In recent times some doubts as well as vital questions have been raised about the practical viability of human rights. When, within the last two years, persons with strong liberal convictions fell within the attentions of the JVP's terror, they were pushed into thinking that the state's counter terror was at least a transient necessity. The LTTE's erratic behaviour came at a time when the state's forces had tasted blood and the liberal establishment was tired and wrapped in doubt. On top of this, human rights organisations have been castigated as villains and even terrorists by official circles, in a show of bravado.
Those of us believing in human rights hold, on the basis of historical experience, that its values are fundamental and cannot be overridden by tactical considerations without destroying everything we hold dear. When South Asian governments, for instance, cast rhetorical aspersions on human rights organisations, is it simply satisfactory to dismiss this as a reaction of someone culpable? To be effective, we need to go deeper into this phenomenon and understand the state of mind of those voicing such unjust sentiments. We also need to understand the socio-historic context in which all rationality is thrown to the winds and state powers indulge in frenzied callousness.
Many studies have found a strong link between the rise of the Sinhalese chauvinist ideology in national politics and Sri Lanka's weak, dependent economy imposing constraints on a ruling class limited in its outlook. The growth of Tamil narrow nationalism in the North and the rise of the JVP in the South, both of which became interlocked with the state in a spiral of terror and counter-terror, are instances of the growing authoritarianism of the system forcing everyone with a grievance into desperate actions. It is important to understand the weakness and insecurity of the ruling class which found in populist chauvinism against minorities, a refuge from its incapacity to meet the aspirations of the masses who were now better educated. When the limits were reached in attempts to satisfy the majority, the next step was naked repression. In contrast, the stronger economies of the West with an unfair access to resources from the third world, have the ability to pay their way through discontent at home by adopting welfare measures. In consequence their domestic threshold of intolerance is much higher, and the rulers though uncomfortable, have learnt to live with a fairly open discussion of issues relying largely on consent and not coercion alone. But the insecurity, intolerance and even chauvinism of their political culture shows through particularly in the arena of international relations - such as in the deplorable support for repression in Latin America and the double standards evident in the dangerous mishandling of the Gulf crisis. It is in no way evident that the rulers of the so called developed countries are in general morally superior to the rulers of Sri Lanka as is often maintained.
It is thus fair to say from experience, that in handling ethnic conflicts and issues of peace, one should not expect too much from other governments. The thrust should rather be in creating popular movements that promote certain rational courses of action while raising questions about present directions. An important aspect of it is to remove fear and paranoia from forces which by their own choice and inadequacies have become imprisoned in the game of might is right - the rule governing relations in an unjust world order. In such an order, these weak forces constantly find themselves outmanoeuvred and humiliated. The removal of fear and paranoia is important to persuade these forces that there is room for bold new initiatives distinct from repression and murder.
Take for instance `Perestroika' that brought about a remarkable thaw in the climate of Europe overnight. Such ideas could not have become practical propositions if the leaders of Eastern Europe, presiding over weak economies and repressive regimes, had been overwhelmed by fears of Western conquest or dominance. There were legitimate grounds for such fears. Apart from historical fears, there was the hard fact that the economically powerful nations of the West were involved in a `moral' crusade against communist nations of the East, accompanied by an arms race where the expenses and stakes were being pushed up, perhaps in a genuine belief that the Soviet Union threatened their security. Seen from the East, things would have looked very different. Apart from leaders, even many ordinary people living in the East's traditionally week economies would have been frightened by the actions and rhetoric of Western leaders. In their bid to keep abreast in the arms race, the leaders of Eastern Europe could only find the resources by risking discontent and hence finding a need to keep alive the apparatus of repression, which was itself creating its own problems. If the governments of the East and West were the only actors on the scene, the situation would have indeed been without hope, eventually leading to tragedy.
