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J. Sri Raman: Wrong Lesson From Sri Lanka

Wrong Lesson From Sri Lanka

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

"I have only two groups - the people who fight terrorism and the terrorists." That might sound like George W. Bush. The statement, however, emanated not from the former US president, but from an ardent fan of his - Lt. Col. (retired) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary.

The Bush-like ring to the statement was barely accidental. A recent report recalls Gotabhaya, while an information technology professional in Los Angeles in 2001, hearing Bush's declaration, "You are either with us or against us." The brother of Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa "didn't need convincing."

Gotabhaya had "long ago concluded that his own country's fight against extremism, which broke into civil war in 1983, required a military solution by a united front." He told a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, "The lesson that I have learned is that peace talks will never go anywhere.... Tell me a place where this has worked."

Had the other option worked anywhere, a critic might have countered some time ago. It did not seem to have succeeded spectacularly in Iraq or Afghanistan. The track away from peace talks, Gotabhaya and fellow warriors on "global terror" now claim, has led to a triumph in the South Asian island-state. And that is the lesson he and other "antiterror" jihadis would like the world to learn from the recent events in Sri Lanka.

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Gotabhaya was no lone admirer of Bush and his brand of "antiterrorism" in Colombo. In 2004, Mahinda, then the prime minister of the country, greeted Bush on his re-election to the presidency in glowing terms, going far beyond customary compliments. He told Bush, "You have given hope to many countries saddled with the menace of terrorism.... By being elected for the second term of your presidency you have established that someday honesty, dedication, and commitment will overcome all obstacles."

Mahinda added, "You have created history throughout the world, standing firm in the cause of peace and eradicating terrorism." The Sri Lankan president is certain he has now performed the same feat, with the same "antiterror" fervor, in this part of the world.

The claim, of course, has not found all-around acceptance. The controversy over the "death" of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran (covered in the earlier dispatch, Questions After Prabhakaran's "Killing," May 19, 2009) refuses to die down. The display of Prabhakaran's "body" on the television has only led to the publication of pictures showing him watch the TV show which, in turn, have been rejected as a "Photoshop retouching job."

The chapter has not been closed, even after "confirmation" of the Tiger's death by Selvarasu Pathmanathan of the international relations department of the LTTE. Others, speaking for the armed group, have denied the death again, with a pro-LTTE Indian politician accusing Pathmanathan of "betrayal" carried out at the behest of "foreign intelligence agencies."

Journalist Anita Pratap, known for proximity to Prabhakaran, said, "Far from setting my doubts to rest, the picture (of his 'body') convinced me that something was fishy." The Sri Lankan army did not let skeptics stop it from cremating the "body" and throwing the ashes into the Indian Ocean. And the Rajapaksa regime has thus far declined to carry out DNA tests to prove that the body indeed belonged to Prabhakaran.

While this controversy may continue, a consensus is rapidly emerging in the avowedly "antiterror" camp in the region, and elsewhere, on the shining example set by the Sri Lankan rulers and army. The main lesson sought to be drawn from the LTTE's defeat and Prabhakaran's "death" is the possibility, and even preferability, of a purely military solution to the problem of "terrorism." Recommended is a determined pursuit of such a solution in complete disregard of "collateral damage" (as Bush has taught the world to look at devastation visited upon civilians in "antiterror" offensives), and despite all that the holy war may entail for human rights.

The cruel and colossal "collateral damage," in this case, has been inflicted on the Tamils of Sri Lanka's north - killed in bombings, caught in the cross-fire, ferociously attacked while fleeing, and languishing in barbed-wire camps with little hope of returning home. The victims of human rights violations include the Sinhala majority in the south. The "antiterror" victory has been achieved at the cost of press freedom, of which Sri Lanka was once proud, as illustrated by the assassination of intrepid editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. (Gotabhaya told the world media that Lasantha-style dissent during a time of war amounted to "treason.")

Paul Reynolds, world affairs correspondent of BBC News, puts it mildly when he says that the all-out offensive against the Tigers "might encourage other governments to put more emphasis on fighting insurgents by military means." Talking of the Sri Lankan government's "strategy of siege and attack," or "isolating the Tigers in a smaller and smaller area and using a modern army to crush them slowly but surely," he adds that this is exactly what the Russians did in Chechnya and what the Colombians have done successfully against its left-wing guerrillas.

Reynolds writes: "The temptation to abandon the political approach and promise a military win will be more enticing for political leaders looking for a popular boost."

Hawks in India sporting an "antiterrorist" halo are all for this approach. Far-right propagandist Rajeev Srinivasan writes: "This is an object lesson for India's pusillanimous politicians who advocate sweet-talk and appeasement of terrorists; and for Obamistas, advocating land-for-peace (India's land, that is, to be given to Pakistan, so that the Inter Services Intelligence would leave the Americans in peace)."

He speaks for a whole section of militarist, when he adds, "Pandering does not work, the iron fist does. Crush the terrorists first, then talk to real people."

India's Maj. Gen. (retired) Ashok Mehta, a commander of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in the late eighties, agrees. He says: "They (the Sri Lankan rulers) did everything a general dreams of ... unfettered resources and no political interference (for the army) ..."

He adds, "A military precept the world over is that you can't win militarily against an insurgency, which is essentially a political struggle. They turned that on its head."

No different is the response from the like-minded in neighboring Pakistan, where the army is locked in its own "war on terror." In a recent newspaper article, former Foreign Secretary Najmuddin A. Shaikh, writes: "Sri Lanka does one offer one lesson. This (Pakistan's) is a war for Pakistan's survival. It must be fought without illusions and without yielding to the temptation to believe that one has credible and willing partners with whom a negotiated peace could be worked out. The time for that has passed."

He also states: "The time for reconciliation will come when military victory has been achieved just as it has now come in Sri Lanka." Not many may share this optimism about a sanctified state terrorism.

The doctrine of the primacy of a military solution over a political answer to the problem of "terrorism" may prove more dangerous than any variant of Tigers or any Prabhakaran, whether alive or dead.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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