By Mark Salter –
First, an apology: just when my marathon exchange with Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ) finally appeared to be over…. well goodness, here it comes again! Out of respect for your long-suffering readership, then, I will attempt to be as brief – and final – as possible.
DJ’s ‘final’ riposte raises four important issues. The first concerns fascism and terrorism. Here DJ alleges that my approach to the LTTE is based on the alleged category error of ‘confusing terrorism with fascism’. Ironically, however, his argument in support of this contention rests on precisely the flaw of which he accuses me. First a basic distinction between the two concepts in focus. Fascism is fundamentally an ideology, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an extreme right-wing political system or attitude that is in favour of strong central government, aggressively promoting your own country or race above others, and that does not allow any opposition.’
Terrorism, by contrast, should be defined instrumentally: specifically as a means of, or strategy for, using violence and intimidation to further wider e.g. political and/or religiously-defined goals. Viewed from this perspective it becomes clear why describing the LTTE as ‘classically fascist’ or otherwise, as DJ insists on doing, is at the very least highly problematic. Prabhakaran’s penchant for the ruthless suppression of dissent – real or imagined – within (and without) the LTTE is unquestionable. Additionally, there is indeed an argument to made for the view that the argument for Tamil Eelam was at least subliminally rooted in a long-standing Dravidian view of Tamils as superior to the Sinhalese. Beyond that, however, pace the definition noted above it’s hard to see any sense in which the LTTE can realy be defined as fascist – classically or otherwise.
Indeed in terms of the LTTE’s professed ideology as expressed in, for example, the writings of its chief ideologist Anton Balasingham, there are solid grounds for suggesting that ‘Eelamism’ in its specific, LTTE variant was located at precisely the opposite end of the political spectrum to fascism. Balasingham’s understanding of ‘self-determination’, for example – a key term in the Tiger’s political lexicon from the 1985 Thimpu Declaration onwards – is explicitly based on the political programs of kindred ‘national liberation struggles’ of the 1970s and 80s, many of these in fact welded to some variant of the Marxist/Maoist/Castroist Weltanschauung embraced by DJ himself.
DJ’s own category confusion, moreover, is aptly illustrated by the fact that in a number of instances, the evidence he supplies In support of the ‘LTTE as fascist’ contention in fact illustrates what is usually considered terrorist activity. Even the examples he provides that do not fall into this category – in particular the murder of internal opponents or competitors – signally fail to support his overall ‘LTTE as fascist’ thesis.
Why? Starting from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – and on, most spectacularly, through the terrors of the Stalin era – the Soviet Union proved a seasoned practitioner of the ruthless persecution, purging, execution and – in the case of the 1932-33 Ukrainian Holodomor – systematic starvation of millions of its own citizens: a macabre political quality unrivalled at the time by any bar Nazi Germany. And similar observations apply to any number of post-World War II communist regimes: Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mengistu’s Ethiopia and the post-World War II Stalin era dictatorships of Central-Eastern Europe, to mention a few salient examples. Yet although they adopted similar practices, for example with respect to their – again, real or imagined – opponents, these regimes were surely the precise political antithesis of fascism.
What’s really in focus here, I would suggest, is two things that DJ conflates, namely (gruesome) methods and ideology. The point is further amplified if you take into account the fact that, starting from Franco’s Spain, moving on through 1960s Greece, Salazar-era Portugal, Pinochet’s Chile and the whole gamut of Central and Latin American right-wing military dictatorships over the last 70 years, remarkably similar methods of intimidation, persecution and elimination have been used by regimes from the polar opposite end of the political spectrum to Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China et al.
Accordingly, pointing to the LTTE’s use of similar methods of suppression, intimidation etc. does nothing to prove that they were a fascist organization, everything to underline their ruthless intolerance of dissent and readiness to deploy any and every practice – suicide bombers included – in the lexicon of terrorist methodology to further their goals.
Authoritarian? Most certainly. Ruthless? Undoubtedly. Terror – as practised by Prabhakaran against the movement’s perceived enemies – was a gruesome, murderous modus operandi. But it was assuredly not an ideology – fascist or otherwise. In a manner akin to the political confusions stemming from the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’, to treat the former (terrorism) as the latter (fascism) conflates two distinct operational categories – strategy and ideology –in a manner that only serves to confuse, not clarify matters. In sum, if anyone’s guilty of category confusion regarding the terrorism-fascism relationship it’s DJ, not myself.
How, then, to explain the enduring appeal of the ‘fascist LTTE’ trope deployed by DJ and other apologists for the underlying official rationale for the war’s final phase aka Eelam War IV? A pointer is provided by Godwin’s law, a popular internet adage to the effect that the longer an online discussion continues, the greater the probability of a comparison involving Hitler and the Nazis emerging.
