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On July the 23rd 1983 a small group of Tamil rebels ambushed the Four Four Bravo convoy of the Sri Lankan Army. The rebels, a cell of the LTTE, killed 13 out of 15 soldiers of the patrol. A very severe and negative judgement should be expressed on the overall activity of the LTTE: the Tigers committed several crimes; precise and detailed account are available from international and independent sources. Any Tamil should be more aware of the dark side of the Tigers. The LTTE in many, too many occasions hit civilians and innocents. But in that infamous July of 29 years ago, the target was military, completely military. Within the legal framework of a state is clearly an act of aggression, but it is not even criminal. In fact the rebels stands precisely to contest that framework and they suspend themselves from the law of a state they consider oppressive and unjust. Other laws stand, though. It’s the beginning of war and wartime laws apply. For example, it’s not murder to kill a man of the opposite faction, under appropriate circumstances. But must of all, the laws of humanity apply. Civilians per definition are exempted by the hostilities (and soldiers who surrender).

On the other hand, the state has all its right to eliminate this challenge to its authority and sovereignty. The Sri Lankan army would have been on the right side, had responded to Tigers’ fire.

But it didn’t.

President Jayawardene, few days before the riots, said on the Daily Telegraph:

‘I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhala people will be here…really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy’

This is very clear statement that the government is not interested in suppressing violence against the Tamils. These words came out two weeks before the riots.

What happened is that ‘spontaneous mob’ targeted Tamil citizens and properties. People have been decapitated, burned alive, massacred. And the police and the army took very bland and superficial measures. Some members of political parties actually took active part in the violence, leading groups of thugs. Nobody has been seriously prosecuted for those events. The lack of intervention of the state was a clear message that the killing of the Tamils is a legitimated action. At least in the framework of an ethnic pogrom.

Now, in political theory the state has the monopoly of violence: the government had the right of responding to the LTTE attack precisely and only for this reason. From a theoretical point of view, the mob violence is a form of insurgency and a challenge to the state sovereignty of the same nature as the one of the LTTE. Mob violence should be treated as terrorism. Instead the government let it go. It didn’t take appropriate counter measures, it didn’t punish people responsible. In other words, it tacitly condoned the event. Well, as we have seen, not even so tacitly. The words of president Jayawardene are heavy as rocks and sharp as swords, in the agitated context of the July 1983. The pogrom of the Black July is a responsibility of the Sri Lankan state. The Tamil insurgency started appropriately with an army to army aggression, whereas the government reaction continued to target civilians and to be ethnic oriented. No surprise that this single-minded racial violence escalated to a civil war. It is out of the question that the start of war was caused by the oppressive and violent stance of the Sri Lankan government.

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courtesy indianexpress.com

The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE became entangled in a vortex of violence and brutality. It is undeniable that the blatant disrespect for human life and dignity as the ferocity of the atrocities escalated is the responsibility of both sides.  The difference is that Pranhakaran’s Tigers were an underground, clandestine organization, whilst the Sri Lankan government is part of the international assembly – it is a democratically elected institution regulated by internal and external treaties and normative systems.

The Sri Lankan government had the legitimacy to eliminate the LTTE, who were executing targeted attacks against the civilian populace in alleged retaliation to civilian deaths by the hand of the Sri Lankan government.

courtesy ATP/Getty Images

Herein the problem lies, as you need to morally distinguish your actions from theirs.  Instead, Colombo mimicked the spirit of the cancer it wanted to destroy, retaliating indiscriminately and unnecessarily murdering tens of thousands of civilians.

The LTTE and the Sri Lankan government were so similar that they become one the mirror image of the other”.

(Dr Saravanmuttu, Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, interview for the documentary ‘A Sri Lankan Quest’).