It is here that issue based popular movements like the Council for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Green Peace together with Environmentalist, Women's and Church groups played their historic role that is insufficiently recognised. These movements found their echoes in Eastern Europe, forcing governments across ideological divisions to talk about issues in a civilised manner. Europe's elder statesmen such as Willy Brandt and Olaf Palme lent their support to these movements and even raised issues such as the disastrous consequences that would flow from economic injustice towards the developing (third world) nations. Through personal contact they also humanised relations with the East, thus greatly diminishing fear and paranoia.
We feel that internationally based NGO's and human rights organisations could play a similar role in the crisis facing Sri Lanka.
In a crisis such as ours, the state should be held principally responsible for the state of affairs and its actions, and the pusillanimity and moral failings of the leaders must be exposed and questioned. In the case of so called liberation movements like the JVP, the LTTE and others which have shown very clear signs of degeneration, do we need to wait for them to become state powers themselves before we criticise their atrocious conduct? We know from experience that not to do so is disastrous. Again these institutions should be sensitive to the fact that they are also relying on other nations whose governments and agencies have used them to the detriment of the people here.
In the context of the current war, what we ideally need for peace is a popular movement among the Sinhalese that will assume responsibility for the legacy of racial violence against Tamils and re-examine the whole question afresh. This is again virtually inseparable from the growth of a movement among Tamils that would repudiate the legacy of terror and allow the Sinhalese to feel that they have nothing to fear, such as the division of this country, from a just treatment of Tamils. But we know from the current drift of things that this cannot happen. It is here that international organisations can play a useful and necessary role.
Currently, the situation is largely governed by subjective impressions and feelings. Although the Sri Lankan state seems very powerful in the local context, in the international arena its weakness, dependence and powerlessness are driven home again and again, causing insecurity and fear within its ruling class. Let us try to understand how this class and perhaps many Sinhalese would see their position.
they fail to see that their weakness and humiliation in the international arena is largely of their own making. In the course of events which led to the shaping of Human Rights consciousness, world opinion was very sensitive to the abuse of minorities. The dark events of July 1983, captured in film, left a deep impression on international consciousness. It is hard to find another occasion where the leaders of a state so openly and unashamedly threatened a minority. Against this impression, the abuses and degeneration of the Tamil militancy made little impact. These are frequently seen as the response of a victim. Rather than seeing its way towards restoring Tamil confidence, the state has been spurred into more erratic actions that have further eroded its credibility and increased its feeling of isolation.
Moreover, their powerlessness in the international arena tends to make them angry and irrational. India was training Sri Lankan army officers and Indian firms were tendering to supply equipment to the Sri Lankan army for some time after it started training Tamil militant groups. After President Reagan's envoy Vernon Walters had arranged Israeli military help for the Sri Lankan forces, the same Israeli Mossad had also trained the LTTE according to recent revelations. Were Western governments entirely ignorant about this? For powerful governments, having their agents play double games with small third world states that have seriously mismanaged their own affairs, is all in a day's work. On top of this feeling of helplessness come the churches and human rights organisations. For angry Defence Ministers who cannot hit back at Reagan, Thatcher and Gandhi, the Amnesty International and Church organisations become natural targets, besides their own civilians.
Many international human rights organisations have decades of experience in dealing intimately with liberation struggles. By now they must have the capacity to pick out those tendencies in rebel groups which lead to rottenness and degeneration. If one examines the dissident phenomenon and the reasons for it, the signs of degeneration were evident in the JVP as early as 1971 and in the Tamil militancy by the early 80's. While exposing state powers for their abuses, it is also important that human rights organisations come out openly with what they see as signs of degeneracy in rebel groups. This will help to place some constraints on the latter while removing some of the paranoia from weak state powers. In turn, it will help the process of encouraging the state towards trying new and humane initiatives, and more importantly allow some hope for new peoples' movements and alternative ideas to come out.
