Troops in Dharmapuram- Kilinochchi
A disturbing comparison has been left unchallenged to date. As Israel has been engaged in one of its regular attempts to convince the Palestinians of the Gaza strip that resistance is not only futile but also very painful for the entire community, some people have been asserting that the operations of the Sri Lankan forces in the Vanni are both morally and practically equivalent. Sri Lanka may well find itself under more pressure to stop its military campaign now that the Israeli government has declared a unilateral ceasefire, given that attempts are likely to be made to capitalise on mass support for the Gazans. It therefore seems worth reviewing the argument.
I heard this parallel being attempted most recently in the British parliament. The institution is now well known as a breeding ground for mad ideas about Sri Lanka, so the fact that this particular absurdity found a home for itself there isn’t exactly incredible.
It actually came up twice last week. The first mention was in an emergency debate on the situation in Gaza on Thursday, when a Labour politician saw fit to remind those present that there were other conflicts in the world that required action, just that they didn’t know so much about them. Unfortunately, he didn’t realise quite how accurate this statement was. On Friday, the second foray into a parallel universe was made during sessions to review the programme for the week ahead, in which another member of the Labour party called for the Sri Lankan conflict to be taken up in an emergency debate.
British politicians are as inclined to say whatever they feel like without reference to facts as their counterparts here. They didn’t get around to explaining why they believed that the two situations were equally appalling, and they weren’t challenged to do so. I can imagine them believing that all wars except the ones they feel compelled to fight themselves must be stopped at once, but let us assume rather more concern for justice on their part, at least for the time being.
The argument was set out in entertaining detail in a newspaper article published a couple of weeks ago. The British writer, a regular columnist for The Guardian, had a number of fascinating things to say about the commonalities between the entry of the Sri Lankan forces to Kilinochchi on January 2nd and the attack on Gaza by the Israeli army on January 3rd, the similarity in dates being the most convincing by far.
Censorship was the first point he raised. The writer said that the exclusion of foreign journalists from the two conflict zones implied that both Sri Lankan and Israeli leaders wanted to stop the world from seeing what they were doing. At face value, this statement might well be accurate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything more untoward to see than a war. The difference in impact should be clear to people who have even the faintest inkling of both countries. While Israeli forces were preventing correspondents from entering Gaza, Al Jazeera had an office in the city and other networks were being fed by the large number of Palestinian reporters who live there. In Sri Lanka, the fundamental reason there are no journalists in the Vanni is that the LTTE doesn’t allow it, the implication being that they are the ones up to no good.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t know what is happening there. The LTTE is perfectly capable of filming or photographing the most damaging scenes and despatching the results to media organisations. In fact, Al Jazeera managed to get hold of such a tape last week. In that, we saw a small fire, an unimpressive looking hole in the ground that was described as a crater, the body of a man lying next to the door of a perfectly serviceable looking hut, and that was it. The scenes of devastation in Gaza are clearly in another league, and that surely isn’t due to a lack of capacity in the propaganda department.
While I’m on the subject of the press, a few words on another key difference between Israel and Sri Lanka would be particularly relevant in the current situation. The Guardian recently carried a piece by an Israeli author commenting on the notable lack of dissent in the local press. He said that there had been no criticism of the war on any of the television stations and described reporters as less critical than military spokespeople. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this information, but it certainly appears to be worth the consideration of all those people making claims about media freedom in the aftermath of the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge.
The second point mentioned was described by the writer as the fearful cost in human lives of the two military campaigns. He claimed that several days of unopposed air strikes and artillery fire killed civilians as well as LTTE cadres, while forcing tens of thousands to flee into the jungle. The idea that the LTTE didn’t try to oppose the capture of Kilinochchi is hilarious, but the question of casualties obviously deserves more sober consideration. The fighting certainly resulted in a lot of deaths, but these were almost exclusively of LTTE cadres and Government soldiers. Even the LTTE doesn’t claim otherwise. And Human Rights Watch explains why this should be so in one of its numerous reports, saying that the tactics of the Sri Lankan forces are so predictable, with shelling advancing forward slowly and bombers following spotter planes, that civilians know to move away before danger comes.
In any case, there are important differences in scale and proportionality. More than 1,300 people have been killed and about 5,000 injured in three weeks in Gaza. The Sri Lankan conflict is only supposed to have seen the deaths of 70,000 people in three decades. What’s more, that’s 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, while the LTTE claim to have lost only 20,000 people, leaving us to assume that the other 50,000 deaths occurred on the other side.
This doesn’t refer to Tamils and Sinhalese, of course, because the LTTE has killed plenty of both.
Asymmetric warfare was the third point made in the article. The writer explained that the two militant organisations, as he called them, employ special tactics to meet the overwhelming power of the state forces. In Gaza, he is quite right.
Hamas launches the odd rocket at Israeli towns that injures somebody once in a blue moon, while the Israeli forces completely level dozens of homes, mosques, clinics, schools and the institutions of the democratically elected government including the Ministries of Interior, Education and Transportation, the Islamic University and the United Nations headquarters in Gaza. Any buildings that escape destruction in air strikes and artillery fire are promptly bulldozed with their occupants still inside, just to be sure they are dead. In Sri Lanka, the LTTE manages to kill hundreds of people in its suicide attacks while also fighting a conventional war against troops on the battlefield.
The threat to the state is actually far greater here. And it is worth noting that both the military tactics and the security apparatus employed are of a totally different order. The Gazans live a far more difficult life than people anywhere in this country, even in normal times, but a proper review of this aspect would require a good deal more space than is available.
The writer appeared to think that there was as little point in capturing Kilinochchi as there was in the incursion into Gaza. He said that Hamas and the LTTE both had the ability to go underground and return equally powerful later, assuming they have the support of their communities. It is reasonable logic, but the problem is that the LTTE is already compelled to forcibly recruit people to keep its numbers up, and it has apparently taken to shooting civilians who attempt to defy its orders and move out of the Vanni. Senior leaders have also reportedly been locked up to prevent them deserting. Even if some of the more recent stories turn out to be propaganda, it has long been known that people don’t support the organisation as they did. The LTTE having killed so many of the people it claims to represent is surely one good reason. Hamas, on the other hand, is a voluntary organisation, and one that has been elected by the people of Gaza to run its institutions. It has been doing so despite the best efforts of Israel, not thanks to their money and hardworking officials as in this country.
The differences between the situation in the Vanni and in Gaza are enormous, even when we separate the current developments from their historical and broader political context as I have done in this article. Once the rest is added in, the idea of a parallel is simply laughable.
The Israeli government didn’t agree to a ceasefire because it was under pressure from other countries. It had domestic reasons for putting a stop to its efforts, and these will be renewed when convenient for the purpose of further delaying a settlement. And this is perhaps the most noticeable difference with Sri Lanka. Israel managed to extract promises of United States intelligence and surveillance equipment and British naval monitoring in exchange for its agreement to a respite of however long it pleases, while the Sri Lankan government is offered nothing other than bad advice. But I suppose this is just a fact of life that must be understood if not accepted.