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Lessons From The Lankan Conflict – Countercurrents.org

[MISC, Monday, 14 September 2009 10:31 No Comment]

By Satya Sagar

 ALeqM5gmlBBM9ZNpgTm_gyo-eMJPvXSZsASouth Asia is a part of the world where life is really cheap and the silent genocide of millions every year due to neglect and poverty does not touch the conscience of the public. And societies that are willing to accept a silent and invisible genocide in their midst will over a period of time also accept a loud and visible genocide when it happens.

Nowhere else in the entire world will so many people be allowed to die silently of poverty, disease, sectarian conflict every day as happens in South Asia. I mean nowhere will so much suffering happen without sparking off a revolution.

There is no doubt in my mind at all that the genocide of Tamils that has taken place in Sri Lanka in recent months and still continues in various ways is part of the general lack of value for human life that the ruling classes of South Asia have always displayed.

And the first lesson that we should draw from this complete contempt shown by our elites for the life of ‘lesser beings’- be they religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities, marginalised cultures or the poor- is that the people of this sub-continent need to answer back with a social and political revolution of their own. Nothing short of revolutionary change will really solve the problems South Asia faces, whether of poverty, of conflict or the conflict that is produced by poverty.

Failure to work for and bring about a truly revolutionary change will only mean more and more genocides in our region of the kind that we have already witnessed in Sri Lanka.

Even in India which is a democracy of some sort the truth is that it is a democracy by default- not one where the rulers genuinely believe in democratic values and principles but one where they have no other choice.

The only reason why a Hitler has not emerged in India, is simply because there are already too many Hitlers in our country and no one of them is strong enough to dominate the others. The ‘world’s largest free market democracy’ is in practice a wrestling pit for Hitlers of different shapes, sizes, colors and tongues. And it is our task to fight each one of these Hitlers, whoever they may be and wherever they are and change to a system that does not produce Hitlers any more at any level.

The second lesson from the over thirty years of conflict in Sri Lanka is simply that this is not a problem of the island of Sri Lanka alone. At the very minimum it is an issue that needs to be taken up by the entire South Asian subcontinent, if not the entire world.

Given the involvement of so many countries from India and China to Israel and Russia in helping the Sri Lankan government fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels it cannot even be referred to as the Sri Lanka conflict any more. The Tamil diaspora, which supported the movement for a separate Eelam all these years, is also spread over four continents and nearly 10 countries.

So when the Mahinda Rajapakse regime tells international human rights groups and media to stay out of the Sri Lankan conflict one can only laugh. Successive Sri Lankan governments have always internationalised their domestic conflict by seeking help from foreign governments. Even in 1971 when the leftist JVP insurgency in the south of Sri Lanka threatened to topple the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike it survived only with the help of the Indian Navy and the Pakistani Air Force.

It is interesting to see that in the case of Sri Lanka, foreign governments, which are otherwise usually hostile to each other, have always joined hands to help put down the opponents of those in power in Colombo. Even recently the way the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Russian and Israeli governments came to the rescue of the Rajapakse regime is testimony to this curious phenomenon.

Indeed the third lesson we have to learn is the need for the people of all these countries involved in the Sri Lankan conflict to unite against their own governments. If the governments of the world can unite against their people so can the people of the world unite against their own governments.

In specific terms this means that those fighting for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils today have to extend solidarity to the struggles of the people of Kashmir, the Indian north-east, Tibet, Baluchistan, Chechnya and Palestine. Anyway they all have so much in common in terms of their battles for independence or autonomy from oppressive, domestic colonial regimes that such a unity should not be very difficult to forge. It is through such solidarity that the struggle of the Sri Lankan Tamils will become a truly international cause.

Such a unity will also have a very important implication for the concept of right to self-determination, which has been the basis for the independence movements of minority groups in many countries around the world.

I believe that the right to self-determination is an absolute right and the highest democratic principle possible in international politics of our times. Divorce after all is always preferable to an unhappy and violent marriage. In the case of Sri Lanka in particular historically it was not even a ‘love marriage’ between the Tamils and the Sinhalas but one forcibly arranged, over 60 years ago, by the parting British colonial power. So a referendum for Sri Lankan Tamils to decide their own fate is a fundamental right that must be given to them. Let them decide what they really want in a peaceful and democratic manner.