This role can only be played by organisations having people and their well being as the centre of their concern, and which by their international standing have the capacity for objectivity. Politics whether from the oppressive state, other national states influencing events here, or the oppressed themselves has been governed by subjectivity, with little concern for long term consequences. What we have had in this country is anti, and not pro-people's politics. We have not had a politics that is pro-people, but the opposite of it. Tamil politics which began as anti-state quickly degenerated towards anti-people. No other struggle produced so many "traitors" - that its traitors by definition.
In today's world international opinion does
matter. We wish it had been more critical of what the Tamils were doing to themselves.
We have been ruined by an excessive indulgence in self pity to the exclusion
of responsibility. We need to ask, what in the name of liberation have we been
fighting for? Why did we acquiesce in sending the flower of our innocent youth
on the path of suicide? We have not been fighting for the right to live in dignity,
to develop ourselves as a free, humane society and to contribute our creative
potential for the betterment of the community and the world at large. But rather,
at crucial junctures of our history, we appeared to be asking the world's indulgence
for a right to lie, to wallow in a filthy fanatical chauvinism, and a right
to kill and maim our opponents at will. This appears to have been the case when
over 80 dissidents and 200 Sinhalese civilians were killed during the weeks
leading to the war of 10th October 1987, and in the events leading to the current
war. It is time for organisations concerned with human rights to redefine their
role in a broader context that will account for the total reality.
Apart from defensive considerations, there
are also areas in which international organisations can go on the offensive,
aiding those tendencies and movements that work creatively to build something
on the ground to defend the interests of the people. Organisations which have
the good of the people as their central concern should be able to identify and
evaluate such activity.
In the midst of war and tragedy, when people are over-whelmed by hopelessness and feel powerless to do anything for themselves, our reports are causing uneasiness amongst many quarters abroad. We address this section mainly to the expatriate community with a view to raising some important questions concerning our survival and our future. Whether they like it or not, their wishes, perception and activities very much influence the fate of the people at home. Moreover in the meantime, large numbers of boys and girls are voluntarily and involuntarily giving their lives, and people with no avenues to leave are bearing the brunt of the war. Thus, those who make judgements and influence the course of events have a grave duty to seek out facts, think seriously and understand what it means to the community and where we are heading. There are many who supported the cause, directly or indirectly helped to destroy lives, then came out of it saying that they had made a mistake, and devote themselves to pursuing lives and careers in the West. To them the whole experience was as water off a duck's back. Many more are likely to follow this irresponsible course. But to the community at home, the damage done is irreversible.
On the other hand if they take responsibility for what has happened, dissociate themselves from present trends, enlighten others and move towards creating a new history, they can make a positive contribution. This would also create space for healthier developments at home and influence benignly the culture of the world as a whole.
We need to first look at the struggle in the context of Sri Lanka's history and explode some myths that are prevalent in the Tamil middle class - particularly abroad. we need to see the historical connections and pose the question whether we ever had a liberating politics.
We will not go into matters that have been written about at length elsewhere. But we merely highlight some developments and pose some questions. When the majority Sinhalese community succumbed to the politics of narrow nationalism, the process of nation building was destroyed from within. Politicians from the minorities too responded with variations of the same ideology. They became prisoners of it for their political survival. There were small groups of Tamils trying to promote alternative, creative responses to Sinhalese chauvinism. They failed, partly on account of their own limitations, and largely because of the potency of narrow nationalism. When questions were raised about the honesty of politicians, their hypocrisy and the world of a difference between rhetoric and reality, there were in response, the usual clichés concerning motherland, purity and traitor. At best people were told to ignore appearances and not to embarrass the politicians who were trying to achieve something. The militant struggle was super-imposed on this politics without exposing the totalitarian and futile nature of narrow nationalism. Some of the militants who tried alternative approaches, came up against the same kind of rhetoric and often had a fate more tragic than that of their non-militant predecessors.
