of failure. We might say that our analysis was correct on where the LTTE’s brand of politics would inevitably carry the people and that its end would be catastrophic. But then what is the virtue in having been right?

We protested when the LTTE was in the early 1990s filling up its prisons with dissidents, many of them of the highest character and commitment, and was exterminating thousands of them to keep the people in the dark about what it was doing to Tamil society. Some called us liars, and many others found us interesting.  But nothing was done to stop it. Soon many international NGOs caught the peace bug and did not want to touch the LTTE’s human rights record, while not disputing what we said about what the Government was doing. The peace bug was so potent that this lobby managed to shift the blame on to President Kumaratunge when she talked peace in early 1995 and the LTTE started war, after using talks to stock up petrol and cement and getting the Army to vacate Pooneryn.

We protested similarly when a large bandwagon followed cheering the Norwegian peace process, seeing in it as a brilliant stroke, while ignoring the LTTE’s unremitting conscription of children and continuous killing of dissidents using the access provided by the peace process. Those who shared our views were rebuffed and in the predictable course of things, Sinhalese extremism, which too consistently criticised the process for its own reasons, attained the upper hand. People who were genuinely concerned about protecting the rights of the Tamil people and wanted to find a political settlement in the South, were marginalised.. The present cataclysm is the result.

Many people who were critical of the Norwegian process told us we should support the recent war because the Government was getting rid of the LTTE, and were angry that we were instead exposing the violations of the Government. Sadly today, equating dissidence with treachery has become the linchpin of the Government’s war against democracy and the media, just as it was for the LTTE for many years, and with devastating results of Tamil society.

We must confess that even as we opposed the ideology of the recent war and the manner in which it was fought, we were not alert enough to the full enormity of the human toll.  In retrospect, there were several reasons for this lapse.  Estimates of the numbers killed and wounded communicated to us by civilians who were coming out of the war zone were well below figures being cited by the UN and other sources.  At the same time we believed that under such enormous international pressure, the Government must show some real concern for the civilians. In this we were proved wrong.

Historically,  the abysmal operational standards maintained by the Sri Lankan military have largely gone unchallenged by the international community because so much of the blame for provoking attacks lay with the LTTE. When the Army made its first abortive attempt to overrun Jaffna on 9th July 1995, it inundated civilian areas under barrages of shells, fired without any warning and then on the following day bombed the church in Navaly where a large number of refugees had gathered, killing in all nearly 300 men, women and children.

There seemed to be something inevitable about the army’s violations, given the manner in which the LTTE had used peace negotiations as a prelude to launching a new round of war. We covered all this and the subsequent disappearances in Jaffna, but these did not feature in public discourse at the time as war crimes, partly because the Government was then perceived to be intent on a political settlement, while it was the LTTE that was undermining the effort.

In 2009 it was different.  Neither side was talking peace, and neither side cared what happened to civilians who got in the way of their war efforts. The rhetoric of Sinhalese supremacism with ideological overtones of conquest was being voiced from the highest echelons of power. Attacks on the media, and the continuous slaughter of civilians for several months spread the stink far and wide. The situation was compounded by the way the survivors were treated to suppress the tragedy of the war.

We will now examine if this has anything to do with fighting terrorism.

7.2. Dangerous Miscalculations about Terrorism

Those of us who have grown old with Prabhakaran and Osama bin Laden have a weakness for believing that these gentlemen were the heart and soul of the phenomena of terrorism they represented. It is thus the accepted wisdom that killing such leaders is the key to smashing terrorism.

Prabhakaran is dead and the jubilant extremist lobby close to the Government  views his defeat as the ultimate vindication of their political agenda. They believe the military victory over the LTTE finally buries  any argument about the need for a political settlement to the minority question. They have scoffed at it, branding it a liberal illusion detrimental to sovereignty.

This position misses an important point about terrorist phenomena. Terrorism in Sri Lanka has a lot to do with the root causes of conflict the Sinhalese extremists deny. Once the flame has been lit, the terrorist potential we see today burns on quite independent of Prabhakaran or bin Laden, or other similar leaders who come and go. It is fed by anger the young feel about perceived injustice and humiliation, and by the absence of a creative leadership with character and direction.