However, I would also point out that separation from one kind of arrangement does not mean that the newly independent entity should consider becoming part of a larger, more democratic federation. In my view the struggle of ethnic, linguistic and other minorities in the South Asian sub-continent has to proceed along two lines- one is to establish their right to self-determination and the other is, at the same time, to strive for a radically democratic, federation across South Asia. In a dialectical sort of way separation and unity should go hand in hand.

One important reason for this is that if you look at the world around all over you will find that the individual nation state is no longer the basis for future politics. Global economic realities, capital flows and operations of multinationals have made the nation state redundant. This is one area we need to learn from the multinational corporations. In fact what we need is to become a multinational sub-continent where instead of business motives the people are bound by their common goals and struggles against their own ruling classes. So while we fight for our own nation state and identity we also keep in mind the fast changing realities of the planet where new identities are being created by the tectonic forces of economy, migration and even phenomenon like global warming.

The fourth lesson from the Sri Lankan conflict is that the militancy of a struggle cannot be measured by the number of gunshots and bomb blasts it involves. For a long time not just in South Asia but also around the world there has been a debate on the use of violence versus non-violence in political and social movements.

Despite endless debate over the categories ‘violence’ and ‘non-violence’ there is little clarity on the subject anywhere. In fact these categories are not opposed to each other, as is often assumed, because there is a continuum between the two. Who really knows in the world we live in where ‘violence’ ends and ‘non-violence’ begins or whether there is even any meaning to the term ‘non-violence’?

In that sense the more accurate categories to use are ‘bloody violence’ and ‘bloodless violence’ with the latter being the preferred method of action in the current South Asian social and political context. If there is to be bloody violence at some stage because the sub-continent’s ruling class will never give up power without using brute force then we will deal with it at that time. That juncture can be understood in advance but not pre-empted artificially by insisting on a central role for the gun and the bomb in mass struggles.

Also it is important to understand that power is not just political or administrative in nature. It is also social, economic and cultural power that needs to be captured and many of these kinds of power cannot be simply conquered by brute force. To run a real country or even a community of human beings there is need for many more skills apart from purely military skills.

The last and most important lesson I want to emphasize today is that we need to build up the global movement for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils in such a way that it allows ordinary people to participate in simple ways, making it a truly democratic one

I can give you an example of a movement that if taken up can immediately hurt the Sri Lankan regime of Mahinda Rajapakse- the boycott of tourism in Sri Lanka by South Asian and particularly Indian tourists. There are dozens of ways in which this goal can be achieved in a creative and peaceful manner and can be the beginning of a larger international effort to isolate the war criminals who are running Colombo today.

Another demand we should make is for a White Paper in the Indian Parliament on the role of various Indian agencies in Sri Lanka over the past thirty years and in particular during the past year. Successive Indian governments, politicians and bureaucrats too have played a very negative role in the Sri Lankan conflict and should be accountable to the Indian people for what the crimes they have committed in a neighbouring country in our name.

In the context of Tamil Nadu itself the widespread support for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils should be expressed in specific and tangible ways. Mere rhetoric is no longer enough.

For example the thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils who have been coming to this state over the past two decades still do not have the basic rights of refugees as per international law. The Indian government has refused to sign the UNHCR treaty on refugees and treats the Sri Lankan Tamils like some unwanted relatives who have suddenly turned up home without an invitation. They are housed in unliveable shelters, their youth denied employment, their children denied proper education and their men arrested arbitrarily on any pretext in a routine manner. It is time for us to demand that they be given basic rights and that the Indian government signs the UNHCR treaty immediately.

I would like to add here that while we are fighting for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils should we not also fight for the rights of Tamils in Tamil Nadu itself. Is there a shortage of problems in this state – whether it be of health, education, employment, of women or of Dalits? In the long run, unless we challenge our own domestic politicians and governments in India there is nothing very much we can really do to uphold human rights in rest of South Asia.

Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer, videomaker based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at sagarnama@gmail.com

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