Deadly Circle of Questions: Sri Lanka

We took advantage of a lazy Saturday afternoon to catch up on reading. We caught a San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Sri Lanka’s Future Down A Rough Road.” The article was bylined by Dexter Filkins of the Los Angeles Times. It bothered us.

What we learned:

Sri Lanka is an island about the size of West Virginia, 30 miles off the south coast of India. Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a civil war for 15 years. Principals are 19,000 government troops, and 5,000 “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam”, a feared and popular guerrilla band. The government represents the predominantly Buddhist ethnic Sinhalese population (75%), while the Tigers state that they represent the predominantly Hindu Tamils (18%). The military battle is over turf. The Tigers control a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka territory, control of which has grown and shrunk over the years. The battle now focuses on a 19-mile stretch of government road that cuts through the Tamil “stronghold”.

The Tigers are a separatist movement, demanding a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in a corner of this tiny territory. The Tigers are respected in both civilian and military circles for their fierceness, and for their repertoire of assassinations and suicide bombings. They operate a clandestine radio station and enjoy widespread popular sympathy. The Tigers seem to claim that a separatist solution is the only answer to widespread ethic discrimination in education and employment.

The government position seems to be the standard reactive-government posture: the rebels are criminals and must be hunted down and executed until the fighting stops. The government has promised an end to human rights abuses, and promises constitutional reform and free elections. As elsewhere in the world, this has predictably been postponed for the reason that securing the polling places would divert troops from the current military campaign to hunt down and exterminate the opposition.

The newspaper article did not discuss political orientations of either side, or what programs and platforms each side are really offering once the fighting stops, if it ever does.

The population of Sri Lanka is 18,000,000 people. The reported military casualties from the latest fighting: 1,800 rebels and 1,600 government soldiers. Since this civil war began in 1983, over 50,000 people have been killed.

Our take on this:

Since the fighting began in 1983, some 25,000 combatants have killed 50,000 people. This suggests 25,000 civilian casualties, or a 50% combatant-to-civilian kill ratio. This in itself is appalling, but we would be surprised if the kill statistics of other, better-known wars weren’t far worse.

While the military battle in Sri Lanka is over turf, the real battle, of course, is over people: who gets to govern them, who gets to control them, who gets to act on their behalf.

My generation has watched these grim statistics played out again and again in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Uganda, Mexico, Ireland, Iraq … even a better student of history and geography might have a tough time with this enumeration.

It is my hope that the 20th century will be best remembered as the century in which governments can become public enemy number one.

From the established government point of view, an entrenched rebel movement is a usurping government. People will tend to “take sides” based on real or perceived advantages to them, but it seems hard to deny that when there’s sufficient unrest to sustain a popular guerrilla movement, there’s a problem. Blaming the other side, or “outside agitators”, will not make the problem go away.

Ethnic discrimination in education and employment would certainly be a plausible cause of civil unrest in any country.

Where indiscriminant killing of civilian populations is involved, whether government or terrorist actions is involved, it matters little whether the in-charge militia is “of the people, by the people and for the people”, or just “for the people”.

I see a specter of dueling governments wasting the best and brightest of each generation in a calculated fraud perpetrated in the name of future generations. The fraud become self-perpetrating in that, if successful, future generations will be unable to escape from it, either.

Each generation before us has seen this cycle, also.

While this specter is hardly unique to the 20th century, this is the first century in which mankind has had almost unlimited media access to what’s really going on.

We are being told daily that the World will not be safe until the unruly civilian populace is entirely rid of handguns and loose liquor laws. Meanwhile, governments are decimating entire populations, and not infrequently their own, on an unparalleled scale. All of this is done in the name of freedom.

“Freedom”, for whom? The answer is that, when one side has finally become a clear winner, that which had been won, at great cost to human life and livelihood, too often becomes the unfettered freedom to set up an oppressive regime of one’s own. While there are no civil wars with happy endings, who alive today can remember a just war?

The hugest territorial wars of the 20th century, notably WWII, seemed unavoidable. That war may be the last one in which there were clear-cut good guys and bad guys. I do not have an answer to prevent these wars, except that, perhaps, a world less tolerant of discrimination and persecution in the first place would not have let it get that far.

The large “internal wars” of the 20th century – notably the great decimating purges of China, Russia and Africa – were tolerated by the rest of the World to avoid the appearance of “meddling in the internal affairs” of governments engaged in unparalleled, unthinkable wholesale slaughter of their own citizens.

The atomic doomsday card did make it more difficult, for better and for worse, for governments to bully each other into compliance with national agendas. Simply declaring war on transgressors often became unthinkable. As world attention turned to examining the workings of governments rather than progress of military campaigns, this may have had a beneficial side effect.

If the world allowed for up-front accountability of the side that initiated agression, against its own citizens or those of other countries, there would be far fewer “just wars”. Our throwaway attitude toward human life has to be stopped.

In this modern information age, I wonder how long the young – who are primarily called to fight and die for government-defined causes – are going to put up with this. A Sri Lankan who survived from teenager in the ’80’s to adult today, would now be 30 years old, a prime earning age, ready to tap, through war taxes and other impositions for another 30 years, to make the World not a better place in which to live, but worse.

The standard of measurement here should be the individual human life and lifetime, not the durability of a political party and its government apparatus. In a day and age when a handful of endangered animal or plant species can stop a billion-dollar development project dead in its tracks, should not the individual human lifetime be afforded the same serious consideration?

A given citizen only has one lifetime to waste for his country. This is an unavoidable inconvenience, a matter of perhaps some small regret to governments, but it ought to make an enormous difference to us.

I think it’s time to start throwing into open question the almost unlimited lack of restraint upon governments that kill.

I have never considered myself a pacificist, and still don’t. Neither have I ever had a high opinion of the prospect of a strong World Court. World opinion is just starting to take on a coherency and resolute determination unknown in previous eras. World understanding of personal freedoms – liberty – actually seems to be blossoming. Perhaps the idea of a citizenry taking its own government to a higher court needs to be looked at more seriously.

But, let’s see, how would that work? First, we’ll need to re-think what governments can be allowed to do to each other – and to us.

Copyright Alex Forbes August 8, 1998

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