Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

"At War's End"

Coming out of the chauvinist closet

by Dr. S Sathananthan, March 4, 2009

The timing of Roberts’ articles is significant. He has put them out when Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism is at its zenith. Many closet chauvinists have stepped out to stand shoulder to shoulder with the apparently winning Sinhalese side.

The widely anticipated military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Mullaitivu has reinforced Sinhalese-Buddhist reactionary triumphalism, which has thrown down the gauntlet: “you are either with us or you are against us”. Michael Roberts placed two articles titled Dilemma’s At War’s End: Thoughts On Hard Realities and Dilemmas At Wars End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,in www.groundviews.com against the backdrop of black/white, either/or anti-Tamil hysteria.

Responses contesting several of Roberts’ formulations appeared in the same website between 10 February and 2 March, 2009. They came from Vasantha Raja (What’s wrong with Michael Roberts’ enthusiasm for a “knock-out blow?”), Devanesan Nesiah (What undue humanitarian concerns? - Responding to Michael Roberts), thrice from Lionel Bopage (A response to Michael Robert’s Dilemma at Wars End: Thoughts on Hard Realities and Resonating the interests of chauvinism? - My response to the two articles by Prof. Michael Roberts and The LTTE – A Spent Force?) and from Kumar David (Calling a spade a spade: Michael Roberts’ ‘moral relativism’).

Vasantha Raja exposes Roberts’ false choice – that “one has to choose between watching a knock-out blow being delivered to the conventional fighting machine of the Tigers and catering to the grave dangers faced by those SL Tamil peoples caught in the furnace of a dwindling Tigerland” – as an unconscionable justification for killing Tamil civilians merely to defeat the LTTE. Nesiah correctly dismisses as “of little relevance” the absurd and ahistorical parallels Roberts imputed between the “end point” when Allied forces entered Germany in 1944/45 and forced Germany’s surrender in WWII and the alleged “end-point” of the civil war against Tamils in Mullaitivu. Bopage’s articles exhaustively explore Roberts’ denigration of humanitarian concern for Tamil civilians as “human rights extremism”. He disputed Roberts’ assertion that concern for Tamil civilians is “utopian” and deplored his opposition to ceasefire and relief measures taken at the “end point” allegedly because they will aid the LTTE; and Bopage regrets Roberts’ “position is not only politically naïve but also resonates well with the interests of [Sinhalese] chauvinism”. David poses the rhetorical question, whether Roberts has turned into a “moral relativist…who hastens to compromise with iniquity and injustice”.

I was drawn to Roberts’ convoluted argument that most Tamil civilians in the Vanni are actually not civilians at all. “In effect,” he explains, “over the last year or so many able-bodied people in the LTTE command state have been rendered into an integral part of their logistical support for war, being more or less part of the frontline. In such circumstances, of course, the category ‘civilian’ is an ambiguous category” (emphasis mine). The LTTE worsened the ambiguity, argues Roberts: “This characteristic, the nebulous border between Tiger war-personnel and ‘civilian’ has been sharpened yet further by the fact that the Tiger leadership seduced, persuaded or coerced most of its non-combatants, whether ‘civilian’ auxiliary, ordinary civilian, aged, infirm or child, to move into LTTE-held territory as it lost ground in 2008/09” (emphasis mine).

Roberts underlines the thrust of his argument in the second article: “When mobilised for war as they have been recently, whether willingly or through conscription, these Tamils in Tigerland are transformed into auxiliaries in the war machine” (emphasis mine). Since to distinguish between Tamils loyal to the LTTE from those coerced by the organisation to fall in line, he explains in the first article, would require “an army of flies on many walls” – a patent impossibility – he cheerfully labels all Tamil civilians as “auxiliaries”.

Roberts clarifies further that “Tamil people…follow the Tigers in rejecting [Sri Lankan] identity and constituting themselves as Eelam Tamils or Ilavar”, obviously implying the government no longer has constitutional obligations to protect Vanni Tamils who effectively repudiated Sri Lankan citizenship.

Bereft of academic rigour, Roberts caricatures the vast majority of Vanni Tamil civilians are both “auxiliaries” and “Eelam Tamils” who in his view are not entitled to protection either as civilians or as Sri Lankan citizens. Perhaps he is adapting the Bush administration’s elastic interpretation of enemy combatants that Elena Kagan, the nominee for US Solicitor-General, elaborated during her confirmation hearing: that “someone suspected of helping finance Al-Qaeda should be subject to battlefield law…even if he were captured in a place like the Philippines rather than in a physical battle zone” (The Hindu; 19/feb/09).

It is in this context he questions “whether emotion and humanitarian concern have eclipsed realism and factuality” among “do-gooders” (human rights activists and some foreign governments) who in his view have not grasped the “ground reality”: that most Vanni Tamils have effectively forfeited rights to humanitarian treatment and relief through a ceasefire reserved only for actual civilians and Sri Lankan citizens.

