Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How national movements can be suicidal – A lesson from Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka

It is not uncommon for ultra-nationalist movements and regimes to lead their own people into catastrophe.  (Think of Milosevic and Radovan Karadjic, just for a start, and plenty of other examples should come to mind.)  But the fate of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has been especially tragic in this regard.  This Sunday's New York Times carried a powerful and moving piece by Aatish Taseer on the devastation left behind by the decades-long war for an independent "Tamil Eeelam", now utterly defeated.  That devastation is not just material, but also cultural and moral and psychological, one might almost say existential.  And in important ways this devastation was, in part, self-inflicted – or, more precisely, brought down on the Sri Lankan Tamils by the movement that claimed to be leading them, representing their aspirations, and acting on their behalf.

(Saying that, I should add, is in no way intended to excuse or whitewash the mass atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government and its armed forces in the course of the civil war, nor the repression that continues in its aftermath.)

Taseer's piece, "A People Without a Story", is worth reading in full.  But here is the heart of his argument:
Four years ago this week, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam announced that their struggle for an independent homeland in northern Sri Lanka had “reached its bitter end.” The group had been fighting on behalf of the Tamil people for more than a quarter-century, and its defeat was absolute.

Today, great sections of Tamil country are still a scene of devastation. The houses are either destroyed or brand-new; the land is uncultivated and overgrown; there are forests of decapitated Palmyra palms, damaged by heavy shelling. And then there are the relics of war — graveyards of L.T.T.E. vehicles rotting in the open air; the remains of a ship, its superstructure blown to pieces and in whose rusting starboard a gaping hole gives on to blue sea.

When I first arrived there last March, I saw the loss in primarily military terms. But the feeling of defeat among the Tamils of Sri Lanka goes far deeper than the material defeat of the rebels. It is a moral and psychological defeat.  [....]

For the truth is that the Tamil defeat has less to do with the vanquishing of the L.T.T.E. by the Sri Lankan Army and much more to do with the self-wounding (“suicidal” would not be too strong a word) character of the movement itself. The Tigers were for so long the custodians of the Tamil people’s hope of self-realization. But theirs was a deeply flawed organization. Under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tigers pioneered and perfected the use of the suicide bomber. This was not simply a mode of warfare, but almost a symbol, an expression of a self-annihilating spirit. And it was to self-annihilation that Mr. Prabhakaran committed the Tamils. He was a man who, like a modern-day Coriolanus, seemed to lack the imagination for peace. He took the Tamils on a journey of war without end, where no offer of compromise was ever enough, and where all forms of moderation were seen as betrayal.

One evening, soon after I arrived in Jaffna, the capital of the northern province, I had dinner at the house of a woman whose sister had been part of a circle of academics who had published a book in 1990 called “The Broken Palmyra.” The book was, by no means, a simple polemic against the Tigers; it was an academic work that, in trying to be evenhanded, had taken account of both government and L.T.T.E. atrocities. But this was too treasonous for Mr. Prabhakaran, and my host’s sister was killed even before the book went to print.

[....]  There was the Muslim woman who, along with all the other Muslim families of Jaffna, had, one morning in 1990, been summoned to a school compound and given two hours to leave the city of her birth. They were told to leave behind their valuables and the deeds to their houses. When they asked why they were being expelled, they were told that they were lucky not to be killed. Then they were loaded into lorries and escorted to the border of the district.  [....]

[In the final showdown in 2009], it was Mr. Prabhakaran’s express strategy to retreat with an enormous civilian population — 300,000 people, some say — and to use them as a human shield against the advancing army. It was his intention to let so many Tamils die that the international community (read, the West) would be forced to intervene, and the Tamils would be granted their homeland.

But here he made a grave mistake: he either overestimated his own importance; or else, the West’s sense of decency. For the West, occupied with problems more pressing, let as many Tamils die as had to die for the war to be won.
[JW:  Actually, focusing so exclusively on "the West" here is misleading, and an uncharacteristic lapse into cliché. By the end, the Sri Lankan Tamils were so isolated that the Sri Lankan government was receiving arms and active support from a remarkably wide range of non-western governments, including countries like India and Pakistan that agree on little else, along with China and Russia and so on. And the UN "Human Rights" Council rushed to pass a resolution commending the Sri Lankan government on its final victory and congratulating it for its "continued commitment" to "the promotion and protection of all human rights", even as the UNHRC staff on the ground were sending back reports about war crimes and other mass atrocities on both sides.  For what it's worth, western governments represented on the UNHRC voted to condemn and investigate both the government and the Tigers.]
This was an added layer of shame in the Tamil defeat. It was not just that they had lost the war. It was also that the grass-roots movement they originated, and for which they had paid taxes and sacrificed able-bodied men and women, had, in the end, been more vicious to them than to anyone else. [....]

The north of Sri Lanka today is a spectacle of Sinhalese triumphalism. A victorious army is rebuilding new roads, grabbing land for itself (6,000 acres, rumor has it), and displaying the spoils of war before tourists from the south.

Even when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa acts magnanimously toward the Tamil people, by building new infrastructure projects, for instance, the Tamils seem to feel that their defeat is being rubbed in their faces. And they are not wrong.  [....]

They are now a people without a story, a traumatized people, devastated by decades of war and migration, whose dream of self-determination was hijacked by the nihilistic vision of their leader and turned to nightmare  [....]
There are lessons here that self-styled "revolutionary" and "resistance" movements in other parts of the world, whether driven by nationalism or religion or some combination of the two, might ponder carefully.

–Jeff Weintraub