At which point enter DJ centre stage. What are the terms in which he dismisses ‘certain Lankan politicians’ and a ‘particular political perspective for Sri Lankans’ I am alleged to have defended earlier in our debate? Answer: as ‘absurd as would have been a commendation of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich’. Result pace DJ: an opponent tarred with the brush of Nazi appeasement. Intellectual victory secured. Story. End of.
In reality, however, DJ’s argument is one more example of an intellectual slight of hand with a long, wearily familiar history: and one chiefly deployed by hawkish types everywhere attempting to undermine opponents of any given war via smear tactics involving the resort toGodwin’s law or some variant of it. From my own experience I well recall how the UK’s Thatcher-era government tried to dismiss peace activists like myself, along with hundreds of thousands of others opposed to the early 1980s deployment of a new generation of US nuclear weapons in Britain and other European NATO countries, via the mechanical application of the ‘Munich-like appeasers’ canard.
Then we were depicted as a new generation of Chamberlains bent on appeasing the existential threat to the ‘free world’ posed by the Soviet Union. Nearly 40 years on, and in a very different context, DJ suggests that in defending the efforts of ‘certain Lankan politicians’, in particular ‘our local Chamberlain and his co-thinkers’ to negotiate with the LTTE (we all know who he means here), I can once again be summarily dismissed for having joined the ranks of another, more recent bunch of supposed ‘appeasers’. (In passing, note that while the vocabulary changes from context to context, the ‘appeal to Godwin’ type argument’s essential grammar and syntax remains essentially unchanged, irrespective of the contextual particularities.)
In the Lankan case, as used by DJ et al this argument’s supposed strength is twofold. First it is (wrongly) believed to see off arguments in support of any attempt(s) to reach a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. Second, by the same token it supposedly provides retrospective vindication for a strategy premised on the wholesale military defeat of the Tigers: a strategy pursued with vigour by the Sri Lankan armed forces under then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa: initially with a modicum of caution (2006-2007), subsequently with all guns blazing, an approach culminating in victory i.e. the spectacularly bloody military endgame of May 2009.
Ultimately, and for reasons outlined above, the ‘’fascist appeaser’ argument against efforts to negotiate with the LTTE amounts in other words to little more than an ineffectual, misplaced attempt to close down discussion of the alternatives to war via a narrow, highly partisan interpretation of the dynamics of the Sri Lankan conflict.
Second, DJ moves onto another error of interpretation, to wit his contention that my use of the examples of Afghanistan and N. Ireland provides another example of my alleged descent into category confusion. In support of this view, in both cases DJ notes some (obvious) contextual differences from Sri Lanka. But in doing so he appears to have missed my main point, which was to note that in both the examples cited as in Sri Lanka, making peace of necessity involves talking to one’s enemies, not one’s friends – irrespective of their ideologio-political hue or geographic provenance, I should perhaps have added for the sake of clarity. Regardless of DJ’s misdirected response, moreover, I firmly believe this perspective constitutes an central point of departure for any serious analysis of the dynamics, ethics, outcomes – and yes, pitfalls – of ‘Talking To Terrorists’.
Third, DJ claims that, allegedly in support of the ‘old trope’ that the Norwegian facilitators ‘kept the Indians in the loop’, my account of the early 2000s stage in the Lankan peace process omits or otherwise glosses over some important historical details. Why, he wonders, did the Indian government pull the ‘dove’-like Gopalkrishna Gandhi out of the Colombo High Commissioner position in 2002? And why did the Norwegians not talk to ‘Indians who had talked to Prabhakaran’ in the 1980s?
On the first query my response, as detailed in my book, differs significantly from DJ’s. From Colombo Gandhi was relocated to Oslo in 2002 as his country’s Ambassador– a move interpreted by the Norwegian facilitators as intended to strengthen India’s Lanka-related lines of communication with them. On the second, while I cannot vouch for the details of every individual with whom the Norwegians met in Delhi, I can definitely testify to the fact that from the beginning of their Lankan peace facilitation role, Solheim and colleagues were regular visitors to the Indian capital, typically meeting with their principal Indian Foreign Service interlocutors and others immediately before and/or after every visit to Colombo. This they did in order either to brief the Indians on the outcomes of their visits, or to elicit their views on current issues of importance in advance of their upcoming meetings with Lankan officialdom.
If there were significant omissions in the list of officials they met in Delhi, moreover, I would suggest this was as much down to their host’s own thinking and priorities as the Norwegians themselves. Certainly, from first-hand experience I can testify to the fact that Gandhi’s successor as High Commissioner in Colombo proved to be just about the only significant Indian official involved in the peace process with whom, even despite Oslo’s best efforts, it proved impossible for to secure an interview for the purposes of my book (for whatever reason, no response to those sustained communication efforts was forthcoming).