There are different possible responses to oppression. In history we have seen anarchist movements, revolutionary movements and liberation movements, all of which used violent means to fight against oppression. There was a broad spectrum in the ideological make up of these movements. Some were guided by broader principles and succeeded in capturing power. Movements which kept the interest of the people at heart, succeeded in fashioning their means to suit changing situations and were not dogmatic about ends.

Broader revolutionary movements at least in principle tried their best to defend the people and while accepting deaths among them as the price of struggle, they tried to minimise them. But movements such as the LTTE, Al Quaida and Taliban have not only have shown scant concern for civilian suffering, but worked towards its maximisation in the belief that civilian suffering could be used to campaign against their perceived enemies. The LTTE institutionalised a nihilistic mindset not only among the cadres but also manipulated the community in such a manner that those who supported its suicidal politics most vocally and bankrolled it, got away from its consequences. Those who were trapped suffered, and were denied means of escape.

As recently as 25 years ago, while the Tamils still had democratic freedom among themselves, it was possible to argue out  possible strategies of struggle. This resulted in various militant formations – most short-lived. But the overarching impact of Sinhalese and Tamil narrow nationalism, which dominated the political landscape, denied to both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities the ability to be creative in responding to the crisis. So many critical analyses were done about the failure of the political elite in Sri Lanka to forge ahead with a political agenda towards identifying a meaningful power sharing mechanism, to undo the legacy of a state that evolved into a ‘Sinhala State’, thereby alienating the minorities.  But the political elite in all communities miserably failed and not only allowed the ethnic conflict to fester but relied on it to preserve their power. 

People naturally support leaders that inspire confidence that the sacrifices they are called upon to make towards the attainment of justice are worthwhile. Mahatma Gandhi did that very successfully against British rule. His character and moral ideals, his single minded dedication and disinterest in power, wealth or security, and his readiness to challenge injustices within India that divided the people, served to inspire a high degree of confidence unparalleled in the history of such a diverse nation.

It is the tragedy of the Tamil people that they did not generate such a leadership. The LTTE was the end result of repeated communal violence and of a Tamil parliamentary leadership increasingly taking refuge in rhetoric.. And once it gained power, the LTTE systematically wiped out any discussion of alternatives, compromised character among the general public and made the worship of its heroism and unquestioning obeisance the only course open to the Tamils.

Young Tamils were not allowed to see the brutal elimination of dissent in the LTTE’s closed camps or even find out the truth about these ‘traitors’. To them the brutality of the Sri Lankan military machine was part of their real life experience. Under the constraints of a terrorised society, young people did not have fearless community leaders of character, who could guide them. They only saw the heroism of LTTE cadres, some of whom they might know from school, and this often decided their choice of role models or objects of respect.

When one talks to young IDPs from the Vanni – a large proportion of whom have lost at least one family member who voluntarily or otherwise fought for the LTTE – one soon realises that they actually have a low opinion of the LTTE leadership. The latter after all put the civilians through enormous suffering and conscripted the unwilling almost to the last, saying no surrender in public, while using third parties to negotiate their safe exit. This however does not mean that the people have rejected the rank and file of the LTTE.


Even as they reject discredited leaders and their ways, they would continue to admire those who heroically sacrificed their lives. Who else was there for them to look up to whom the LTTE would have spared? They face a moral and political vacuum within their community and outside it they face the arrogance and violence of the State.

It is within this ambience of total despair that they identify individuals whom they admire even when they will not follow them. This too, as illustrated by the two examples below, is indicative of minds on the threshold of suicidal pessimism that is very disturbing in itself. Why should anyone feel that such are the noblest accomplishments in life open to him or her?

One example is of a young man caught up in the tail end of the war at Mullivaykkal in May 2009. One day before, he was talking normally. On his final day he packed a motorbike and his person with explosives and rode away to blast himself among the soldiers who had come close. As he went he told a scholar, “I will do my part in trying to stop the oncoming army. I leave it to you to do your part in building up our nation.”