Then, would Roberts agree if the LTTE were to apply slightly different but equally valid criteria of “support for war” to classify Sinhalese civilians as largely auxiliaries of the Sinhalese armed forces and, therefore, legitimate battlefield targets because they support the military by way of taxes, donations to the national defence fund and provision of manpower?

What about the fate of those Tamils Roberts chooses to define as “ordinary civilian, aged, infirm or child”? Roberts approvingly trots out the massacre of German civilians at the “end point” of WWII. “There was never”, declared Roberts categorically, “any question of a ceasefire in order to protect German citizens” during the military push to destroy the Nazis, obviously implying the murder of civilian Tamils is similarly necessary to crush the LTTE. At no point in either article did he say “ordinary civilian, aged, infirm or child” must be rescued.

In short, Roberts has rehashed the Bush administration’s draconian and almost universally condemned illegal combatants approach to prisoners US armed forces took in the inter-State war in Afghanistan and applies it to re-define Vanni Tamil civilians as “auxiliaries” and thereby sets them up as legitimate battlefield targets in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Where no excuse is available, he draws inspiration from the barbaric WWII slaughter of German civilians – which today would be defined as a war crime.

To convince those readers who do not buy his disingenuous ploy to exclude Vanni Tamils from the purview of international humanitarian law, Roberts’ diabolical argument takes a grotesque twist. He refers to recent calls for a ceasefire and queries disdainfully, “let me ask: how will it help the Tamil ‘civilians’ who are within the LTTE territories?” Lest we forget, Roberts places the word civilians within single-quotes to underscore his claim that there are few actual civilian Tamils in Vanni.

And why would a ceasefire not benefit Tamils? During the temporary and short ceasefire to rescue civilians, Roberts helpfully explains, “the LTTE will marshal its depleted forces and prepare to do or die in its typically vigorous fashion, while auxiliary ‘civilians’ and ordinary civilians will have to commit themselves to more privation” since he expects Vanni Tamils, “mostly loyal to [LTTE’s] goals”, would stay with the organisation. “When war resumes”, he points out, “the Tamil ‘civilians’ would be in the same boat as before or worse off because the final tasks of the SL armed forces would be a few notches more difficult”, that is, the Sinhalese war machine would have to exert greater effort to decimate Tamils.

The inescapable conclusion here is that Roberts contends it is better and indeed merciful to let Tamils die now rather than put them through the additional “privation” the LTTE would heap on them as it prepares, during a ceasefire, for a fight to the finish and then have them slaughtered by the Sinhalese army when the war restarts!

But he claims to “object with all my passion” to “the LTTE…utilising the impending ‘civilian tragedy’ as a form of political blackmail directed at GOSL and the world-at-large”; that is, Roberts resents LTTE’s manoeuvres to defend itself and save the lives of Vanni Tamils!! Note that he places the words civilian tragedy within quotes, as if there is some doubt in his mind!!!

The last major point I want to touch on is Roberts’ unsubstantiated claim (based on a comment by a solitary “Tamil intellectual” in Colombo) that the LTTE is consumed by a “death wish”. He then proceeds to allege that “at end-point now, the LTTE is imposing this death wish on the peoples remaining within its reach” but offers not a shred of evidence to back up his wild assertions. On a personal note, I produced and Sabiha Sumar (my wife) directed a documentary film on the LTTE women cadre including female Black Tigers in 1996, commissioned and broadcasted by Channel Four TV, London. We crossed over to LTTE-held territory, shared their camp over several days and nights, and filmed the cadre at work and at play. We interviewed them at length. We saw no evidence whatsoever to indicate a “death wish”. If Roberts had done his homework, which a competent researcher would, he may have discovered that the LTTE’s military culture is informed by almost two millennia-old Tamil heroic war poetry in Puranaanooru with which Tamils identify totally. That radical culture cannot be reduced to his irrelevant “sacrificial ideology”, which under the tattered garb of academic scrutiny in fact cruelly mocks the timeless cry “freedom or death” that captures the indomitable spirit of brave men and women who resolutely fought against injustice and oppression throughout the ages to build a more just world he benefits from.

The timing of Roberts’ articles is significant. He has put them out when Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism is at its zenith. Many closet chauvinists have stepped out to stand shoulder to shoulder with the apparently winning Sinhalese side. Since Roberts is also coming out, the body of research he has conducted so far on ethnicity in Sri Lanka will be shrouded in the charge of anti-Tamil chauvinism.

Perhaps that is a burden Roberts is willing to bear since his two articles would assure xenophobic Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacists that at the end of the day he is “with them” and ensure they do not bar him from the country but welcome him to continue his research and field investigation – his bread and butter.