DJ goes onto provide an at best inaccurate, at worst distorted version of the circumstances leading up to President Kumaratunga’s and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar’s mid-2001 criticism of Erik Solheim’s conduct as chief facilitator, ostensibly on the grounds of ‘biased’ remarks he was reported to have made when visiting Washington in May 2001. Again the facts, and again as laid out in my book on the subject that DJ assures us he has read carefully, tell a rather different story.
First, contra DJ Solheim was not and indeed could not have been replaced by Vidar Helgesen, who at this point in time was yet to assume office as Deputy Foreign Minister, something he only did following his Høyre Party’s agreement to participate in the three-party Centre-Right coalition government formed in the aftermath of October 2001 general elections. In reality, then Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland’s response to the criticisms levelled at Solheim in a bilateral meeting held with Kumaratunga and Kadirgmar in Colombo in early June 2001 was to announce both that Norwegian engagement would be officially ‘upgraded’, and that consequently he himself would be assuming a more hands-on role in the peace facilitation process – without, however, suggesting that Solheim was to be removed, as DJ contends.
For his part, Solheim ascribes Kumaratunga’s and Kadirgamar’s vocal displeasure with him to a combination of two factors: first, the Lankan Army’s decision to launch what proved to be a disastrous new military offensive – dubbed ‘Agni Kheila 1’ – in late April 2001, thereby breaking an earlier commitment from Kumaratunga to refrain from hostilities while a ceasefire was in place and wider negotiation modalities were being explored with the LTTE.
Second, and in Solheim’s own estimation, most significantly, were his behind closed door comments in the US Congress during a May visit to Washington: these – according to him – being to the effect that while the Agni Kheila offensive was both an unhelpful and militarily disastrous development, the LTTE remained committed to a ceasefire. These essentially correct observations had later been relayed back to Colombo, eliciting an incendiary response from Kumaratunga. An exemplary case, in other words, of a leader responding to a messenger bearing unpleasant but truthful tidings by aiming to shoot him: not, as DJ insinuates, as a consequence of any bias – perceived or otherwise – on Solheim’s part.
With regard to history, DJ also reasserts an earlier claim that the result of every round of negotiations with the Tigers was the same viz. what he dubs a ‘unilateral return to war by the LTTE’. Since I both examined the relevant evidence and debunked this claim in a previous contribution, I do not propose to repeat the same here. I would, however, suggest that DJ perhaps revisit Einstein’s definition of lunacy when considering his own repeated, factually inaccurate assertion regarding the causes and consequences of breakdowns in Lankan peace negotiations.
Fourth and finally, DJ wheels out – or more accurately, name-checks – ‘Just War’ theory in support of what he calls ‘the war of the Sri Lankan state and its military’. In response it’s worth recalling the ethical and practical conditions specified by just war theorists, conventionally divided into two categories: those governing the ‘right to go to war’ (jus ad bellum) and those covering the ‘right conduct of war’ (jus in bello).
Key elements of the former include the presence of a just cause; right intention i.e. only in a genuinely just cause, and solely for that purpose; and war as last resort i.e. only after all available peaceful and/or viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted. On this count, the ‘last resort’ principle is precisely one of the key points at issue in this debate: DJ clearly appears to believe this criterion was met in full, notably in the war’s final years. I, like others, however, seriously beg to disagree with him in that respect.
With respect to jus in bello, key criteria include the principle of distinction, meaning that acts of war must be directed specifically and uniquely against enemy combatants: proportionality, i.e. combatants must ensure that harm caused to civilians is not excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage from an assault; fair treatment of prisoners of war, meaning that torture or other forms of mistreatment of PoWs are expressly prohibited: and finally malum in se, meaning that combatants are forbidden from using weapons that necessarily involve contravening international humanitarian law. Examples often cited in this respect include mass rape, forcing enemy combatants to fight against their own side or using weapons – for example biological or chemical agents – whose disproportionate effects cannot be controlled.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the presence – or absence – of all these criteria remains a deeply contested feature of continuing debate on the rights and wrongs of the Sri Lankan civil war, notably (but by no means exclusively) in connection with its final stages. DJ may feel it’s sufficient simply to invoke Just War theory to establish its successful application and observation in this context. I by contrast would suggest that invoking the theory is only the beginning, not the end of the relevant discussion.
To proceed further along that path would, however, to be drawn into a further, wider debate. And if for no other reason than that I suspect I have already tried the reader’s patience too far, I think I’ll rather elect to end. Right here.