Atrocity and Proto-Genocide in Sri Lanka

by Christopher Powell and Amarnath Amarasingam,  article in ‘Understanding Atrocities: Remembering, Representing, and Teaching Genocide’ eidted by Scott W. Murray, February 2017

This paper discusses the concept of “proto-genocide.” This concept adds clarity to studies of cultural genocide by helping to distinguish between situations where a collective identity is under violent attack and situations of full-blown genocide. The distinction between “genocide” and “proto-genocide” is analogous to the distinction, in the conservation status of species, between “endangered” or “critically endangered” and “vulnerable” or “near threatened.”1 Proto-genocide helps to define the boundaries of the genocide concept while still relating it to less totalizing forms of ethnic violence.

Our argument has three main components. First, we discuss the question of what distinguishes genocide from other atrocities, and hence what are the ultimate practical implications of a campaign against genocide. This discussion provides the rationale for a concept of proto-genocide. Second, we address the boundaries of the concept of genocide. Since cultures change all the time, it is important to distinguish cultural change, even in the context of violence and atrocity, from genocide per se. To this end we propose our notion of proto-genocide, in which enabling conditions for genocide are established but wholesale cultural extermination is not yet underway. Finally, we examine the current situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Although the historical pattern of severe atrocities against Tamil people has led some commentators to describe the situation as genocidal,2 we argue that these events can be more precisely understood as an instance of proto-genocide. This analysis supports the view that tendencies toward genocide are a systemic feature of modern global society…

Our notion of proto-genocide complements and partly overlaps with Gregory Stanton’s concept of the ten stages of genocide.88 It differs in that Stanton’s work is oriented to physical genocide where ours is oriented to cultural genocide. Our notion of proto-genocide also owes much to Tony Barta’s concept of “relations of genocide” and a “genocidal society.” As Barta has written,
My conception of a genocidal society—as distinct from a genocidal state—is one in which the bureaucratic apparatus might officially be directed to protect innocent people but in which a whole race is nevertheless subject to remorseless pressures of destruction
inherent in the very nature of the society.89

While we do not suggest that the Sri Lankan state is officially directed to protect Tamil culture—quite the contrary—Barta’s key point is that cultural extermination can be accomplished through a relatively decentralized collection of institutional practices and structural relations. Similarly, Keith Doubt’s discussion of “sociocide”90 shows how even physical genocide involves violent attacks on the social institutions through which a group maintains its solidarity and shared identity. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s colonial history enables us to situate its proto-genocide on a continuum with the subaltern genocides examined by Robins and Jones.91 The concept of proto-genocide therefore helps to define a field of inquiry which up to this point has been suggested but not focally explored by genocide scholars.

Powell has argued that modern genocides are a systemic by-product of the globalizing expansion of Western civilization.92 The imposition
of the nation-state through colonialism has increased the stakes of local struggles over collective identity and created new incentives for mass violence. Under these conditions, we can expect to find proto-genocidal situations alarmingly common. Many of these might involve tribal or Indigenous peoples with small populations,93 but the condition of Tamils in Sri Lanka is nonetheless illustrative of the structural qualities of a proto-genocidal situation.

Since independence, and especially during the civil war, Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered severe atrocities. While some of these atrocities
have affected vital Tamil cultural institutions, they have not amounted to a coherent program (intended or otherwise) of cultural extermination.  However, that could change. Sinhala nationalist ideology excludes Tamils from the universe of moral obligation; this ideology, along with Sri Lankan policies towards Tamils, and the civil war itself, have contributed to what Hinton calls “genocidal priming,”94 pushing Sinhala-Tamil relations towards the kind of polarization which enables perpetrators to legitimate genocide.95 Economic and political incentives exist for the progressive disenfranchisement of Tamils, potentially up to and including their total abjection. Militarily and otherwise, Tamils have demonstrated the capacity to resist abjection and to defend the social institutions which maintain their coherence as a people. But the ongoing suppression of Tamil politics and civil society, the colonization and Sinhalization of Tamil areas by Sinhalese military officers, the loss of economic livelihood by Tamil families, and restrictions placed on Tamil mourning have the potential to gradually erode Tamil society. If this erosion goes far enough, Tamils could be unable to effectively resist more thoroughgoing measures such as the complete prohibition of Tamil language, forced conversion to Buddhism, economic expropriation, and forced dispersion—measures that could amount to a program of cultural extermination. With the election of Maithripala
Sirisena in January 2015, many in the country and abroad expressed hope that the postwar situation would change. Indeed, there are many positive signs that change is afoot: the military governor of the Northern Province was replaced with a civilian, and President Sirisena expressed some interest in inviting exiled journalists back to the country. However, Sirisena has not yet expressed a commitment to the demilitarization of the former war zones. Only time will tell whether a change in leadership will result in a change in political culture. In language analogous to that of ecological conservation, Sri Lankan Tamils are not yet critically endangered, but they are threatened. This is an issue of interest to genocide scholars, and of concern to genocide and human rights activists.

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