Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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What is Terrorism and Who is a Terrorist

by Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, Daily Mirror, date unknown

What would be very interesting to examine, especially given the definitions of terrorism below, is the relationship between state terrorism and the classic anti-insugent policy of interfering with the population 'sea' in which the insurgent 'fish' swim by the generation of fear through selected disappearances, killings, rapes and harassment and the widespread displacement and military control of the population. -- Editor

Many who attended the Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Cultural Programme at the Bishop’s College Auditorium on 31 January 2006 would remember seeing the placards held outside the gates by members of the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT) challenging attendees to publicly identify the organization responsible for Neelan’s assassination.

The objective of the Memorial Cultural Programme was to celebrate his life, and neither to mourn his death nor to spit venom on his killers. Many of us have little doubt as to the identity of that organization, or any hesitation in deploring the assassination of a widely-liked and respected person of brilliant intellect and outstanding character. But are we called upon to publicly pronounce judgement on that, or on any other assassination?

Have we, or NMAT, pronounced judgement on the assassination of Joseph Pararajasingham or Kumar Ponnambalam or the five students killed recently near a military checkpoint in Trincomalee? If, indeed, we are against assassinations, condemnation of those attributed to one party and avoiding condemnation of those attributed to other parties is, surely, counterproductive. If we have doubts as to who the assassins were, we could show our concern by demanding a thorough investigation by a body acceptable to the relatives of the victims. Those who oppose such investigations are serving to aid and abet the further commitment of such crimes.

Judicial Officers are required to pronounce judgement in cases that come up before them; so too Commissions and Committees of Inquiry duly appointed to investigate disappearances and other crimes. Sadly, little or no action has been taken to adequately investigate or to follow up on tens of thousands of disappearances and killings that appeared to be related to the ethnic conflict. If the public could be faulted, it is not for failure to pass judgement in these cases but for not pressing for full investigation by a body not linked to any of the suspected assassins. Perhaps, that body could be a specially appointed Commission of Inquiry suitably constituted and empowered; or the Human Rights Commission adequately empowered as recommended by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removals and Disappearances of Persons (Report of March 2001) and the HRC Committee of Inquiry on Disappearances in the Jaffna Region (Report of October 2003).

There are also the questions of what terrorism is, and who a terrorist is. All assassinations are unlawful and deplorable, but many may not be categorized as terrorist. There was a pioneer attempt as far back as 1937 to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition of terrorism for the proposed League of Nations Convention. But that Convention never came into existence. In keeping with the state-centred thinking prevalent at that time, the focus of the proposed Convention was, - All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public -; we note that terrorism was seen as essentially against a State.

Much has changed since then, and we now have many relevant international conventions and protocols and an understanding of terrorism as inclusive of that by the State. However, there is, as yet, no internationally accepted definition. It has been suggested that terrorism is the - peace time equivalent of war crimes - (A.P. Schmid to United Nations Crime Branch, 1992). This would include deliberate attacks on civilians, hostage taking and the killing of prisoners. Other definitions would specifically cover, - Acts of murder and destruction deliberately directed against civilians or military in non-military situations - (, - the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear - (, and - use of terror, especially the systematic use of terror by the government or other authority against particular persons or groups; a method of opposing a government internally or externally through the use of terror - (

The failure to arrive at a precise, agreed definition may be due to the fact that, - Terrorism is a controversial and subjective term with multiple definitions. One definition means a violent action targeting civilians exclusively. Another definition is the use or threatened use of violence for the purpose of creating fear in order to achieve a political, economic, religious or ideological goal - ( Moreover, it may be seen as, - a psychological strategy of war for gaining political ends by deliberately creating a well-founded climate of fear among the civilian population. Such a strategy may be used by an occupying army on the occupied population. Many terrorist acts, especially against an occupying military or against illegal occupants are acts of war or resistance, and not terrorism - (

The carefully balanced language of the UN General Assembly Resolution 51/210 of 1999 on - Measures to eliminate international terrorism - reflects the clear shift away from the exclusive statist focus of 1937. Whereas the 1937 definition was centred on - Criminal acts directed against a State -, the 1999 resolution:

(i) Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whosoever committed;

(ii) Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular person for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

My dictionary defines a terrorist simply as - one who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governance or of coercing government or community. By extension, any person or organization harbouring or assisting terrorists is tainted with terrorism, even if that person or organization is not terrorist.

