Thursday, February 19, 2009

Genocide in Sri Lanka? Reply to Bruce Fein

Several recent articles in the Boston Globe have loudly and authoritatively alleged that a systematic genocide of Tamil civilians is currently taking place in Sri Lanka. Most notable of these is a recent op-ed piece published in the Globe on February 15th by Mr. Bruce Fein. Given the magnitude and gravity of such accusations –primarily leveled against two central figures of the Sri Lankan regime – it is highly problematic that these damaging claims have been backed with little substance and instead littered with factual inaccuracies and inflammatory language.
The term genocide is remarkably evocative and arouses in people extraordinarily powerful emotions. It is a word that is forever associated with the horrors of Hitler, the unfathomable brutality of Pol Pot and the systematic extermination of the Rwandan Tutsis. As such, the term genocide tends to be used liberally in an effort to indelibly stain an opponent’s reputation and credibility. We believe that the Sri Lankan Government has fallen foul of such a calculated and slanderous campaign of misinformation; hence, we seek to address some of these charges here.
Mr. Fein accuses successive Sinhalese regimes of attempting to make Sri Lanka ‘Tamil Free’. We challenge Mr. Fein to provide evidence of a single case where a mainstream Sri Lankan politician has uttered such despicable claims. We also find such a claim absurdly delusional given that almost half of all Tamils in Sri Lanka reside in areas outside of the region claimed by the separatist LTTE as its ‘homeland’. We can’t help but wonder why so many Tamils would continue to remain in Colombo and other southern cities right in the midst of their alleged exterminators?
Further, Mr. Fein’s article is couched in an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ discourse that essentially dichotomizes ethnic relations in Sri Lanka to Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu/Christian Tamils. But, as any knowledgeable observer of the country would attest, the ethnic landscape of the country is far more complex. For instance, most Christians in the country are Sinhalese. Moreover, there are myriad differences within each community- be they Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher- based on caste, occupation and so on.
Mr. Fein claims to have compiled 1000 pages of evidence designed to implicate Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Army Chief Sarath Fonseka on charges of violating the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. It is also noted that this massive document is based on affidavits and ‘contemporaneous media reporting’. It would be useful for readers to make up their own minds if Mr. Fein were to disclose specific media sources that he has used. To our knowledge, neither any reputable media organization nor any of the countless non-governmental organizations in the country has accused the government of the crime of genocide. As has been documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has certainly been guilty of war-time excesses. However, genocide is not amongst those and we wish to point out that reports churned out by the well-oiled Tamil Tiger propaganda apparatus active in New England and Canada do not constitute credible sources of ‘contemporaneous media reporting’.
We do not seek to dispute the fact that civilian casualties have mounted in recent times. However, what we do seek to dispute is that such casualties are the result of a deliberate and systematic campaign of extermination of the Tamils based on their ethnicity. We wonder if Mr. Fein is aware that most accepted international definitions of the term genocide hinge critically on the ability to demonstrate intent. Thus, it is incumbent on Mr. Fein to prove that the government willfully and intentionally killed unarmed Tamil civilians. What Mr. Fein does not mention- presumably because it does not fit his version of reality- is that most Tamil civilians in LTTE held areas are forcibly held as human shields and forbidden to leave. A report by Human Rights Watch on December 15th amply demonstrates the reign of terror imposed by the LTTE on Tamil civilians and chronicles sharp rises in extortion and forcible recruitment of both children and adults within the last few months. Further, several analysts believe that over the last two decades far more Tamils have been killed by the LTTE than by the government.
Mr. Fein rightly highlights the shelling of hospitals and other civilian establishments in recent times. However, he fails to point out that culpability for these crimes has not been verified with both the GoSL and the LTTE fiercely contesting conflicting claims. Thus, in the absence of reasonable evidence, to impute responsibility for these crimes on the GoSL is irresponsible and mischievous, at best.
In conclusion, we also find it interesting that these charges of genocide are being labeled at a time when the conflict between the GoSL and the separatist LTTE has entered a decisive phase with the LTTE on the verge of outright military defeat. The loud protestations of genocide have to be evaluated with that in mind. Further, we would like to end by pointing out that the term genocide tends to be bandied around too casually these days without a profound understanding of its real meaning. We believe such unabashed prostitution of the word genocide is not only damaging to accused parties but massively unhelpful in fostering inter-group dialogue and consultation in troubled times such as these.

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