War on principles

I don’t oppose all wars… What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war… A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.
Speech by Sen. Barack Obama, delivered on 26 October 2002 at an anti-war rally in Chicago

I’m often asked in person and through feedback on the citizen journalism website I edit, Groundviews , whether I am against war. By this most of my interlocutors implicitly wish to ascertain whether I am opposed to the war waged by Mahinda Rajapakse’s administration against the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE). Many have their minds already made up that I am a (Sinhala Buddhist) disbeliever in the government’s sincerity to wipe out terrorism from Sri Lanka. This is not kosher particularly in the South of Sri Lanka today.

Partly because of the increasing hate I face online and in person, I have asked myself a simple question – am I wrong in opposing this government? Could it be that what this administration is doing is what is really needed to crush terrorism? How is it the fact that my own family fervently believes that this war can be won, the LTTE defeated and faith in our democracy restored, and I don’t? Could they be right, along with millions of Sinhalese who seem convinced that a military solution is possible and have lost faith in peace negotiations with an armed LTTE.

The question whether I am against war is easy to answer. I am not. As a student of conflict resolution, it is untenable to be opposed to all wars at all times. History is rich in its record of bloody wars waged against injustice, oppression and slavery. I am not a pacifist, though I am deeply partial to non-violent and civil social and political intercourse. I believe wars need to be fought, but they must be fought for and judged by a higher set of principles that shape the actions and sense of purpose of those engaged in it. Therefore, I am vehemently opposed to two wars in Sri Lanka. One, a war I was born into, begun by the LTTE and in turn the out-growth of decades of myopic majoritarian legislation on, among others, language, education and public service. The other a war of attrition conducted against the LTTE by the Rajapakse administration. Both are a mirror image of each other. Both are based on a viciously exclusive, single-minded pursuit of an absolute goal that is all consuming, demanding unquestioned obsequiousness and trucks no dissent whatsoever. I believe that a war fought thus can never be just, or end in a just peace. But I find it a real challenge to be principally opposed to this war and say as much when I am asked the question as to whether I am a patriot or a terrorist, whether I am with the regime or against it.

Nobody really listens, or wants to.

The excesses of the LTTE are legion. However, our arrant disgust of the LTTE is matched and even exceeded by the outrageous behaviour of a government that fully embodies, quite unashamedly and without the slightest sense of irony, the very terrorism it seeks to eradicate. From a President with a marked disdain for constitutional governance (or recalling how Gore Vidal referred to Bush at the recent Galle Literary Festival, he may well be our local dumbo) to the execrable characters related or close to him in his government with a penchant for wanton violence with complete impunity, there is no conceivable way in which this administration can convince me that they hold the key to peace and democracy in Sri Lanka. They are to me as retarded as the LTTE, which is disturbing in that this is after all, a government elected by peoples of Sri Lanka to engender peace, now behaving in the same manner as a terrorist organisation banned in many countries globally. It certainly isn’t Prabhakaran’s sole prerogative any more to call up Editors of newspapers with death threats, beat up journalists, censor the media, abduct, torture and murder civilians, aid and abet the recruitment of children as soldiers and vindictively seek to silence voices of dissent.

So there’s the problem.

This war of attrition by the State and the LTTE against each other is a Sisyphean attempt to secure social and political justice through military means. As genuinely frightening (and dangerous) a prospect it is today, we must oppose this senseless war and the actions of those who perpetuate it for their own benefit. But that’s easier said than done. As I’ve discovered through responses to my own writing, censure one party and the others become your best friends. Censure the other and they scream blue murder for only castigating them. Write on principle against the war writ large and you become ripe pickings for everyone with a vested interest in its perpetuation. National security arguments arbitrarily brought in to protect the significant corruption of government and vilify those who seek to expose it, deportations of foreign nationals branded as undermining our sovereignty, public ridicule and hate campaigns against investigative media tatter our already worn-out fabric of democracy. The point of a principled opposition to this war is simply because it has gone beyond that point of no return when nepotism, corruption and individual agendas in pursuit of absolute power have taken over whatever it is that the war was supposed to be about. It is a war that will not bring peace or democracy to Sri Lanka and because we cannot even question its raison d’être, it is a war that really has no end, for we have become what we are fighting against and to question that is to really look at ourselves and what we have become. The truth is ugly.

These are matters of irrefutable scholastic record. They do not, however, figure in the public imagination. The results of the Peace Confidence Index poll conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives in November 2007 clearly indicate millions of voters blissfully ignorant of the significant corruption, gross economic mismanagement and general decay of the Rajapakse regime. For them, the military is winning, our Army are heroes sacrificing their lives for our tomorrows, Rajapakse and Gotabaya are our saviours, Prabharakan is a schmuck, the International Community can go to hell, UN Under-Secretary Generals are in the pay of the LTTE, we Sinhalese, speaking Sinhalese, can manage our own affairs thank you very much and the rest can just put up or shut up.

With all traditional media under unprecedented attack in Sri Lanka, it’s also highly unlikely that the public will ever come to grips with any alternative perspectives and ideas in support of democratic, reconciliation, sustainable development oriented alternatives and ideas.

Deeply resonant of the timbre of war cries in Sri Lanka today, Obama in 2002 spoke of “weekend warriors” in the US Administration who “shoved their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” This was not, to put it lightly, a popular position for a Black Senator to take in 2002, when the Bush administration’s war cries were at their zenith and its war machinery primed for action against an imagined enemy. It was, however, a principled and a courageous position – morally as well as politically. Sadly though, we have no equivalent of an Obama in any of our political parties today. We possibly never did. Even more depressingly, a civil society in Colombo commandeered by the vicious parochialism of a few and at war with itself offers little hope of any meaningful, principled alternatives to this war.

In all his Heroes Day speeches, Prabhakaran is blind to the fact that he is solely responsible for significantly enervating and viciously destroying a progressive, constructive Tamil nationalism even in the face of an apathetic State. As a columnist on Groundviews noted recently, “ … the LTTE’s own unreconstructed behaviour brought about ridicule on, as well as apprehensions about, the entire Tamil nationalist project.” In his Presidential Election manifesto in 2005 , Mahinda Rajapakse claims he will “respect all ethnic and religious identities, refrain from using force against anyone and build a new society that protects individuals and social freedoms”. However, the sordid record of his actions over the past two years is an incredible and indubitable record of his hypocrisy.

A war conducted by either of these two charlatans is by definition unprincipled.

It is a war doomed to fail.

A version of this article appears in the Daily Mirror of 13th February 2008.


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