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war tourism

War tourism in Sri Lanka.
Photo BBC

In Sri Lanka a new sector is booming: war tourism. On the site where the last bastion of the LTTE was crushed by the Sri Lankan army, a holiday resort has been built to cater for an audience eager to see with their own eyes these places. The advert reminds that on this lagoon, the heroes of the army, the terrorists of the LTTE and many others, died.[1]

November the 27th was the usual “Martyrs day”, a festival instituted by the Tamil Tigers to commemorate the soldiers fallen for the cause. This year students of the Jaffna University lighted lamps in public in their honour and they were jailed in rehabilitation camp, with the accuse of fomenting hate and the resurgence of terrorism.

tamil victims 2

Tamil victims in Sri Lankan civil war.

In this two episodes it is possible to see all the contradiction of the post-conflict process in Sri Lanka. The government hails as heroes its soldiers; all of them, including the ones responsible of the massacres. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that a huge number of civilians has been killed. The UN first referred to 40 000, but a recent book of Harrison, based on unpublished studies from the World Bank corrected the figures to 70 000. In any case, the death toll is enormous. And they were civilians, Tamil civilians. Therefore any celebration of the state for the “heroes” is a painful reminder of the personal losses for the Tamil community. At the same time, the “terrorists” were fighters for secession of an independent Tamil Eelam, after 60 years of oppression and abuses. Not to mention the fact that they were relatives of many in the

Pro-LTTE rally in London, 2009.Photo BBC

Pro-LTTE rally in London, 2009.
Photo BBC

Tamil population. And they are eager to commemorate their husbands, fathers, brothers and sisters. But the government banned any public sign of mourning the dead. And imposed a rigid silence over the civilian massacres.

The reconciliation will always be in a stall, until these positions will change. The fallen soldiers of both camps died for a cause, some of them committed crimes and most important all the civilians killed, were innocents. This is the source of the crime! The LTTE’s attacks in Colombo and other cities were criminal because they targeted the harmless Sinhalese population. Equally despicable was the involvement of hundreds of thousands Tamil civilians in the military operations led by the Sri Lankan army.

The war is over, but not the tension which caused it. Open hostilities were the symptoms of the disease, not the root. The government recurring theme of the war on terror was a successful brand to convince the West. But the troubled 40 years of independent history preceded the military struggled. The Tamils suffered persecution with communal riots, pogrom and discrimination by the state. The inability or lack of will to fix these grievances are the origin of the military response of the Tamil community.

Government War Memorial near War-Tourist Site Mullivaikal Mullaitivu District

Government War Memorial near War-Tourist Site Mullivaikal Mullaitivu District

At the same time 30 years of violence and war didn’t bring the wished end of that condition. The military option has been defeated and living in the hope of taking arms again won’t change the past. The possibility to mourn the Tamil Tigers should be a right of the community, to remember relatives. But it should be clear also that the LTTE was ruthless organization, that suppressed any form of political freedom and killed any single opposer to their plot.

Until the Sri Lankan state will feel obliged to celebrate its victory against the Tamil, any reconciliation will be clearly impossible. It will reinforce in that community the perception that only armed struggle will bring justice.

On the contrary if both community will realize that victims were the innocents of both camps, that could become the turning point for a real resolution of the tension. The conflict of interest in Sri Lanka can be eased only by a mutual recognition: the legitimacy of the Tamil to maintain their cultural and communal identity and the the right of the state to guarantee the security of its citizens, all of them.

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Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)

Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)

At the end of the ’90s, the Albanian minority in Kosovo intensified its political pressure to gain independence from Serbia. Kosovo was a province with a particular meaning in the Serbian history: it was the place where the Serbian kings resisted the Ottoman invasion. The Serbian cultural identity sprung from Kosovo. In the last 20 years immigration from the nearby Albania increased the size of that ethnicity and in the mid ’90s Albanian could correctly affirm of being the majority in Kosovo. Serbia is culturally and politically on the side of Russia (for religious, linguistic, historical and political reason), therefore it is arguable that its international status was very low in those years.

 The Albanian independentist forces joined to create the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The US decided to punish the Russian presence in Europe, hitting their closest ally, Serbia. Therefore they supported the Albanian request for a separated Kosovo.

Commandos from the Kosovo Liberation Army

Commandos from the Kosovo Liberation Army

It is interesting to note that history of the Kosovo Liberation Army as a terrorist group. In 1998 Robert Gelbard, envoy of the American government, speaking of the KLA said “without any questions, a terrorist group”12. The UN resolution 1160 used similar words34. But later on the US government approached the KLA leadership to represent Kosovo in the negotiations with the Serbs. The Wall Street Journal in February 1998 mentioned the removal of the KLA from the list of terrorist organization5, when discussing its linkages with Al Qaeda. France didn’t delist the KLA until late 1998, after UK and US pressure6. KLA is still present in the list of MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base7 and is considered an inactive group by the National Consortium for the study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism from the Homeland Security8.

