The worst is yet to come
On Tuesday, as 35,000 civilians escaped from the tiny war zone in the northeast of Sri Lanka, the world’s eyes were on what looked like the last battlefield in the island’s civil war, which has lasted for a quarter of a century. But there is no such thing as a last stand in a modern irregular conflict, which is fought on undefined, shifting terrain.
Combatants and civilians are milling together in Sri Lanka’s war zone, portending a bloodbath on a scale not seen since Partition. And the battlefield is not limited to the island. Activists from the Tamil diaspora have taken to the streets in the world’s capitals and information guerrillas are skirmishing in cyberspace. In London, visitors to Westminster are coming away with touristy images of Parliament and Big Ben — and of hundreds of Tamils protesting the murder of innocents in Sri Lanka.
The protests in faraway London are a work in progress. Some 50 Sri Lankan Tamils had protested in front of India House on the evening of April 8. And then in the dead of night, a bust of Nehru in India Place, beside India House and across the street from the Waldorf, was knocked off its pedestal. Anyone could have done it. Even a sixpack of lager inside a lout could have done it. India doesn’t even own the bust, which is the property of the City Council of Westminster. And yet the Tamils, who had departed peacefully, leaving the bust visibly intact, fell under media suspicion for ‘desecrating’, ‘disfiguring’ and even ‘decapitating’ Nehru. Despite cautions from the Indian High Commission, it took on the aura of an international incident.
A suffocating smog of suspicion hangs over South Asia, stifling common sense and making it impossible to secure peace. Mutual suspicion has poisoned neighbourly relations across the region, and India is having a particularly hard time as the regional Big Brother. In Sri Lanka, India cannot ethically support either the LTTE or the government. Neither respects the rules of engagement or humanitarian concerns. Both have proved to be instinctively repressive. The government has clamped down on the media and made killings and disappearances part of State policy, and the roots of the insurgency lie in real discrimination against Tamils. Among the LTTE’s many sins is the press-ganging of child soldiers, who learn to use mortars and assault rifles when they should be learning the alphabet. This act of oppression alone disqualifies the LTTE from representing the Tamil people.
Yet we cannot remain innocent bystanders, and neither can the international community, which the Tamil diaspora is petitioning. We should act despite the memories of the IPKF engagement and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Perhaps in the non-threatening capacity of nearest neighbour, leading an international initiative to convince the Sri Lankan government — drunk on military success — that insurgency can never be eradicated only by force of arms.
Insurgency is a state of mind. Colombo cannot hope to end it militarily without blowing out the brains of every Sri Lankan Tamil alive, an impossible, inhuman idea. It may win the current conflict, but the bloodbath will sow the seeds of a myriad new insurgencies. It is this hopeless future of repeated revenge tragedies that Indian diplomacy can help Sri Lanka avoid.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine.