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Genocide or Politicide? And why does it matter?

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A state may destroy, in whole or in part, a national or ethnic group (genocide). But it may also destroy a group of people who share a political belief (politicide). Sometimes, the two are the same. When the majority of Tamils support a free Tamil Eelam, then politicide is also genocide.


This second article of our three part series explores the evolution of the genocide paradigm in Sri Lanka: from the holocaust to the dark side of democracy and politicide.


Old-school genocide theorists are holocaust-centric. As Barbara Harff outs it, “the Jewish Holocaust... is employed as the yardstick, the ultimate criterion for assessing the scope, methods, targets, and victims of [other] genocides.”


The recent political hisotires of the Jewish and Tamil peoples have clear parallels: the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany began with racist legislation (the Nuremberg laws), escalated to violence (e.g. Krystalnacht), forced mass emigration and ended in overt genocide (see details of this in the article titled “Insecurity and the lessons of history” marking the 60th anniversary of the formation of Israel in TG373).


Former US Attorney General Bruce Fein has recently noted the similarities between the racist legislation of Sri Lanka and the Nuremberg laws. The intent of both was exclusion of a specific people from society and government, exclusion being a recognised early indicator of future genocide.


Physical violence escalated via a series of anti-Tamil pogroms and lead to large scale forced migration. One in four Tamils have been forced to emigrate, many more are internally displaced in their homeland.


But after the pogrom of July 1983, Sri Lanka diverged from the Jewish paradigm as follows: the Jewish people were integrated into their host society; they were not sufficiently organised to offer armed resistance, neither did they have the foundations  for statehood.


The state formation process for Israel followed and was outside of the Nazi genocide.


In contrast, the Tamils had a strong case for independence from the outset: they held historic, contiguous territory, had a distinct ethnic identity and a proven record of (pre-colonial) self-governance.The Tamils engaged in armed struggle for secession, as a response to the genocidal pogrom of July1983, and created a de-facto state of Eelam.


The long-drawn state formation process of the Tamils co-exists with the genocide they confront in Sri Lanka.


Part 1 of this series examined how classical genocidists refused to accept that  democracies (compared to totalitarian states) can commit genocide.


But contemporary genocide studies, such as Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy (2005), look at the co-existence in democracies of genocide with an armed conflict and forced emigration.


The Dark Side of Democracy  considers how nation states negotiate “the problem of national minorities” – ranging from assimilation to extermination. Mann’s central thesis is that murderous ethnic cleansing, which in extreme forms can become genocidal, is the “dark side of democracy”.


The ideal of rule by the people itself, he argues, tends to convert demos into ethnos, generating organic nationalism and encouraging the cleansing of minorities.


Mann’s other theses are:


(2)"The danger zone", from which ethnic conflict may turn murderous, is reached when two rival ethnic movements lay claim to political sovereignty over the same territory; and where both claims appear legitimate and realizable;


(3) "Going over the brink", into actual murderous cleansing, occurs where states are destabilized amid an unstable local geopolitical environment -- out of which crisis "radicals" emerge calling for "tough" treatment of the out-group;


(4) Radicals’ plans reflect this instability. Murderous cleansing is not their initial intent, but typically constitutes a "Plan C", suddenly developed only after Plans A (the carefully considered one) and B (the first adaptation to failure and destabilization) both collapsed.


Sri Lanka fits well the genocide theses of Michael Mann. The Tamils and Sinhala are two rival ethnic groups whose respective nationalism has developed over decades.


There is a difficult, destabilising war for secession and the Tamil claim to territory appears realisable: there exists a de-facto Tamil state of Eelam.


On the other hand, majoritarian radicals such as the extreme militant Buddhist JHU and the Marxsit-nationalist JVP have gained power through democratic mechanisms.