The KLA was considered a terrorist organization because of its linkages with organized crime and with Al Qaeda and they started a campaign of attacks against the Serbian civilians9. The common argument was that Kosovo people had the right for self-determination10, even when terrorist means were used to achieve that goal.

Black Tigers (commandos for suicide mission of the LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)

Black Tigers (commandos for suicide mission of the LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)

Now, I suppose that very few will disagree with the fact that the LTTE was a liberation army, which used terrorist means to achieve self-determination for its people.

It is wrong to state that the LTTE lost international support because it was a terrorist outfit. Quite on the contrary: it was a terrorist organization because it lost international support. This could sound pedantic, but very often it’s the core of the debate. All the atrocities committed by the LTTE do not explain its status. The LTTE failed to secure the support of main international sponsors (like US and India) and therefore it was fighting alone. And when you have guns and bank account, but no consensus, per definition you’ll be labelled “terrorist”.

It’s not about conduct, but about relationship. The LTTE killed innocent civilians, but this is not the point. LTTE was isolated and that is the reason for its terrorist status.

6 Derek SReveron and Jeffrey Stevenson Murer, eds., Flashpoints in the War on Terrorism. (New York: Palgrave, 2006)

The international community faces a curious challenge with regards of Sri Lanka. In fact we are in presence of a massive violations of human rights, happened during the end of the war, not to mention also the continuous incidents of unlawful abductions, suppression of press freedom and abuses from the military and organized thugs. The point of the clash is about sovereignty on internal affairs; the argument from Sri Lanka, China and Russia is that any state is absolutely sovereign in disputes within its borders. The way to deal with internal dissent, discontent or even open revolt is entirely national. So not matter how disproportionate can be the reaction against these dissenting forces, it would be always regulated by internal mechanisms.

The West challenges precisely this notion, that any kind of violence is admissible. But it is a opposition largely on principles. In fact it is always too well known that the West screams loudly against violations of rival countries, whilst with allies and friends the protests are definitely quiter.

People’s unrest in Bahrain has been stopped with brutality
courtesy BBC

The example of Lybia and Syria on one side and Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on the other. You don’t need to be a genius of geopolitics to see that the cases are precisely the same and only a decision of convenience makes them different.

You can consider Sri Lanka as a test. Colombo is leaning very clearly towards the non-Western front of China and the World South (Africa, Asia and Latin America), but is not yet a enemy. And this indecision is becoming an accusation against the West. Evidences of violations and war crimes during the end of the conflict are there. Even the UN, even Ban Ki Mon is (almost) tempted to say something. Satellite pictures, mobile footages, Wikileaks reports are so in front of your eyes that it seems almost a joke their denial.

The killing of civilians in Syrian civil war has been firnly condemned by the West and largely publicized.
REUTERS/Shaam News Network

And now we come to the point. Why it is so difficult to make a move and tarnish Sri Lanka with the same accusations? The main justification is about diplomacy: it will cause more harm than help to the victims and to the refugees, such a direct confrontation. It is better to wait. Why? In Syria and Libya you didn’t need any time to wait. With Saudi Arabia and Bahrain the case is already closed. The supect is that you can really decide whether Sri Lanka is an open rival or a distant friend. Only when it will be sorted out, then you’ll know whether Sri Lanka committed the crimes or not. In other terms the violations are against the alignment with the West, not the human rights.

If you can’t decide whether a violation has been committed or not, because you can’t decide on the alliance, then you reinforce the arbitrariness. The defence of human rights is becoming more and more a soft power of the West against China, Russia and other countries of the World South.

China’s vote in the United Nations’s security council
Xinhua

But rapidly this hypocrisy will backfire. The protection of human rights is a principle; if it can be bent to arbitrary necessity, then it is not a principle any more and countries like China are entitled to see these accusations merely as an intrusion.

The case of Sri Lanka reflects even too much this duplicity: the pressure is directly proportional to its distance from the West. The paradox is that if you raise the tone, the country will quickly move far away, so the necessity of escalating the case will make duplicity even more patent. If you remain silent, you’ll gain “points” in other cases, but then you’ll reinforce the negotiable nature of your battle for principles. This is the paradox of Sri Lanka, that prosecution on its violations will uncover the hypocritical fight of the West.