In another terrible story, told to us by a youth who had several friends in the LTTE, an LTTE suicide cadre sent to Colombo was surrounded by security men. The cadre ran, when he found a bakery. He rushed in and threw himself into the oven, from where his remains were recovered. He evidently did this so that nothing of his person or form would remain by which he could be identified and his links traced. In some way their whole existence had been absorbed into the cause of Tamil Eelam.

To be sure, the situation we find ourselves in has a good deal to do with how the LTTE managed society, pushed for war whenever there was a prospect of peace and brainwashed the community through its propaganda monopoly.  It also has a good deal to do with how the State has conducted itself. And expatriate LTTE supporters who basked in this vicarious glory are deserving of the highest contempt. Yet one is called upon to understand the state of mind of those who sacrificed their lives in this manner believing that it was to uphold their people’s dignity. This state of mind also extends to a significant segment of the IDP community.

The IDPs first came out of the LTTE-controlled Vanni castigating the LTTE in the strongest terms. As their bitterness became more pronounced in the face of prolonged incarceration, even some women with strong religious views against violence began saying that they would have been better off had they fought with the LTTE and died. Presently among many IDPs, we have found a tendency to rationalise what the LTTE did to them.  Several people have said to us that the LTTE got a large number of them killed, hoping that the high civilian death toll would impel intervention by a longed for foreign saviour, whom many identified with Uncle Obama.

Unfortunately, an influential section of the Sinhalese polity appears to believe that the Government has done the right thing, and old dreams have been revived (and vocally) about denying the Tamils any autonomous space by planting Sinhalese colonies and having a permanent repressive presence of the military in their areas. The Weli Oya project of 1984 and the Sampoor coal power plant project are products of this type of thinking. Ideas such as the special economic zone in Trincomalee and a similar arrangement for Killinochchi put forward by the President’s clique; and General Fonseka’s proposal to increase the strength of the peace time army by 100 000 in order to preserve the gains of war, point to such intentions.

This is the time the government could have pushed for a genuine reconciliation process to charter a post conflict phase. It would have allowed all the communities to work towards brighter future taking into consideration the failures of the past. But the present regime with its vision no broader than consolidating of  power of a family, is using the war victory to suppress the truth, not only what happened during the last stages of the war, but also the decades-long wounds that culminated in the war.

 The opposition which rhetorically talks about the rights of the Tamil community is more interested in capturing power at any cost than seriously pondering its failures for allowing the situation to deteriorate to the present level of despair.

7.3. Stuck in a 60 year Groove: Progressive Poisoning of Atmosphere

One marvels at the singular lack of originality and creativeness in the Sinhalese polity, which poses real questions for the Sinhalese. The medicines that have been repeatedly applied to the minority question have the major ingredients in common. In the late 1950s and 1977, communal violence was advanced as a cure for unwarranted political demands by the Tamils. In the 1950s it was used to quell resistance to the Sinhala Only policy and the federal demand, and in 1977 it was unleashed because the Tamils had shown strong support at elections for a party advocating a separate state. There was no serious attempt to address the legitimate political grievances that drove these demands, only to silence them.

In July 1983, President Jayewardene, as indicated in his Daily Telegraph interview a few days before the violence and in Minister Athulathmudali’s statement in Parliament on the eve of the violence, viewed communal violence as a way of countering Tamil terrorism by destroying once and for all any notion of a Tamil Homeland, a victory he then consolidated by planting military-backed Sinhalese settlements in their areas.

In all these instances, the sight of bereaved Tamils who had lost their possessions being cast into the abject humiliation of refugee camps was a sign of triumph for advocates of the violence. Many other people  who were uncomfortable with the suffering salved their conscience by peddling stories about Sinhalese saving Tamil friends or neighbours from Sinhalese mobs. But there was no public outcry or a demand to try those behind the violence and punish them. The result was a growing erosion of respect for the rule of law among Sinhalese. And each of these ‘victories’ became a prelude to a major cataclysm.

