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Sri Lanka: Ethics of an Ethnic War

SRI LANKA: Ethics of an ethnic war

Although the ethnic war between the Tamil LTTE and the Sinhalese forces of the Sri Lankan government ended in May 2009, the ethics of the conflict is still current. It is being discussed in institutions in Geneva, USA, Canada, UK, EU and many other countries. It is the ethics of the war that the international community is concerned, as it has major implications in global ethics. The issues surrounding this ethnic war also can be used to assess the validity of existing ethical theories on what is right and what is wrong.

A basic question may be asked as to whether there is such a thing as a just war? Most people will agree, that war is necessary when and only when there is no other means to defend the territorial integrity and rights of a State. This means that if the territorial integrity, land boundaries and internal governance are threatened, then the State is allowed to defend itself against an aggressor, and the soldiers are allowed to kill the enemy in self-defence and to win the war. Although, lives are lost and properties are damaged, all this is done with the ultimate intention ofa greater good. The intent must become evident throughout and particularly at the end of the war. Most people also agree that it is wrong to declare war against peaceful nations with the intention of annexing their territory for the purpose of enlarging the empire (e.g. Germany and Japan in World War II and forceful colonisation of by Europeans).

When one considers the question of greater good or for that matter what is good and right against what is bad and wrong one is confronted with diversity of views. For some, 'greater good'is what most people think to be good and right as a consequence of the action (i.e. Consequential ethics). For them what is good/right is what is good/right for me or what is good/right for my ethnic community. For this ethical system, there is no standard, and right and wrong are subjective and relative. A vote in a democracy, a pseudo-democracy or a proclamation of a dictator can make anything appear to be good/right, when in reality it is bad/wrong from global standards (e.g. killing of political prisoners of Mao Zedong's CHINA: 40-78 million, Joseph Stalin's USSR 20-40 million, Hitler's Europe: 12-30 million). So, even the majority in a small country or dictators in a large country cannot decide what is good/right in global ethics, since the majority or the dictator would be deciding on what is good/right based on their/his self interest, indicating the weakness of consequential ethics. Others say that there is an absolute good/right and bad/wrong in the universe, and some take God as their yardstick, model or the standard (i.e. Deontological ethics). They argue that their ethics is more objective than the subjective ethics of consequentialists. Consequentialists argue that there is no such thing as objective, for everything that we call objective, becomes subjective as soon as when we begin to think about it and formulate a concept. However, there is a collective subjectivity, which we may call relative objectivity. There is also an ethical system that determines good/right and bad/wrong based on the intent that accompanies action (i.e. Value ethics of Wittgenstein ethics, after the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein). Jesus' teachings emphasise Value ethics (e.g. whited sepulchres, widow's coin, violation of Sabbath, outward prayer of show etc.), and according to him, Value ethics is the perfection of the letter of the law in the Old Testament (and modern legal system). But, it is a difficult task to penetrate the letter of the law into the intent in our legal systems, for that would give precedence, make the legal system subjective and unfair by all. Nevertheless, truth is above all, and has a characteristic that it reveals by itself, though later in time. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka provides an opportunity of a case study to assess the validity of ethical theories, from practical and a pragmatic perspective.

The Buddhist philosophical thinking on causation, directs us to find the cause of the ethnic war that claimed more than 1 million lives. The cause of the war was the demand of less than 1/6 of the population for 1/3 of Sri Lanka to form an independent State for the Tamils, which they calledEelam. Tamil's alleged that Sinhalese governments have been discriminating them in education and employment and during riots (e.g. 1915, 1956, 1958, 1977, 1983) the government failed to protect Tamil citizens from Sinhalese thugs. Therefore, they argued that they have a right to self-determination. Was it right to ask for a separate State (Eelam) through self-determination? Singapore broke away from the Federation of Malaya in1965 for the preferential treatment given to Malays over the Chinese (Bumiputra policy). In 1991 former USSR allowed the self-determination to develop, as nine countries were given freedom to form their States according to their ethnic and historical aspirations. Democratic systems all over the world, including adjacent India have entertained Federal and State governing systems to ensure 'unity in diversity'. So, it is right to ask for a separate State and discuss the self-determination concept. Did Sri Lankan government listen to Tamil aspirations? Instead of rationalising the issue, Sri Lankan political leaders emotionalised the issue with religious and ethnic rhetoric and handed it over to thugs to execute the verdict to such an extent that Tamils lost confidence in Sinhalese dominated parliament. Thus, Sri Lankan political leaders mishandled the whole issue. Is it ethically right to emotionalise politics? Yes, to some extent, as long as it does not overshadow the rights of all citizens and lead to violence. Minority Tamils were asking too much, a 50-50 power sharing and were not sensitive to the aspirations of the majority.