The solution to paradox is of course very simple: you need to stand for human rights always. It is a principle, therefore is not negotiable. The argument is that those principles are better protected by the West, even when they are violated. I don’t know your opinion, but to me this sounds dramatically unconvincing.

The Sri Lankan Government has a military mindset: it won a war, now it garrisons the peace. Simple as that.

The Sinhalese supremacist narrative told the story of a righteous war: the evil terrorists attacked the righteous Sri Lanka and the brave and peaceful (at the end of the day, aren’t they Buddhist?) Sinhalese were forced to react. 30 years of nightmare were a reaction to the insane plan of a mad leader and his followers. Indeed Prabhakaran was a bloody warrior, he had an obsessive idea and he committed atrocities. But this is only the reverse of what actually happened. The LTTE was a consequence, not the cause.

The ethnic Tamil,working in the plantations, were disenfranchised of the citizenship after independence.

After independence, the Tamils were systematically undermined in the legitimacy of their citizenship: cultural identity, historical heritage were a dangerous claim against the majority. The ideology of a Sinhalese state besieged and threatened in its existence by corrosive forces was the reason of the mandate for president Bandaranaike. The Sinhala Only Act, the decision to downgrade the Tamil culture, was taken on the basis that the simple fact of speaking Tamil is a menace for the entire Sinhalese culture. The Sinhala speaking, Buddhist majority at the time was around 66% of the popultion. The disfranchisement of Plantation Tamil (Tamil of more recent immigration from India: “only” 150 years), put the proportion at 75%. Three quarters of the island is culturally Sinhalese. Nonetheless any presence of difference, is considered a challenge to the majority. The Tamil has been indeed a very influential community. But you can see nowadays the animosity against the Muslim as a product,stemming from the same intolerance.

When in the ’70s the pressure to minimize the Tamil identity started to become unbearable, moderate elements of the Tamil society decided that it was a better idea to second the Sinhalese ideology: if you want a state that is completely Sinhalese, then you can have it. We well retreat to our land of origin, the Northern and Eastern Provinces and secede. Of course the Sinhalese extremists consider this an act of rebellion and used an iron fist to put the Tamils in their place. After that, came the LTTE, a violent, brutal and blind force of reaction against a racist repression.

Note that the decision of living separately and seconding the Sinhalese myth has been considered an act of rebellion. You are a good Tamil citizen if you give up language and culture and embrace the Sinhalisation.

Then it was war, a fight for survival driven crazy by decades of oppression and humiliation. It is ideological to call this conflict a war on terror, a legitimate act of policing against terrorism. It was a civil war, the eruption of ethnic tension provoked by the intransigence of Sinhalese supremacy. The end of the war brought the victory on the Sinhalese side and it is up the victors to write history. Now they can state that any dissent is aligned with the terrorist insurgency. The militarization in the Northern provinces is only the prosecution of the same Sinhalese supremacy: to repress diversity with violence.

The LTTE was a natural consequence of such oppression and the actual exercise of power is the same majoritarian force that caused the reaction. The roots of violence haven’t been eliminated with the annihilation of the LTTE. On the contrary they prosper with under the warmongering regime of Rajapaksa. Nobody but Sinhalese people. This is the brutal, effective message, after the Eelam War. No country for Tamils, no country for Muslims. That implies also: no country for free man (see Lasantha Wickrematunge).

We commented few days ago about the Eastern Provinces 2012 Elections and we would like to bring attention to one episode occurred in the same area 13 years ago. The LTTE conducted a commando operation in the village of Gonagala, where they killed 50 people: 27 men, 17 women (2 were pregnant) and 10 children.

According to forensic examination, only one has been killed by gunshot, the rest has been hatched. The incident is reported to have happened in the early morning; the Tigers cadres hacked to death all the people they could find in the village, mostly in their sleep. A middle aged man tried to protect himself had his hand cut and skull crushed.

After they finished with the village, they went to a nearby settlement, where they killed 4 more. The details are horrendous and came from a Sri Lankan newspaper1. But also Amnesty International attributed to the LTTE the massacre. Here it is possible to find some images of the carnage (Beware of the disturbing content).

The spiral of violence that caught Sri Lanka for 30 years is almost unimaginable. The LTTE didn’t cause the framework of discrimination and repression, but certainly contributed significantly in the escalation of brutality.

Today we are discussing the responsibility of the government for the simple reason that the LTTE is no more. But it is a duty for everyone involved in the process of justice and accountability in the Sri Lankan conflict to help remember that landscape of horror. There is no excuse for the Sri Lankan government for the civilian killings in the IV Eelam War; nonetheless it is fair to remind the calibre of Tigers’ crimes, in order to understand the sense of genuine relief felt by the overwhelming majority of the people on the island. Including many Tamils.