It also affected institutions that should have been the main hope for uniting the country. One needs to be thankful that in the 1960s and into the 1970s, universities like Peradeniya exuded what one calls, an atmosphere. There were certain things in the category of ‘not done’. If one showed any trace of communalism in one’s behaviour, one would have been checked by one’s friends or peers. That atmosphere of inclusiveness was to a great extent diminished by the politically backed attack on Tamil students by fellow Sinhalese students affiliated to the UNP in May 1983.

It is not necessarily that people in charge of institutions key to ensuring that the communities work together approved of mistreating minorities.  Rather, what we have seen is a persistent deterioration of atmosphere,  a lack of conviction at the  institutional level that such conduct is too dangerous and too degrading to be tolerated Given their repeated experiences of racism (large and small) in most spheres of public life, it becomes hard to blame a Tamil for feeling that a separate state is the answer.

But the LTTE capitalised on such feelings and used them towards totally destructive ends, proving that giving way to such feelings may be worse. 

The manner in which the war was fought has resulted in something far, far worse than all the rounds of communal violence put together.  The war’s final chapter was accompanied by terrible, chauvinist rhetoric on the part of the country’s leaders, and has ushered in an era of utter impunity for almost unimaginable acts of violence. Tamil civilians were victims of mass killings; those who survived were detained en masse in military-guarded camps; those released became objects of crippling surveillance,

That things would end this way was already hinted at in the public execution of five innocent Tamil students in Trincomalee on 2nd January 2006, the execution of 17 ACF workers on 4th August 2006, followed by threats and intimidation to deny justice.

Numerous statements by the President, cabinet ministers and the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka taken collectively make it clear that those in power see Lanka as a Sinhalese country where the others exist on the sufferance of the Sinhalese. Euphemisms such as abolishing the term minority and preserving the gains of war taken in context and knowing the aims and history of July 1983 leave no doubt about what the President actually intended.

Isolating beaten and injured Tamils in ‘welfare centres’, takes us back to the kind of victories exemplified by displacement camps after previous rounds of communal violence. Defeating the LTTE was a legitimate objective, but what has been done to the people goes far beyond anything legitimate. Notionally defeating terrorism must restore the rule of law. In Sri Lanka there are no signs of that happening. There are only signs of a re-enactment of the past and making state terror part of the minorities’ day-to-day existence.

7.4. When Politics is Depraved and Old Soldiers Refuse to Fade Away: Facing up to Anarchy at the Door

The prospect facing us at the coming elections should be a wake up call to Lanka’s sons and daughters who care for her future. The voters seem likely to have a choice between persons who have all wallowed in extreme impunity and abused their offices in total contempt for the Constitution and laws of the land. The country then stands to be buffeted in stormy weather until eventually breaking on the rocks.

There seems little prospect of making the opposition act in a sane manner. One should be able to read the signs in the Tamil Press. At the end of the war the Government could have encouraged the Tamil parties to visit the IDPs, speak freely on behalf of their people and contribute gainfully towards a political settlement. It tried instead to divide and constrain them to toe its line. Only Tamil political leaders completely subservient to it were allowed to visit the IDPs, so as to have a monopoly of their votes. In these circumstances it is TNA spokesmen, who were from parties persecuted and decimated by the LTTE and went under its umbrella for mostly opportunistic reasons, and whose credibility was at a nadir when the war ended, that hog publicity in the Tamil Press. It is the old game that brought about the Tamils terrible tragedy.

The opposition talks about restoring democracy and Human Rights and yet supports the Army General as the candidate to challenge the President Mahind Rajapakse, although he has shown, if anything scant regard for these. Perhaps they think that by going behind him, they could remove the tag of “anti national forces” bestowed on them by the Rajapakse camp.

The fact that they accepted this tag passively is an admission of their lack of vision, and inability to argue out issues outside the framework of Sinhalese ideology. It is amongst the strangest ironies of the times that Sinhalese Nationalism which boasts itself the guardian of Theravadha Buddhist heritage must do a reverse of Asoka Maurya.