In the following table from Michael Mann, the shaded boxes in the lower right indicates the stage of “murderous ethnic cleansing”


Table  The Extent of Cleansing and Violence in Inter-Group Relations


Extent of Cleansing

Extent of Violence





1. None

1.Multi-culturalism/ toleration

2. Consociational/ Confederalism

Partial abandoning of identity e.g. thru voluntary official language adoption

Voluntary assimilation

2. Institutional Coercion


1. Official language restrictions

2. Segregation

Cultural suppression

3. Policed Repression

Selective policed repression

1. Policed partial repression of out group language & culture

2. Policed out group settlement/ displacement

1. Policed total suppression of language & culture

2. Population exchanges

3. Policed deportations & pressured emigration

4. Violent Repression

Generalized Policed repression

1. "Pogroms", communal riots, some forms of rape

2. Violent settlement/ displacement

1. "Wild" deportation & emigration

2. Biological: sterilization, forced marriage, some forms of rape

5. Unpremeditated Mass Deaths

"Mistaken" war, civil war & revolutionary projects, fratricide

"Callous" war, civil war & class war & revolutionary projects



6. Premeditated Mass Killing

Exemplary & civil war repression, systematic reprisals

1. Forced conversion

2. Politicide

3. Classicide




Sri Lanka has already experienced several stages of ethnic cleansing for decades:


-         policed partial repression of minority language and culture (from the language act to the destruction of Tamil libraries by the state);

-         policed deportations (most recently from the capital Colombo), pogroms (1956 to 1983), violent settlement and displacement (continuously in the east),

-         callous war (1983 to present in the North east), politicide (1983 onwards) and ethnocide.


State-induced assimilation – via legislation such as the “Sinhala Only” language act, has not and cannot solve the “problem of the minority” because of the distinctness of the millennia old Tamil culture, and the present ethnic hostility, fostered by pogroms and war.


Furthermore, the identified stages of ethnic cleansing are already quite far advanced: forced emigration, escalating violence and ultimately mass killing.


Absent a balance of power – stalemate or successful secession - the outcome more likely than assimilation is at the other end of the spectrum: genocide.


However, while contemporary genocide theory clearly fits the developing Sri Lankan case, the international establishment remains in a state of denial.


The international establishment’s attitude is exemplified by US Ambassador Robert Blake, who recently said that “there is no ethnic problem” in Sri Lanka.


There are two issues with this genocide-denial. Firstly it assumes some sort of paradigm shift in Sri Lanka i.e. that some time between 1983 and today, the likelihood of genocide has simply disappeared.


There is no evidence to support this paradigm shift – the racist legislation and ruling elites are the same, the military, the civil service, the political layers in the Sinhala South remain ethnically pure, and the electorate has voted yet again along racial lines, with the Sinhala majority backing war against the Northeast.


To credibly allege there is no longer an “ethnic” problem, one would should be able identify the circumstances and time when this problem ‘disappeared’.


The genocide-deniers’ case is that the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese do not wish to annihilate all the Tamil people, but only those Tamils that support the “terrorist” cause of ‘dividing the country’ i.e. the worst is a case of politicide, not genocide.


When US Ambassador Robert Blake recently said that 95% of Tamils did not wish for Tamil Eelam, he was well aware his government was backing Sri Lanka’s punitive embargo and violence against Tamils who defy Sinhala rule.


It is inevitable that genocide-deniers must claim that the political belief they wish to annihilate is held by a small subset of the Tamils: because genocide includes even “part destruction” of a national group.


Mr Blake’s claim of  “95% against” Eelam as the appropriate statistic allows the slaughter by bombardment and starvation, abduction and murder, of pro-independence Tamils to proceed without the label of genocide.


Notably, while genocide is a crime under UN law, politicide is not. This is not an accident: when the UN legislated against genocide, rights groups lobbied but member states refused to include politicide.


In 1983, as a direct response to the anti-Tamil pogrom, Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayawardene– a shrewd politician, once described by the Financial Times as “the Fox of South Asia” - criminalized Tamil secession, in contravention of international law.


He thereby enabled politicide as a cloak for genocide.


Whereas before 1983, laws such as the citizenship act were overtly racist, after 1983, laws such as the sixth amendment, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and emergency rule disproportionately and, in practice, almost exclusively apply to Tamils.


The sixth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution says:


“157 a (1) No person shall, directly or indirectly, in or outside Sri Lanka, support, espouse, promote, finance, encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.”

(2) No political party or other association or organisation shall have as one of its aims or objects the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.

Any person who violates the sixth amendment will lose his civic rights and forfeit his property.


