The spectre of Sinhala nationalist terrorism

By Rohini Hensman

PROVOCATIONS: The LTTE scored a major victory in April. The only way its leadership can convince the majority of Tamils and the international community that it is relevant is by demonstrating that Tamils are being oppressed in Sri Lanka with government collusion.

That is why so many of their actions are aimed at provoking reprisals against Tamil civilians. Over the past ten years, several provocations of this sort failed to achieve their objective. Even the attack on the Dalada Maligawa did not succeed in provoking anti-Tamil pogroms.

But in mid-April 2006, they finally got what they wanted. They laid a trap, and the Sinhala chauvinists fell right into it. The marketplace bomb in Trincomalee was followed by violence against innocent Tamils, just as the LTTE had wanted.

Worse still, reports by Human Rights Watch suggest that state security forces stood by and watched while innocent people were attacked, and may even have participated in the violence. Since ‘terrorism’ is defined as ‘violence or the threat of violence against unarmed civilians in the pursuit of a political objective’, these attacks on Tamil civilians were just as much acts of terrorism as the bombing of the market.

Shameful echoes of July 1983 It was state-sponsored terrorism on a much larger scale, carried out under J.R.Jayawardene’s government, which started the civil war that has led to a de facto division of our country. Let us be very clear about this: it is the Sinhala chauvinists who first started dividing our country; the LTTE only followed in their footsteps. Even today, Sinhala nationalists share the responsibility for dividing the country with the LTTE.

If Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government wants the war to go on for another twenty years, and the country to remain divided, all it has to do is to let Sinhala nationalists carry on with their dirty work. Many Tamils who are not supporters of the LTTE will conclude that the bad old days are back, and it is better to have the Tigers posing resistance to an oppressive regime rather than having no resistance at all.

The alternative is to take prompt action to bring the Sinhalese thugs to justice, and – equally important – to apologise to their victims and offer them compensation which will allow them to rebuild their lives to the maximum extent possible.

Violence against civilians in government-controlled areas is a failure for which the government must take responsibility and make amends: it is the duty of the government to protect all its citizens – whether they be Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, or anything else – from criminal violence. Strong action against all members of the security forces who were guilty of a dereliction of duty, by failing to stop the violence or by participating in it, is also called for.

Does this mean that government troops have to be sitting ducks when the LTTE targets them? Not at all. Self-defence is no offence, and any action carefully targeting those responsible for bomb and mine attacks would be appropriate.

It would be possible to justify these measures to other Tamils and the international community by explaining that the troops were acting in self-defence. Even if they lead to full-scale war, it could be argued that the war was started by the LTTE.

However, there is no justification whatsoever for attacks on unarmed Tamil civilians; indeed, this is a war crime as well as an act of terrorism.

Responsibility for such crimes does not lie with the perpetrators alone; it goes up the chain of command, through those who sponsor such actions, to the very top of the government. Unless Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to join the infamous ranks of Sri Lankan war criminals, he must ensure that all those who went on the rampage and those who sponsored them are punished, and that such incidents never happen again.

This is also the only way to end the war and unite the country. So long as Tamils feel that the government does not protect them, the LTTE will retain its power, the war will go on, and the country will remain divided.

The Barbaric Doctrine of Collective Guilt and Collective Punishment.

The President stated that Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim civilians were killed in the bomb blast, in addition to one soldier. In other words, Tamils were among the victims. Yet his Special Defence Advisor, H.M.G.B.Kotakadeniya, justified the subsequent attacks on Tamils by saying that if the LTTE trigger an incident, “there’ll be repercussions”.

This statement betrays gross stupidity as well as shocking brutality. According to his logic, if some innocent Tamil civilians are killed in a bomb blast, other innocent Tamil civilians are bound to be attacked in reprisal! What sense does that make?

Such a statement only makes sense if one buys into the barbaric doctrine of collective punishment. According to this, if one Tamil is guilty of a crime, then all Tamils can be punished, even if they have absolutely nothing to do with it, simply because they happen to belong to the same community.

This doctrine is shared equally by Sinhala chauvinists and the LTTE, and is used to justify acts of terrorism by both, whether it is a bomb blast or reprisal attacks on civilians. The government will fall flat on its face if it tries to get support from the international community against LTTE terrorism while anyone can point out that its own members justify and perhaps even sponsor Sinhala nationalist terrorism!

Unfortunately, it is not only the Sinhala chauvinists who buy into the doctrine of collective guilt. In their own way, Sinhalese liberals and NGO members who propagate the fiction that the LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka do the same thing.

To claim that the LTTE represents all Tamils amounts to putting forward the proposition that all Tamils are responsible for what the LTTE does: precisely the same barbaric doctrine that the Sinhala chauvinists propagate. Unless and until these people change their tune and acknowledge that the LTTE represents only a minority of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, they too share responsibility for attacks on innocent Tamil civilians.

All these people, and above all the government, must make it very clear that there is a sharp distinction between the LTTE and the majority of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, and the latter must not be punished for the simple fact that they are Tamil.

Punishing the real culprits, whether Sinhalese or Tamil, would require proper criminal investigation and prosecution of those who are guilty. If this is not done, it means that the government of Sri Lanka does not even govern the territory it already controls – in which case, what is the point of fighting for the territory currently under LTTE occupation?

The government already has a difficult task counteracting LTTE propaganda which portrays it as anti-Tamil. Foreigners – including mediapersons who ought to know better – still associate Sri Lanka with the terrible human rights violations against Tamils that took place some time ago. They are not aware of changes that have taken place over the past decade or so, and are therefore only too ready to believe LTTE propaganda.

Counteracting LTTE propaganda It is important to convince foreign governments that Tamils are not being oppressed in Sri Lanka, and that the government is committed to protecting the human and democratic rights of all its citizens, because their assistance is needed to stop the flow of funds to the LTTE. Even a single instance of retaliatory violence against Tamil civilians can be a huge boost to the LTTE propaganda machine.

Unless the government (a) acknowledges that such an attack has taken place, (b) pledges an enquiry into the violence and punishment of the culprits, (c) carries out its promise, and (d) purges itself and its armed forces from top to bottom of all those who condone Sinhala nationalist terrorism, it would be guilty of aiding and abetting the violence, thus providing further ammunition to the LTTE.

All those in Sri Lanka who are committed to peace with justice must put pressure on the government to undertake these actions and thus counteract the negative publicity generated by the shameful events of April.

The election of Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council shows that some progress has been made in convincing governments around the world that Sri Lanka is now committed to the protection of human rights, but there is still a long way to go. Ruling out attacks on Tamil civilians is a critical component in winning the propaganda war. [Source: DailyNews]

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