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Sri Lanka: Barbarism in War

With the war in Sri Lanka intensifying in recent weeks, political space has opened up for assassins to hit those described in military parlance as "soft targets". The assassination of intellectual activist Kethesh Loganathan demonstrates once again some tragic dimensions of the politics in Sri Lanka's Tamil society.

Letter from South Asia

SRI LANKA

Barbarism in War

With the war in Sri Lanka intensifying in recent weeks, political space has opened up for assassins to hit those described in military parlance as “soft targets”. The assassination of intellectual activist Kethesh Loganathan demonstrates once again some tragic dimensions of the politics in Sri Lanka’s Tamil society.

JAYADEVA UYANGODA

D
espite the government’s claims to the contrary, Sri Lanka is back at war, in earnest. The theatre of war has shifted from the Eastern Province to the Northern Province, to the town of Jaffna and its outskirts. It may now shift to the Eastern Province, again. Two weeks of heavy fighting has caused a loss of life among large numbers of combatants as well as civilians.

Sri Lanka’s war broke out in the backdrop of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It appeared as if the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had stage managed the launching of their war at a time when the world media was preoccupied with the war in Lebanon. Sri Lanka’s war got only occasional coverage in the world media. Sometimes, the BBC as well as NDTV had reduced it to a one-sentence story scripted on the moving band at the bottom of the TV screen.

In any case, Sri Lanka’s civil war has been, and continues to be, a war without reporters. During the intense escalation of war in 1995-2001, there were no reporters in the north to cover it. Journalists had developed the art of reporting the war in the north without stepping out of Colombo. Things have not changed much even in the year 2006. Media people continue to “cover” the “story” from Colombo. They rely primarily on two sources, the defence ministry handouts and the reports in Tamilnet, the pro-LTTE website. With no reporters on the ground, the first casualty of Sri Lanka’s ongoing war is information. Combatants and civilians are also in the same league of first casualties of this war.

One particularly nasty aspect of Sri Lanka’s new phase of war is the increasing number of civilian victims who are killed, injured or displaced. The fact that both the government and the LTTE have been using heavy weapons fired from a distance accounts for this high number of civilian casualties. The government has resorted to air strikes, long-range artillery and mortars while the LTTE has been firing long-range artillery and mortars. Both sides seem to have a good supply of these long-distance killer objects.

Deaths and injuries apart, civilians are being displaced in hundreds and sometimes thousands. In the one week of intense war near Trincomallee in the Eastern Province, nearly 30,000 Muslims were displaced. They continue to live under harsh conditions, without even temporary shelter, in the small town of Kantalai. The government as well as the LTTE did not initially show much enthusiasm to ensure that these internally displaced communities receive humanitarian assistance. It is only after the personal intervention by the US secretary general that the government has begun to remove restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian relief.

The media has already called this “Eelam War IV”. If allowed to escalate, it will lead to catastrophic consequences. Both sides appear to be determined to work towards a decisive outcome of the war. The government seems to be keen on destroying the LTTE’s offensive capacities by knocking off their heavy weapons as well as the command and communication networks. Reduction of the number of LTTE combatants seems to be another shortterm military objective of the government.

The LTTE, on the other hand, seems to be committed to regaining control of the Jaffna peninsula. With that objective in mind, the LTTE has begun a slow and patient process of laying siege on Jaffna where the Sri Lankan army has over 20,000 troops. Who will win at the end of the day is not yet clear. But the war has all the energy to go on for quite some time.

Kethesh

The ongoing war has devoured many in Sri Lanka, including Kethesh Loganathan, a prominent intellectual activist. Deductive political logic suggests that the LTTE assassinated Kethesh, on political grounds. The LTTE saw him as a traitor, because, being a Tamil politico-intellectual activist he has been working for the Sri Lankan government for the past several months as a key functionary of its so-called Peace Secretariat. Sinhalese nationalists linked to the government also saw him as a threat. The JVP newspaper described him a few times as an “LTTE agent” who had infiltrated a key government entity. That is how extreme Sinhalese nationalists continue to see politically active Tamils, as “LTTE agents”.

