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Political Opinion


Inevitable: an adequate explanation for tragedy?

There have no doubt been cases of indiscipline and gross violation of the military code they have to follow, but few would claim that the security forces have been absolutely indiscriminate and have acted with scant regard for human rights. ‘Accident’ is written all over the incident. But can one take refuge in all this? Can one say ‘accident’ and move on with a smile? No, because each and every person who died in this attack was someone’s child, someone’s father or mother, brother or sister, someone’s friend. We cannot slip things under the carpet because each and every victim was a citizen of this country.

By Malinda Seneviratne
How does one read the killing of some 40 plus civilians in a multi-barrel attack that hit a school housing internally displaced people? Does one refer to the fact that the LTTE consistently uses civilian as human shields and that, according to a Reuter report, the LTTE had in fact fired from the area towards a Sri Lanka Army position not long before the Army retaliated and caused the tragedy?
We could use the word ‘inevitable’ in a context where the LTTE has forced 14,000 civilians to offer cover for its heavy weapons which they periodically use to attack the armed forces. We could say that if the LTTE was truly concerned about the welfare of the people they claim to represent, they would have evacuated them to a safer area a long time ago. We could, like the Americans, British and others whose hearts bleed over humanitarian issues, use the word ‘collateral’. We could even ask the rhetorical question: What do you expect us to do, tell the LTTE, “please get the civilians out of the way, we want to disarm you?”
We can say that whereas there is an element of miscalculation here, similar tragedies have been perpetrated on innocent villages deliberately by the LTTE with the full knowledge and at the command of the LTTE leadership.
We can say that wars are not pretty things, that when you fight a ruthless terrorist, sometimes innocent people die, that people always get displaced, that lifestyles are destroyed, that there will be blood and that there will be tears.
In a context where the LTTE has by word and deed repeatedly refused to address substantive issues and have repeatedly refused to join the democratic mainstream, we can also ask the following question: “Would you rather we surrender, open the people of this country to the possibility of a massacre, not out of accident but as part of deliberate, premeditated murderous intent?”
There are probably a hundred different ways of dismissing this as just another incident in a long drawn out war, another incident in a series of incidents, tragic though they are, are scripted to take place if we are to rid the country of terrorism.
These are after all not easy times and therefore it is not too difficult to shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Sad, but cannot help.”
Any of the above options would be wrong, ethically and politically. We cannot choose those easy avenues because each and every person who died in this attack was someone’s child, someone’s father or mother, brother or sister, someone’s friend. We cannot, because each and every victim was a citizen of this country and were not engaged in any hostile activity capable of causing damage to property or taking life. Such excuses would ethically and politically wrong even though the security forces, as everyone knows, have restrained themselves to the extreme, under conditions of severe provocation.
There have no doubt been cases of indiscipline and gross violation of the military code they have to follow, but few would claim that the security forces have been absolutely indiscriminate and have acted with scant regard for human rights. ‘Accident’ is written all over the incident. But can one take refuge in all this? Can one say ‘accident’ and move on with a smile? No, because each and every person who died in this attack was someone’s child, someone’s father or mother, brother or sister, someone’s friend. We cannot slip things under the carpet because each and every victim was a citizen of this country.
Now there have been calls for sanctions to be imposed on Sri Lanka. There have been calls for the security forces to be restricted to barracks and the ‘lines’ mentioned in that patently flawed document called the CFA.
This proposition is full of holes because there is an unshakeable ‘ground reality’ that has to be taken into account. - Terrorism. No legitimate government can be expected to surrender to a ruthless terrorist organisation like the LTTE. Not a single inch can be conceded without opening all territories, geographical and otherwise to terrorist attack.
As has often been pointed out editorially in The Nation and other newspapers as well, the LTTE and the Tamil people are not synonymous. The LTTE has long since lost its self-conferred credibility as representative of the Tamil people. The LTTE has, through acts of provocation, horrendous acts of terrorism and in other ways invited death and destruction on vast areas of the North and the East. The LTTE has assassinated countless moderates, people in the democratic mainstream as well as others who did not toe their line.
The LTTE, moreover has demonstrated that it is not interested in a negotiated settlement, i.e. discussing substantive issues, the legitimacy of the ‘exclusive traditional homeland’ claim and the logic for power sharing (as opposed to say a strengthening of institutions that ensure citizens rights are protected with or without meaningful decentralisation of administration) that necessitates compromising the unitary character of the constitution. The LTTE has never once expressed a willingness to join the democratic mainstream. The LTTE, let us not forget, does not want to entertain the idea that there cannot be peace if there is no democracy and that achieving peace requires both de-escalation of hostilities (leading to eventual decommissioning of weapons) and democratisation.
Under these circumstances, tragedies notwithstanding, only the enemy and those in its pay can expect elected governments to surrender. The USA wouldn’t do it. India doesn’t. The British High Commissioner who is given to pontification would not say the things he says about Sri Lanka about his government’s mishandling of ‘Iraq’. If there is to be a negotiated settlement, then the objective has to be democracy. If that is the objective, then the pathway has clearly a written name: Democratisation. So far, the LTTE has not even wanted to utter that word.
All this would make sense only if this government seriously takes into consideration another dimension. Just because there is a terrorist out there, governments cannot send due process, especially when it comes to non-military matters, on leave. Nadarajah Raviraj may have been a member of the LTTE’s proxy in parliament, but he was not engaged in any criminal activity. He was by and large a peaceful man who didn’t care much for his own security. He was assassinated in cold blood. There have been other killings, other mysterious abductions.
What all this says is that law and order is non-existent or is fast deteriorating. No terrorist can be taken on effectively if governments do not have their house in order. The natural result is a long drawn out war scattered with countless tragedies. Effective engagement of terrorism requires effective structures of governance with adequate checks and balances. Prabhakarn cannot be offered ‘democracy’ if democratic safeguards are absent in the process he is asked to enter into.
Wars are tragedies. There is nothing to cheer in a war. Wars are unhappy things. In an ideal world, in an ideal war, there would be no reason to use the word ‘collateral’. Dealing with terrorism is never done in an ideal world. Dealing with terrorism is never an ideal war. But even in the flawed world we live in there is a consensus that democracy is superior to anarchy and that adherence to democratic principles is the least destructive way of resolving conflict. Balasingham and Solheim will decide what’s good for them. The Government has no control over that. What the Government can do to strengthen its case is to make the social contract that is the constitution and which is enshrined in the amorphous structure called the state far more meaningful than it is now.
There is a vast difference, let us emphasise, between a terrorist organisation and a constitution that has correctible flaws. That difference is crucial, politically and morally in the fight against terrorism. ‘Vakarai’ was tragic. Our structures of governance, let us remember, are tragic too, although the proportions and contours may be different. They are not entirely un-related, these tragedies or their associated processes. Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot say ‘inevitable’ and move on, in either case. Mahinda Rajapaksa has some thinking to do. Let us leave it at that. For now.