Why Tamil Nadu is right to call Sri Lanka's 'war' a genocide

A part of the national debate on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue in the wake of the second US resolution at the UNHRC in another two days is increasingly disturbing because it’s not only dismissive of the tenets of human rights, but is advanced without any cultural and political context.

The most repeated keywords - sovereignty and geopolitics - summarise the ruthlessness of the argument. Human lives and brutal memories don’t matter in a world of perceived geopolitical gains.

It’s not surprising that the purveyors of this view - which dismisses evidence-based charges of war crimes and human rights violations against the Sri Lankan government as a sovereign nation’s internal issue - comprises former diplomats, civil servants, strategic affairs hawks and some fringe beneficiaries.

They are also unabashed in their utilitarian view that supporting the Sri Lankan government is unavoidable for India’s geopolitical gains, because otherwise you know, China will eat us up.

The most shocking element of the systematic pro-Sri Lanka voice is the rubbishing of the argument that what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 was a genocide. Tamil parties, including both the ruling AIADMK and the DMK, and rights activists across the world insist that it was a genocide. They want the UNHRC resolution to say that. How can the world have one standard for Sri Lanka and another for Guatemala?

Protests in Chennai on Sri Lankan genocide: Firstpost

Protests in Chennai on Sri Lankan genocide: Firstpost

By the way what’s a genocide?

According to the UN, "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (OHCHR)

Then why, to some, would the Sri Lankan action not be a genocide?

Because, apparently, in a war there will be civilian casualties and military excesses. This is the unavoidable sad truth of wars. The world wars had incidents wherein a large number of innocent civilians lost lives, but in the interest of the majority and the security of the rest of the world, they were justifiable. When people from a particular race die and suffer in a “war” at the hands of its own government, it is not a genocide!

So, The first step towards building this argument is changing the terminology from civil war to mere 'war'. But a war against one’s own people?

Granted, the separatist movement in the North and the East had become a bloody terrorist group that was killing countless innocents, but that doesn’t mean that the country couldn’t oragnise any other response than going to war against its own civilian citizens. It’s alright if you could surgically hit at terror, but not scorch the land along with its people to clean it up.

And in this case, the government forces killed its citizens of a particular ethnicity, namely Tamils. Remember, that we are living in a world where the independence movements of Kosovo and Timor Leste were backed by the international community, and Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt is on trial for genocide committed during the civil war in his country.

And the estimate of civilian casualties by the UN is about 40,000. This number is proportionately huge compared to the total number of Tamils in the area at the time of the “war” - about 300,000. Roughly one-seventh 'cleaned up'. Why is this not a genocide or ethnic cleansing?

Of course, Sri Lanka had a bloody problem on its hands- the Tamil Tigers had ravaged their country for a long time and they wanted a solution. But what the government conveniently ignored was that the terror was the result of ignoring a political issue that represented the aspirations of a culturally and politically distinctive majority of Tamils in their homeland. Statistically, Tamils account for 18 per cent of Sri Lanka; but in their homeland of the north and the east they were more than 90 per cent.

The pro-Sri Lanka commentators argue without a context - which is that the North and east had a past of cultural and political autonomy which couldn't have been dominated by a Sinhala government. The Tamil and Sinhala regions had been distinctively separate and autonomous and it's only because of the colonial rule that they came together as a single nation state.

How can anybody forcefully take away the centuries old cultural and political autonomy of a population and apply instruments of Sinhala homogenisation? Even a cursory reading of Sri Lanka’s political history is good enough to get a sense of the systematic efforts at Sinhala nationalisation - and the resultant marginalisation- of its Tamils, who are the majority in their homeland, by the successive governments in Colombo.

The only way that the Tamil region could have been part of the country was through sheer cultural and political autonomy as we have in India. That is what India also had pushed for in its 1987 accord and the 13th amendment. However successive Buddhist nationalist governments never wanted to acknowledge that. You shudder watching videos of Sinhalese army men questioning Tamils (before perhaps executing them) in Sinhala or Sinhala tinged pidgin. The same thing also happened (and still happens) in the Tamil dominated Wellawatta in Colombo.

Now, the argument over numbers of Tamils during the final push and the number of civilian deaths.

The question is if that many people really died. And the instrument of obfuscation here is the methodology of size estimation. Pro-Sri Lanka advocates say the UN or the others didn’t use a reliable methodology. Without a census, how do you do a headcount?

We are talking about a population that has been untouched by any other government than the parallel establishment of the LTTE for more than two decades. This is the same situation that social scientists come across in terms of estimating numbers of a hidden populations (say sex workers or gay men in a society where their activity is either illegal or stigmatised). Methods of size estimation that might not be completely scientific, but practical (for e.g. snowballing) is perfectly fine in such situations. You find them even in peer reviewed journals. And it is not a new practice.

The issue here is not about a few hundred or thousand people more or less, or not even about numbers, but the sheer callous act of willfully killing people, including women and children, of a particular ethnicity. While trying to disprove the gravity by questioning the numbers, what they also do is conveniently ignore the qualitative accounts of witnesses and survivors and other forms of evidence which established that the army targeted its own people.

In fact, there is a huge mountain of such evidence. These accounts are ratified by the UN and others as well. Using cold numbers to cover up State-sponsored excesses is an old trick.

The Cage by UN spokesman in Colombo during the “war”, Gordon Weiss, has extensive accounts by UN officials trapped inside the war zone that exposes the culpability of the government. It clearly says how the military targeted civilian areas when the UN aid workers sent the government their GPS coordinates, and finally how they stopped this standard operating procedure.

At the height of the war, the proxies of the nationalists and the government targeted the UN and even charged that they were harbouring Tamil terrorists. It's in this context of racial hatred and paranoia that killing of Tamils becomes a real genocide!

This is where stories - and not statistics - as Shiv Vishwanathan said on Firstpost, are important. This is where memories are important in standing up to ruthlessness as Salman Rushdie said. I have attended several "courts of women" (public hearing of women who suffered atrocities from racism to trafficking) in different countries and have personally experienced that up close, the trauma of even a single instance of rights violation passes through generations until there is an emotional closure.

I guess that is why oral testimonies, Gordon Weiss, the UN, Human Rights Watch and Channel 4 documentaries make more sense than the numbers of casualties, injuries and rehabilitation.

A recent mainstream Brazilian film - Elite Squad 2 -, by a scholarly Jose Padilha (who made the sensational documentary Bus 174) shows how the political-police mafia guns down inconvenient criminals in certain pockets of Rio favelas so that the slum-dwellers become useful as consumers in the market. In official accounts, we would have seen only some numbers and cleansing of a slum.

Lastly, the point of keeping away from countries in the name of sovereignty is a flawed argument because in that case, people should be left to suffer famines and genocides for Kosovos, Guatemalas, Sudans and Rwandas to happen again and again!

(The Buddhist right wing in Sri Lanka is now targeting Muslims. The Bodu Bala Sena (Literally the army of Budhist power) group have recently forced the abolishment of Halal certification and now they want to change how Muslim women dress. Rajapaksa probably now knows that the Tamils will not vote for him and hence doesn't want the Sinhala vote to split between him and the UNP. So he is targeting the Muslims as well so that there is a majority consolidation as we saw elsewhere.)


Updated Date: Mar 20, 2013 18:47 PM

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