In the actions and rhetoric of the dominant politics of today, we see the clear stamp of the narrow nationalist legacy of the TULF, although the difference between rhetoric and reality is far more glaring. How successfully has this politics strengthened community feeling among the Tamil speaking peoples? Instead of seeking to unite Tamils and Muslims in the East, why did this politics also have to create division and bitterness in the North where no such existed? Can a liberating politics rely on fomenting hatred and appealing to sectional interests for mobilisation? Today we are witnessing the horror of the logical progress of our narrow nationalism.
It is not our task here to discuss issues of violence and non-violence, but it suffices to point out that the history of liberation struggles with a military component, have produced great men of thought and action such as Mao Tse Tung and Hamilcar Cabraal, to name a few, who have written extensively on the subject. Our leaders too paid lip service to them. There are two things about which they are clear. The struggle must be about defending the people, on whom it is centred, and a liberation fighter is one whose presence inspires confidence and makes the people feel their human potential. To take the second, in our struggle people have only been made to feel degraded and worthless. In many situations here, the presence of a fighter actually inspires fear and anxiety. The question too often asked is what trick will he play to get the other side kill us? In place of assurance we too often find women and children fleeing and screaming without any guidance, or people cowering in silent fear afraid to complain, awaiting the grim fate of the inevitable. What we have seen is the erosion of any sense of cohesiveness in our society. And in consequence of identifying fighting with having a gun and the ability to kill, what have we produced? A liberation army or a killer machine?
A large number of our expatriates would contend that they went abroad for the sake of their children. They must know what it means for an eleven year old child to be sent about with a gun without the parents having any influence in the matter. What then of a struggle that makes a virtue of this, knowing well that these children are only machines with no understanding of what they are doing, merely satisfied that a good meal is on the way? The elite are certainly privileged when it comes to their children. Do these child recruits have the philosophical maturity to cope with their short and brutish lives being snuffed out and in particular their limbs blown up? Do people know the agony and the cursing of the injured? Further, how does the military strategy square with the concept of liberating the people? Here again myths are built up based on a few sensational attacks like in Kokkavil and Mankulam, which have made headlines. Those in Jaffna and abroad can dwell on these to their satisfaction with no sense of concern or sensitivity to the plight of the people in the East who suffer the terror of the army and the STF. What was the politics behind their suffering? It is easy enough to take a foreign reporter to parts of the East or even to a suburb of Batticaloa and pretend that it is a liberated area. But what is the reality? Is there the will or the ability to protect a single civilian home in the North or East? There seems to be an awareness of reality only when an army walks into parts of Jaffna with its attendant consequences as has happened twice recently, which we easily forget. We also forget that there are Tamils outside Jaffna. With this forgetfulness that accompanies idle triumphalism, how capable are we of seeing the overall picture? Are not the Tamils and the country losing inexorably all the time? What are the factors that lie behind this military strategy?
There is also something sensationally unique about our struggle. Almost every liberation struggle has been fought by a number of groups. Very seldom has one group set out to ban other groups. Where this happened it was always after the enemy's capitulation. Is it a sign of exceeding strength or of the need to silence reason in order to defy reality? Is it not a sign of fatal sickness, a part of the same militant psychology that forces people in a besieged peninsula to put up festive decorations in the sight of angry air force pilots?
The more we dig into reality, the more indefensible the whole thing becomes. When the Tamil elite are questioned by foreigners, they would readily run down the Sinhalese, talk about the insecurity faced by Eastern Tamils because of state violence coupled with colonisation, and about the exploitation of hill-country Tamils, throwing in slogans like `Don't drink Ceylon Tea - It is Tamil blood.' But how has the current politics tried to address the very real problems of these people?