Is it right to take up arms against the State to realise self-determination? Many will disagree on the use of arms, when negotiations are possible, as Singapore and USSR bloc countries had done in a civilised manner. LTTE always felt that their actions were right. Is it right to send suicide bombers or kill innocent civilians? No, as they are not responsible for the State's evil doings. Velupillai Prabhakaran and Anton Balasingham always justified their actions, including attack of innocent civilians and economic targets, as ethically right and good for the cause. But, the general consensus, the 'consciousness of humanity' as expressed in global press was that their actions were wrong. Then the next question is, was it right for the Sri Lankan forces to fight and subdue rebellious groups that have taken up arms? Yes, the government is correct in going to war with the LTTE, when other means of negotiations failed. This is exactly what the Sri Lankan government did. After a number of peace talks that lasted for 26 years and defensive and mediocre battles, Sri Lankan forces fought a war to its conclusion in 2009. Sri Lankan forces were right in going to war with the LTTE and defeating them. The above discussion shows the failure of consequential ethics and the validity of deontological ethics, as when two parties are involved in a conflict and each party considers ethics from one's point of view, with no reference to a universal standard.

The Buddhist philosophical thinking of causation also takes us further into the roots of the problem. What made the Tamil LTTE demand a separate State, the Eelam?

Tamils claim that they were discriminated by the Sinhalese dominated government of Sri Lanka, when Sinhala Only Act was introduced in 1956 and cut-off mark for State University entry was lowered for Sinhalese students in 1971 and the District Quota system was introduced in 1972. The Sinhalese governments say that the intention was to provide better opportunities to disadvantaged Sinhalese. Applying the same consequential ethics from the Tamil perspective, this was a discrimination, meant to subdue the industrious and hardworking Tamils. By 1977 Tamil militancy was emerging to form an independent State, where they could exercise their rights fully and have their aspirations fulfilled. Is it right to discriminate citizens, because of their ethnicity or religion? No. On the other hand the promotion of processes of equitable distribution of national resources by the Sri Lankan government is right and good. It is clear that Sri Lankan government developed a good policy in a bad way, with ethno-religious rhetoric and exclusive arrogance. Now, the government cannot pretend that its intent of the equitable distribution of national resources policy was good and therefore it complies with Wittgenstein ethics, as the intent was obviously to please the Sinhalese Buddhists for political gains and not for the equity of all citizens. As early as 1987, Prof Peter Schalk of Sweden after serious studies on Sri Lanka concluded that (1) the foundation of the war in Sri Lanka was not ethnic but economic. Tamils are fighting for the cause of retaining their economic superiority and Sinhalese are fighting to gain superiority through State policies (2) the monks are preaching that Sri Lanka is the country of Buddhist-Sinhalese, and therefore priority should be given to them in acquiring the resources of the country and exercising citizens' rights. This does not sound ethically right in the 21st century, though it would have been right in the medieval period, and the paradigm shift had occurred in the West since then. That looks like a valid statement in consequential ethics, but the fact is that a few individuals fought for this deontological ethic even during the medieval period and were persecuted. It existed then, but was rediscovered in the 21st century. Now, the rights of citizens have come to the forefront in ethics, and religion and history have gone to the background forming the culture of nations. In this regard, Sri Lanka seems to be thinking according to 5th-15th century religious, political and ethnicity values.

Now, comes the most difficult part of the ethics in the ethnic conflict. Sri Lankan forces are accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian targets and hospitals and restricting food and medical facilities to civilians, as well as executing the Prisoners of War (POW). These are violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Sri Lankan government says that LTTE also killed many civilians and they were hiding behind civilians and shooting. The government also says that many LTTE prisoners have escaped and gone to foreign countries. In this war, the Sri Lankan forces were handicapped as they could not use the guerrilla warfare tactics of the LTTE, as a democratic government had to follow the civilised international rules in battles. Whilst the terrorists were overcoming evil by evil, government forces were required to overcome evil by good. An ethical question arises as to whether for the sake of a greater good, can evil be overcome with evil. Not so, unless there is no other way to achieve the greater good. That is, government forces cannot bomb civilians intentionally or dispose the POW who surrendered. Most Tamils in the north and east do not agree on government's assertions and request an international inquiry by an independent referee.

