Antony Loewenstein, a member of the Campaign’s Advisory Council, explores what it means to advocate the ‘Sri Lanka model’ for Israel/Palestine.
It is easy to frame the conflict in Israel and Palestine as inherently unique. In many ways it is – decades-old occupation, US-supported racial discrimination, and failure of Western journalism to hold the powerful to account – but other struggles have eerie similarities.
This year Sri Lanka militarily defeated the Tamil Tigers, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was a brutal war, killed close to 100,000 people over a three-decade period and resulted in a humanitarian crisis of around 300,000 displaced Tamils. Both sides committed war crimes but the regime in Colombo was accused of shelling hospitals and civilian areas in the closing months of the war. My partner’s father was under the bombs in the north-east of the country and he tells of aerial bombardment on make-shift medical centres. It was hell on earth. Up to 50,000 Tamils were murdered.
The Elders, including Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, condemned the atrocities and were predictably smeared by the government.
Sri Lanka was an early adopter of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” architecture and placed its struggle against the Tamil insurgency as a noble war against ruthless killers. Colombo received arms and backing from India, China, Israel and unleashed overwhelming miliary firepower against the LTTE. The result was unsurprising, though the EU and Washington condemned the brutal tactics employed.
But this feigned Western concern for Tamil human rights must be seen in the context of political influence. Analyst Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe writes in The Diplomat that the “conflict also shed light on a bitter geopolitical struggle taking place against the backdrop of the declining influence of the West and the emerging influence of India and China”.
In early December the Jerusalem Post published an article that advocated Israel follow the lead of Sri Lanka to eradicate its “terrorism” problem:
“The Tamil Tigers, sometimes referred to by its full name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), resembled Middle East terror groups. Actually, it is more correct to say that Middle East terror groups resemble the Tamil Tigers, as the Tigers introduced many of the techniques subsequently used by Israel’s enemies. They invented the suicide belt and perfected the suicide bombing attack, turning it into a tactical device. They were the first to use women and children in these attacks. And they have been accused of using their own innocent civilians as human shields. They are a vicious crowd and were implicated in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi of India in 1991. As we all know, the Palestinians have imitated these tactics with devastating brutality.
“The Sri Lankans had more or less lived with this horror since 1983. Then 9/11 happened and a new dynamic, promoted by President George W. Bush and the United States, gave the Sri Lankans a new outlook. With a new administration elected on the promise of stopping the LTTE permanently, the country embarked on a full-scale military assault. It sent its army, much stronger than the Tamil tigers, into Tamil-occupied territory and began to take back town by town, going street to street in some cases, and killing anyone who resisted.
“Jehan Perera of the Sri Lankan Peace Council said, ‘This government has taken the position that virtually any price is worth paying to rid the country of terrorism.”
“The price paid was indeed a heavy one. Many innocent people died. The Sri Lankan government deeply regrets the killing of innocent civilians, but most government officials believe they made a conscious choice to pay that price, and that the alternative status quo was simply no longer acceptable.”
The writer goes on to explain that Israel should cease “political correctness” and destroy the Palestinians once and for all:
“The time has come to admit that there might not be a solution to the Palestinian problem, but there is a way to end it. The next time terror forces Israel to take military action, this option should be considered. Israel must realize that there will be no peace with an intransigent enemy that refuses to act in good faith. Palestinian rejectionism and Iranian-backed Hizbullah threats to our existence will never be placated; they will not stop until Israel is destroyed. Once the population realizes this unfortunate reality, there is only one way to change it. Israel must take the Sri Lankan initiative and move into these areas one by one, cornering, enveloping, and killing off all armed resistance.
“Bending over backward to make peace with the Palestinians has proven fruitless. It’s time to make the choice of a better life for all. More than 60 years of living with this is enough. When we have completely wiped out this enemy, a new dynamic will rise. Without the Muslim thugs holding their own people back, there will be nothing to stop them from negotiating genuine peace. There might be a Palestinian, a Lebanese, a Syrian, maybe even an Iranian peace partner which will transform the Middle East from a charnel house of hatred and bloodshed to a prosperous community of nations working together to make the daily lives of all their citizens better.”
This neo-conservative worldview dictates advocating genocide in the deluded hope that Arabs will feel so defeated that they simply accept Israeli rule. It’s a position also shared by Daniel Pipes:
“The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”
A closer examination of Sri Lanka’s methods reveals a disregard for civilian casualties far greater than the IDF crimes during the 2008/2009 Gaza war. There are serious allegations of Tamil Tigers surrendering under a white flag and being mowed down by soldiers. A forthcoming “People’s Permanent Tribunal” meeting in Dublin will investigate a range of alleged crimes during the conflict and feature testimony from eyewitnesses, the UN and EU.
Colombo’s clear policy during the war was a masterful exercise in avoidance and remarkably similar to Israel’s tactics during the Gaza onslaught. Journalists, most human rights workers, and independent observers were barred from the combat zone. Any criticism of Sri Lanka’s behaviour was labelled as supporting “terrorism.”
When the roughly 300,000 Tamils were interned in concentration camps after the war and held against their will – most were conditionally released last week though with restricted freedom of movement and ongoing monitoring of their lives – new friends Iran and China remained silent, while South Africa praised Sri Lanka’s supposed commitment to human rights.
Even Washington, in a just released a report, urges a more conciliatory approach. “US policy towards Sri Lanka cannot be dominated by a single agenda”, it reads. “It is not effective at delivering real reform, and it short-changes US geo-strategic interests in the region”.
Less than six months after the end of the conflict, the London Times reported this week that a re-branded insurgency is brewing (assuming, of course, this isn’t a black ops story planted by the government):
“A Marxist group of Tamil militants with connections to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Cuba is preparing to mount a new insurgency in Sri Lanka six months after the Government declared an end to the 26-year-old war there.
“The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in eastern Sri Lanka four months ago and has vowed to launch attacks against government and military targets unless its demands for a separate Tamil homeland are met.
“‘This war isn’t over yet, ‘Commander Kones, head of the PLA’s Eastern District military command, told The Times during a night meeting in a safe house in the east of the country last week.
“‘There has been no solution for Tamils since the destruction of the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] in May. So we have built and organised the PLA and are ready to act soon. Our aim is a democratic socialist liberation of the northeast for a Tamil Eelam [the desired Tamil state].’”
A disenfranchised people will continue to strive for independence and self-determination. The Tamils have been wishing for a homeland for decades due to the government’s ongoing discrimination against them. The Palestinians have also been denied natural justice since 1947.
Advocating the ‘Sri Lanka Model’ as an effective way of fighting terrorism is an attractive prospect for those who believe in obliterating the concepts of human rights and proportionality in international law. Israel is unwilling to negotiate in good faith with her opponents, guaranteeing ongoing resistance. The Tamils have fewer global friends, but their struggle is just as necessary.
Sri Lanka, like Israel, should be shunned until it acknowledges the rights of its minority to equal rights before the law.