Clearly the amendment targeted the Tamils who had already voted overwhelmingly for secession in 1977. The criminalisation of the vote and the political demand is contrary to International law that safeguards the right to self-determination.


Similarly, over 95% of people held under the PTA are Tamils.


As Paul Sieghart of the International Commission of Jurists said puts it: "these provisions [in the Prevention of Terrorism Act] are quite extraordinarily wide. No legislation conferring even remotely comparable powers is in force in any other free democracy operating under the Rule of Law ... such a provision is an ugly blot on the statute book of any civilised country.”


While the recent UN Human Rights council deliberations correctly recognise that Sri Lanka’s laws such as the PTA are not human rights compliant, they fail to focus on the role of those laws as instruments of ethnic cleansing.


In this context, the “5%” of secessionist Tamils Ambassador Blake says he talked to are very brave indeed. It is unacceptable for genocide-deniers, such as Ambassador Blake, to leverage statistics provided under such duress.


In practice, from 1983 to today, it is not merely illegal to advocate separation. Even the merest suspicion of seeming to support such a notion constitutes an arrest arrant, if not a death warrant.


Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” says: “generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation… It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”


He elaborates: “The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”


Sri Lanka has sought to achieve precisely this - the destruction of the political and social institutions, the economic existence, liberty, security, health, dignity and lives of the Tamil people.


The Tamil media, for example, has been relentlessly persecuted and brutalised – media is one of the nation’s key social institutions, transmitting culture, language and national feelings.


Over the years, scores of Tamil journalists have been murdered, hundreds more forced to flee the island. The offices of the Tamil language newspapers – including Virakesari, Suder Oli, Udhayan, Yarl Thinakural, Eelanatham, Calare – have been attacked.


Tamil journalists who work for Sinhala newspapers are also arrested or killed, merely on account of their ethnicity. Rarely do their Sinhala employers step into defend them or campaign for their release.


Over the years, a key political institution of the Eelam Tamils, the Tamil Parliamentarians, have been systematically targeted by the Sri Lankan state. IN the past three years alone, four of twenty-two parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance were assassinated. Several more before that.


Relatives and staff of many surviving parliamentarians have been threatened and/or abducted, the parliamentarians themselves assaulted and under death threats.


Tamil academics, students and student union activists have been disappeared, including the Vice Chancellor of the EasternUniversity. Against ethnicity is the marker.


Religious figures have been assassinated by the state’s armed forces, including recently, Father Karunaratnam, founder of the North East Secretariat for Human Rights and a vocal advocate for Tamil Eelam and others such as Fr. Jim Brown.


Amid the chaos of war, a key source of relief for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils have been Tamil aid workers. They too have been systematically targeted.


In Feb 2006, nine aid workers of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) were abducted and killed. In August the same year, seventeen Tamils employed by Action Contre Le Faim, an international aid group, were massacred.


Dozens of other Tamils working for international NGOs such as the demining groups – Halo Trust, etc – have been killed or ‘disappeared’ by government forces in the past few years.


All this is towards the destruction of the essential foundations of life of an ethnic group, as outlined by Raphael Lemkin.


As evidence of “destruction of …liberty, security, health, dignity”, consider that Tamil civilians in the South are at routine risk of arrested and arbitrary detention by the security forces. There is ample evidence of torture in the prisons and detention camps.


As evidence of “destruction of economic existence”, consider the economic embargos, including those on food and medicine, imposed on Tamil areas, even parts under government control.


As Professor of International Law Jordan Paust argued in 1998, the suffering caused by the government’s embargo justifies the charge of ‘War Crimes’.


The annihilation of entire layers and sections of Tamil society is intended to destroy the institutional fabric of the Tamil nation, to suppress the nation’s exercise of Tamil civil and political rights under international law, in particular the right to self-determination.


In Michael Mann’s schematic, politicide is a more serious phase of murderous ethnic cleansing.


In Sri Lanka, the argument that “politicide is not genocide” fails precisely because the two groups, the secessionists and the Tamils are one and the same – irrespective of the numbers claimed by Ambassador Blake and other allies of the Sri Lankan state.


The final article in this three part series published in the next edition looks closely at the dynamics of international refusal to act in the context of genocide in Sri Lanka.

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