During the 14 months of the LTTE-Premadasa honeymoon, did the LTTE put forward a cogent set of proposals to resolve the constitutional issue and the thorny land question which is a matter of life and death for Eastern Tamils? There was one hartal on the citizenship question of a group of hill-country Tamils shortly before the outbreak of war. This served to drive home to the government, the LTTE's capacity to paralyse the North-East through its gun power. But then, was the issue of hill-country Tamils addressed with any cogency before or after the hartal? Where were the rights of the people during the LTTE-Premadasa talks? Were they not mostly about how many people from which party are to carry guns and where? Was not the most disgraceful arresting and torturing of ordinary Tamils against whom there was some suspicion of political links one of the few issues on which working agreement was reached?
Is it not time to face the truth that Eastern Tamils and Hill country Tamils and sometimes the Muslims, are only being used in a politics that springs from the Jaffna man's ego? How else does one explain the military strategy in the East? Why have started the war in the East where the Tamils were most endangered? If there was seriousness about the Eastern Tamils' well being, why stir up the contradictions by killing hundreds of policemen taken prisoner, including Muslims from that area? If a mistake had been made could not the prisoners have been used to bargain for the safety of Tamil civilians? Or if too late, admit that a mistake was made and take disciplinary action against the offenders as part of the cease-fire process? Then to tell a cringing people that this was the final battle, incense a brutal army by desecrating bodies of dead servicemen (Kalmunai), explode land mines when troops were approaching civilian concentrations and run away, leaving the civilians to fight the one sided final battle!
Is not this military strategy based on simply
using the anger and misery of Eastern civilians facing an undisciplined army,
just to get recruits? And where are these recruits being used? - mainly to fight
in Jaffna and not to liberate their own land! Our politics had become so degenerate
that in many parts of the East, it did not require sophistication on the part
of the government to set the Muslims on Tamils and then to step in as protectors
of both Muslims and Tamils at the same time.
Now that talk of cease-fire and negotiations is once more in the air we need to go into the important causes of the conflict. The LTTE had earlier talked to the government about power for itself and not about the people. As both a bargaining chip and in preparation for other eventualities, it launched a parallel military build up and recruited thousands of children at a time when the larger expectations of ordinary people were about permanent peace. To break through this mood and attract recruits, the LTTE had to resort to the language of violence saying that the present arrangement was only a temporary solution and their goal was Tamil Eelam. This created an internal dynamic of its own necessitating war. On the other hand different sentiments were being uttered in Colombo, in English.
Coupled to this, the major political parties of the South have never shown tangible concern for the Tamils, and whenever there was a crisis, they had quickly agreed upon a military solution. With the politicians abdicating responsibility, the army was sent in without political guidance and without a parallel political process to give the Tamils confidence. With the army having done its stuff, it ended up demoralised and looking weak. Even if talks get going now, it is being too optimistic to expect from Southern politicians the kind of wisdom that will address the Tamil people and not just the militant groups.
The LTTE now appears to be talking about Federalism and the Canadian constitution for international consumption. Its weakness prompt it to look for some diplomatic gains to justify having started the war. It will skirt the questions of whether it was worth all the lives lost and bringing the society to the brink of collapse? Whether there was not a public mood in the South that was willing to be generous, with the term Federalism appearing in much high level Southern discourse? Whether the same thing could not have been achieved by mobilising the people politically?
Again to keep its politics going and to satisfy the expectations it had fed, the LTTE will have to say that this new solution is temporary and that its goal is nothing short of Eelam. Although Sinhalese fears in the past were largely imaginary, this time there would be the real articulated public fear that whatever they give the LTTE, their next step would be Eelam. Thus will both parties be cornered.
Of course the Tamils need a form of Federalism, that would guarantee their security and unfettered development. But as we have shown, there is no solution unless the present mould of our politics is broken. We need a form of politics that will genuinely respect the Sinhalese and Muslims and not seek to kill and humiliate them. We need to be responsible by them.
Such a politics can emerge only by placing the people at the centre and guaranteeing their democratic and human rights. It is only then that the ordinary common sense of the people would assert itself. There is much that can be done by Tamil expatriates to create such a space. [Top]
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