The assassination of Kethesh once again demonstrates some tragic dimensions of the politics in Sri Lanka’s Tamil society. Its politics is dominated by extreme militarism. The LTTE practises militarism in its most extreme form. So do the anti-LTTE groups who are aligned with the Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan state and the Tamil polity have been dealing with each other primarily by military means. If one were to be politically active in Sri Lankan Tamil society, one has to be in one of these mutually antagonistic camps. This is a tragic dilemma for mainstream as well as dissident Tamil activists. Although it may sound cruel to say this, in the last year of his life, Kethesh became a political cadre of the Sri Lankan state when he accepted the position of the deputy secretary general of the Peace Secretariat.

Kethesh began his political life as a founder member of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) in the early 1980s. Led by the charismatic Padmanabha, the EPRLF was the most

Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

left wing of all Tamil militant groups active in the armed struggle. The EPRLF tried to combine class struggle with the Tamil national liberation struggle. Trained as an economist at Georgetown University, Kethesh was one of the key theoretical figures in the EPRLF. He took part in the Thimpu talks in 1984. I had the personal privilege of facilitating Kethesh’s book

Sri Lanka, Lost Opportunities: Past Attempts at a Negotiated Settlement, which carries a participant’s account of the failed Thimpu talks.

Biographies

Kethesh’s biography, like the life stories of many of my generation in Sri Lanka, has been closely intertwined with the complex trajectories of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. When the Indo-Lanka agreement was signed in July 1987, the EPRLF was in the forefront of accepting the accord as the basis for a political settlement to the ethnic conflict. When the provincial councils were set up in Sri Lanka in 1988, the EPRLF led a coalition of ex-Tamil militant groups elected to run the new devolution administration. Kethesh did not take up any political office in the new provincial administration but continued as a key intellectual figure in the EPRLF, advising the new chief minister. Eventually, the EPRLF got into a great deal of trouble with the Sri Lankan state in 1990 when president Premadasa’s regime established a tactical alliance with the LTTE in their common agenda to get rid of the Indian peace-keeping forces. Backed by the Indians, but hated by the Premadasa administration, the EPRLF was pushed into a new war with the LTTE. Politically and militarily cornered and faced with the prospect of being decimated, the EPRLF leaders declared an unilateral declaration of independence for Tamils only to seek asylum in India.

Degeneration

But Kethesh managed to stay back in Sri Lanka. He saw, along with us, how the Tamil national struggle got itself degenerated into war, war and war. Eventually, Kethesh left the EPRLF and active politics. He wanted to resume his professional life. There too, I had the privilege of organising for him a position as research consultant at Colombo University’s Centre for Policy Research and Analysis (CEPRA). Kethesh wrote The Lost Opportunities while at CEPRA with immense passion and commitment. That book still remains the most valuable source of information and insights about Sri Lanka’s past attempts at a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict.

For several years, Kethesh worked for Colombo’s Centre for Policy Alternatives as head of its conflict and peace research division. In his CPA years, Kethesh remained very active in what we call Sri Lanka’s civil society politics, focusing on human rights, conflict resolution and peace-building. He wrote newspaper columns under different pen names, his most favourite being ‘Sathya’ or the “Holder of the Truth”.

Dilemma

Actually, Kethesh began his Sathya column in 2002 in a significant political context. The newly elected United National Front government and the LTTE launched a joint peace initiative in early 2002. Brokered by the Norwegian government and supported by the global powers, the government and the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement and began negotiations. There was an intense debate among Sri Lanka’s civil society groups on the question of how to deal with the new peace initiative. Kethesh initially welcomed it, but soon became very critical of what he called the “appeasement” of “fascist LTTE” by the Norwegians, the international community, the Sri Lankan government and the “peace lobby”.

Kethesh was not alone in this critical assessment of the 2002 peace process. In the sharply fragmented Sri Lankan Tamil polity, many intellectual and political groups shared his pessimism. The human rights group University Teachers of Human Rights (JFFNA) chronicled in consummate detail in their regular reports what they saw as “Tiger appeasement” and its consequences. It was also clear that sections of the Sinhalese political class and English press in Colombo made use of these sharp divisions in Tamil political society to advance the Sinhalese supremacist agenda.

Kethesh Loganathan is not the first or last person to have been slain by an assassin for political reasons arising from Sri Lanka’s ethnic war. When the war intensified in recent weeks, political space also opened up for assassins to hit those that in military parlance are described as “soft targets”. And there are many soft targets around, Tamil as well as Sinhalese. This also signifies the kind of barbarism that an ethnic war can repeatedly bring to a society torn asunder by an intractable conflict.

EPW

Email: uyangoda@gmail.com

Course on Research Methods in Labour Economics November 8-28, 2006

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Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

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