Asoka embraced Buddhism as an escape from the trauma and futility with which he was afflicted in consequence of the bloodshed and misery of the Kalinga war. It was Asoka’s missionary zeal that spread Buddhism far and wide, including to South India and Lanka. Today’s Lankan standard bearers of Buddhism, particularly the JHU, use it to justify and cover up, by the foulest means, all the defilements of the Vanni war and much that preceded it. Even worse, the supporters of the presidential contestants are fighting each other using Sinhalese Buddhist rhetoric in staking their claim to being the sole agent of victory in the recent war. In doing so they lose sight of the fact that the claim is double edged. The claimants also become prospective owners of war crimes.  

Sadly, the tumult and virulence of this election battle would do little to educate the masses on the real tragedy that has befallen us. It denies the Tamils the space to reflect on their recent political legacy, which brought them unmitigated tragedy. The Sinhalese masses would continue to believe that the war was a humanitarian one where the Government minimised the casualties to an extent compatible with the LTTE’s provocations. If the people are allowed to see the enormity of the tragedy on both sides and begin to understand each others’ trauma at a human level, the door to reconciliation would open up. And the way to a political settlement offering dignity and security to all also becomes easier.

But political power elites still hang on to partial narratives that reinforce narrow nationalism on both sides.

In spite of the constraints of this unhealthy political environment, many activists keep the flame of hope alive by their humanitarian and reconciliation efforts wherever opportunity permits. Moreover, social relations between the communities have not reached an abysmal level where reconciliation is impossible. The Tamils, despite the devastation resulting from years of war, communal violence and the self destructive totalitarianism of the LTTE, have not reached the end of the road. Given a leadership that puts behind the Jaffna centred Tamil nationalism, which contained within it the seeds of totalitarianism, isolationism and the alienation of other minorities, and is able to form imaginative alliances in the spirit of give and take with other minorities; the Tamils could still emerge a powerful voice in the affairs of Lanka. This is quite independent of the Sinhalese polity being able put away fashioning imaginary fears and illusory enemies, continually to undermine a political settlement that would ring in a peaceful and prosperous Lanka.   

Genuine reform towards reinvigorating a democratic culture, accountability, good governance, along with a framework that affords political and cultural space for ethnic and religious minorities, cannot begin in the absence of truth. Beyond accepting that something has gone radically wrong, each community must feel and acknowledge its share of guilt for this tragedy, without falling for scapegoats whom politicians are good at procuring. If that happens, those who try to divide the people would stand exposed.

The issues have long been well understood among activist groups in the South and a number of them have worked tirelessly for reform. Any criticism on our part would immediately strike many of them as unfair. Admittedly, we too have ostensibly failed. It could be said that we were marginalised by LTTE dominance in the North as well as by the dominant nationalism of the South.

We might plead one consideration. Several activist groups in the South that advanced the right causes have risked marginalisation by trying to take short cuts in the face of undoubtedly difficult choices. This happened  when they courted the UNP’s Ranil Wickremasinghe in 1999 on his West-driven idea of appeasement with the LTTE and aided his opportunistic undermining of the political settlement put forward by President Kumaratunge in 2000.  

Some people who should have known better were ready to ignore principles, particularly sweeping under the carpet the UNP’s responsibility for August 1977, July 1983 and much that followed. Most grave among the latter was its debasement of the rule of law, which President Rajapakse has carried to new lengths on the pretext of combating the LTTE. It is this dereliction by many well meaning activists in 1999 and 2001 that brought us to the present ascendancy of Sinhalese chauvinism. Once more the UNP which tried to ride, disastrously, the Sinhala Only wave in 1955, is presently trying to ride the ascendancy of chauvinism by means of a dangerous and inflammable shortcut – General Fonseka.

We do know that the failure of civil society in the South to combat the culture of impunity hiding behind national security, and a parallel failure in the North to oppose suicidal nationalism parading as national liberation, reinforced one another. Short cuts that compromise principles have trapped the country in this vicious cycle. They seemed alluring for the moment, but in the end sacrificed the prospects of a happier turn around in the long term.

 No doubt anyone who values human rights, the rule of law and democracy would like to see the backs of the arrogance and corruption of the Rajapakse regime. But even at the cost of being left out or marginalised, we should give careful thought to preserving long term options.

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