While it needs to be emphasized that it would be incorrect to condemn an organization as terrorist unless terrorism is integral to its objectives, it could be argued that, based on their track record over the last two or three decades, all the armed services of the State and the allied armed groups, as well as the LTTE and allied armed groups are, to a greater or lesser degree, tainted with terrorism. If it is presumed that every part of this island is controlled either by the State or by the LTTE, there could be no armed individuals or groups that are not in some way dependant on either the State or the LTTE. It follows that either the State or the LTTE must bear direct or indirect responsibility, whether through sins of commission or omission, for all acts of terrorism in the island.

Nearly everyone claims to be against terrorism, but even unarmed individuals and groups who favour or use - terror inspiring methods of governance or coercing government or community - are caught up within the dictionary definition of a terrorist. This will include politicians, journalists, community leaders and others who seek to legitimize terrorism (including what may be claimed to be counter-terrorism) of one kind or another, or who advocate impunity to terrorists (including counter-terrorists).

The track record of those who profess to be against terrorism should bear scrutiny. The litmus test is to check for bias in their pattern of protestations. How many will pass this test? What is at stake is more than political even-handedness. It could be argued that those who are selective in their condemnation of terrorism are effectively condoning and legitimizing the acts of terror that they gloss over.

We now return to the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam. Was it a terrorist act? What of earlier political assassinations? Were those of Joseph Pararajasingham, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Gamini Dissanayake, R. Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Nalanda Ellawala, A. Amirthalingam, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and others acts of terrorism? In terms of the dictionary definition, an assassination is, however deplorable, not terrorist if the objective is not the spread of terror but the elimination of a person or a group for other reasons such as revenge, or because that person or group stood in the way of the assassins.

In contrast, exploding a bomb in a crowded public place without targeting any individual would be terrorist. Also, terrorist were the recent coordinated but scattered bombings in Colombo (24 January 2006), the burning down of the Jaffna Public Library (May 1981), the attack on Katunayake International Airport (July 2001) and, possibly, the eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province (October 1990), although there may have been no immediate causalities in any of these cases. Whether the perpetrators or the organization that commissioned it had a history of terrorism is not relevant. The classification depends not on who did it, but on whether the objective was to inspire terror or to eliminate an identified individual or individuals for other reasons.

Few countries can match Sri Lanka’s dismal record of recurrent terrorism and political assassinations. In addition to many targeted assassinations, we have had major terrorist pogroms in 1958 and 1983, and a long succession of terrorist bloodshed and massacres. These include Anuradhapura (August 1977), Kent and Dollar Farms (November 1984), Murunkan (04 December 1984), Valvettithurai Public Library (09 March 1985), Akkaraipattu (May 1985), Anuradhapura Sri Maha Bodhiya (14 May 1985), Pullumalai (November 1986), Kokkatticholai (January 1987), Aranthalawa (February 1987), Kituloothuwa (14 April 1987), Pettah (April 1987), Aranthalawa (June 1987), Jaffna Hospital (21 October 1987), Valvettithurai (02 August 1989), Rufuskulam, Thirukkovil (11 June 1990), Veeramunai Pillaiyar Temple Refugee Camp (12 July 1990), Kurukkal Madam (12 July 1990), Kaththankudy Mosque (03 August 1990), Eravur (12 August 1990), Eastern University (05 September 1990), Sathurukondan (09 September 1990), Mannar (28 October 1990), Jaffna (30 October 1990), Mailanthanai (09 August 1992), St. James Church Refugee Camp, Jaffna (November 1993), Navali RC Church (09 July 1995), Nagarkovil (21 September 1995), Ampara (October 1995), Central Bank (January 1996), Kilivetti (11 February 1996), Jaffna (July & August 1996), Jaffna (January 1997), Gonagala (September 1999), and many more, including many of the acts of violence in the NorthEast in the last three months.

There have been numerous victims and many perpetrators from among the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims; no community and no organization has the monopoly of either victimization or demonisation. There are no just assassinations or excusable acts of terrorism. We all need to press for full investigations and justice, irrespective of the identity and political claims of the perpetrators. Addressing the issues of terrorism and targeted assassinations is equally of the highest priority for all of us.