Sri Lankan government is vehemently against an international inquiry and insists that the government has brought peace to the war-torn north and east, built roads, rehabilitated and released LTTE combatants. Sinhalese political leaders say, now, let us forget the past and look for ethnic harmony for the future. The effected Tamils say, we want to know what happened to our children and husbands who were taken by the Sri Lankan forces. They say that their hearts are not at rest till they know the truth about their relatives, and then we can move forward with full confidence in the Sinhalese governments. They say, if the government tries to cover up, then we cannot trust the Sinhalese government any more, as they have already lost confidence in the government. The government also has been applying the greater good principle in asking the Tamils and the international community not to be negative and dig into what had happened, but be positive and look for a prosperous future for the Tamils. While the relatives of POW taken by the forces have a right to know what happened to them, this is not a greater good principle, as it undermines the international law during and after war and gives rise to an authoritarian leadership that covers up wrong doing and undermines democratic institutions of law and justice in a country.

In Sri Lanka, human rights activists who gather information on disappeared persons are considered as traitors, and activities against the directives of the President and his government are punishable under the Prevention of the Terrorism Act (PTA 1979). Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), Attorney General's Department, Sri Lankan Police, and the forces carry out these directives to the satisfaction of the government. Human rights activists both Sinhalese and Tamil have been imprisoned and some of them have disappeared. The Army General who won the war with the LTTE was imprisoned and the Chief Justice was sacked in an impeachment, which appears to be legally right, but the intent is obviously not right (not Wittgenstein ethics). Sri Lanka is moving in the direction of the Philippines of Marcos before his downfall. It's media manipulation (resembles Joseph Goebbels), intimidation and murder of journalists (resembles Heinrich Himmler's SS and Ernst Rohm's SA) and powers given to nationalist monks to attack minorities (resembles Himmler's final solution on Jews) are in the making of an authoritarian ruler who is identified as a king by his supporters, a concept deeply entrenched in pre-colonial Sinhalese history. The king can define what is right and good when there is a threat to him, undermining the principles of democracy and democratic institutions, can act in the best interest of the royal family and has the right to acquire land and provide employment to his subjects in his kingdom.

In the midst of such chaotic consequential ethics, the Presidential Advisor still hangs on to consequential ethics, suggesting that Sri Lankan government spend more funds on lobby groups, demonstrations by overseas patriotic Sinhalese and staged local demonstrations against UNHRC, USA, UK, EU and other countries that are supporting an international inquiry. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister is using his area of expertise in jurisprudence in questioning the fundamental philosophy of law as to why Sri Lanka has been hand picked, when human right violations are everywhere in the world? Sri Lankan delegations have focussed on the good the country has done in developing the north and east (besides the financial inducement received), and challenging the right of international agencies to question the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. We may ask, is it right for the international community to be involved in internal affairs of a country. No. Most of the time countries are not interested in internal affairs of other countries. Yes, if the country is a part of an international organisation, its actions have a bearing on global ethics and rights of some citizens are not honoured in that country. China and Russia have always opposed this ethical principle as they have a track record of killing more than half a billion of their citizens for differences in their views and ideologies, brutally supressing the Freedom of Thought and Expression in their countries. These countries with a history of authoritative regimes and advocates of consequential ethics support Sri Lanka, which is taking a similar path. Besides, Chinese ethics dictates supporting Sri Lanka for the sake of the major development projects that Sri Lanka offers to them, without going though the proper tender procedure.

In the context of Sri Lankan ethnic war, it appears that the international community and agencies are taking a deontological and value ethical approach, while Sinhalese and Tamil communities are taking a consequential ethical approach. The case studies on the ethnic war in Sri Lanka demonstrates the failure of consequential ethics, and the validity of the deontological ethics; and better still the validity of value ethics. Without the latter, a genuine reconciliation is not possible in Sri Lanka, and patch-up work can only bring about a temporary relief, before the cycle of violence repeats. Rev Maduluwawe Sobitha, the scholar, ethicist and one of the few respected Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka recently said, "Sri Lanka is a part of the international community, we have to abide by international norms, and if there is a call for an international investigation, I have no problem in agreeing. If we have done nothing wrong we can go before an international investigation and vindicate ourselves.”


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