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Sri Lanka: the blind spot in genocide theory

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Genocide is the systematic attempt to annihilate a racial group or nation. Closely linked is politicide: the annihilation of a group with a given political belief: such as the Tamil belief in a separate state of Eelam.
In the UN definition, acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group constitute ‘genocide’. These acts include (1) killing members of the group (2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group   (3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
‘Politicide’ covers groups that share a political belief (such as Eelam) but not a distinct ethnic identity.
The Tamils, a distinct ethnic group with a contiguous millennia-old history, allege genocide. But genocide may pretend to be politicide, a “lesser” crime, not covered by the UN.
Social scientists have developed a general theory of genocide by identifying the central elements in a ‘genocidal conjuncture’ – almost like trying to define a mathematical equation. One objective of this effort is to predict or prevent future genocides. 
As Dr. Helen Fein explains: “Genocide is viewed theoretically... as a strategy that ruling elites use to resolve real solidarity and legitimacy conflicts or challenges to their interests against victims decreed outside their universe of obligation in situations in which a crisis or opportunity is caused by or blamed on the victim (or victim impedes taking advantage of an opportunity) and the perpetrators believe that they can get away with it”
But even in this narrow theoretical approach, Sri Lanka’s treatment of its Tamil community constitutes genocide.
Firstly, the politics of race have dominated Sri Lankan elections since independence; governments that have come to power are invariably those that have espoused the anti-Tamil card.
The organised Buddhist clergy are a “ruling elite”: They have modernised but retained their historical role as “king makers and advisors” in the ancient Sinhalese kingdoms.
This militant clergy helped formulate the supremacist policies from the stripping of citizenship of 1 million minority Tamils in 1949, the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, and, from the background of politics, to the ‘Mahinda Chintana’ (‘Mahinda’s Way’) of today.
In this way they sealed the Sinhala-Buddhist hold on power. The citizenship act of 1949 neutralised Tamil political power in parliament by reducing the numbers of Tamils eligible to vote by a full 33%. The Sinhala Only Act ensured that by the 1970s, Tamils there were very few Tamils in government, especially the civil service and administrative ranks that provided the infrastructure of a state. Tamils, like the Tutsi in Rwanda, had been the majority of government civil servants before the Act.
By a process of recruiting Sinhalese only since 1962, Dr. Brian Blodget describes how the Sri Lankan military was also rendered ethnically pure.
And so an ethnically pure ruling elite increased its power base by cleansing lower level government ranks and the military of those who might oppose it in coming years.
Sri Lanka’s political parties are dynastic as are the ruling elites. They include firstly, the Bandaranaike Family that first swept to power on the race card of the “Sinhala Only Act”. Secondly the Uncle-Nephew couple of the late Junius Jayawardene and Ranil Wickeremesinghe that dominated the oppostion UNP party. Jayawardene proved his race credentials by presiding over the largest anti-Tamil race pogrom, Black July, in 1983. Thirdly, the three brothers of the Rajapakse family who now dominate the SLFP-led far right alliance which is the UPFA.
All these families are, of course, Sinhalese-Buddhist.
Because the ruling elites came to power through a racist electoral strategy, the Tamils are “victims decreed outside their universe of obligation” to use Helen Fein’s words. Precisely because these governments are obligated to an entirely different group: the majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist electorate which brought them to power.
Much of the behaviour and attitudes of the Sinhala ruling elites, including the present day Rajapakse family, towards the Tamils is incomprehensible outside of genocide theory.
For example, it is only in this framework of genocide theory that we can begin to make sense of President Jayawardene’s radio broadcast during the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, which saw the gruesome mass murder of thousands of Tamils.
As Tamil families were being hacked to death or burnt alive on the streets, in their homes, their workplaces and temples, President Jayawardene came on radio for the first time on the 28th July to give his now infamous broadcast.
Instead of either apologising or promising protection to the Tamil people during the pogrom, he chose instead to talk about the “suspicion between the Sinhala and the Tamil people” which, he said, began in 1956 and to blame the pogroms on the desire of the Tamil people for separation which he said began in 1976.
He concluded his broadcast by promising to the (Sinhala-Buddhist) nation that “We will also see that those ... who advocate the separation of the country lose their civic rights and cannot hold office, cannot practice professions, cannot join movements or organisations in this country. We are very sorry that this step should be taken. But I cannot see, and my Government cannot see, any other way by which we can appease the natural desire and request of the Sinhala people to prevent the country being divided, and to see that those who speak for division are not able to do so legally.”
President Jayawardene’s speech makes no rational sense outside of genocide theory. But within the framework above as articulated by Helen Fein it makes perfect sense.
The victims, the Tamil people, had well prior to 1983 been decreed “outside the universe of obligation” of the President; hence there was no need to apologise or offer protection.
The President was a member of the ruling elite. The genocidal anti Tamil pogrom of 1983 was the strategy this elite used to “resolve real solidarity and legitimacy conflicts or challenges to their interests against victims” to use Ms Fein’s words.
There had always been legitimacy issues in Sri Lanka, a country formed by Colonial powers by artificially uniting different historical Tamil and Sinhala governances. After the British left, the exclusion of Tamils via racist legislation exacerbated the government’s crisis of legitimacy.
It is now widely accepted that the 1983 pogrom was state orchestrated and government ministers were complicit; for example, the mobs had been provided with electoral registers to help identify Tamils and the ruling party’s officials and their affiliates owned many of the vehicles used to transport the mobs (the military provided the rest).
Another Presidential speech two weeks prior to 23 July 1983 had paved the way for the pogrom: “I have tried to be effective for sometime but cannot. I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now… Now, we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us... The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here... really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy."
Again, outside of the theory in which the victims were decreed “outside the universe of obligation” of the President, this statement that “if I starve the Tamils out the Sinhala people will be happy” makes no sense.
The pogrom was an example where “a crisis or opportunity is caused by or blamed on the victim and the perpetrators believe that they can get away with it”.
In any other context, it would be astonishing that the President could try to put the blame for mass murder of the Tamils on the victims themselves. And that he could conceivably mention the year 1956 as the beginning of “distrust” that led to this slaughter.
Because 1956 was the year of the “Sinhala Only Act” - legislation designed to ensure that Tamils did not hold government office or jobs of any note, unless they passed the significant hurdle of fluency in Sinhalese.
As with the 1949 citizenship act that former U.S. Attorney General Bruce Fein, has compared to Hitler’s Nuremberg laws (1935), the intent of this legislation was to exclude the Tamil minority from participation in important areas of society: the civil service, the military, and jobs in state-owned industries, which in Sri Lanka would even include most of the media.
As James Smith said “Genocide is not extreme war or conflict; it is extreme exclusion. Exclusion may start with name-calling, but may end with a group of people being excluded from a society to the point where they are destroyed”
But given that genocide necessarily means the victim must be blamed the President’s broadcast during the pogrom makes perfect sense.
While the 1983 pogrom led to some immediate international protest, there was no recognition of genocide outside of a few expert academic circles and no economic or political sanctions nor physical intervention.
Further, even though the pogrom erupted on the 23rd July, there had been warning signs throughout the preceding few months. Violence by the armed forces against Tamil civilians in Trincomalee had continued through June, prompting a leading Tamil political party to send telegrams to the embassies of western countries in Colombo.
The telegram, published in the press on July 1, said: "Tamils experience a pathetic situation in Trincomalee. Killing, looting, arson now taking place under government declared curfew. Racist security forces behind violence. We seek immediate intervention of friendly nations to stop genocide of Tamils".
As with Rwanda, over a decade later, the international community was warned of the genocidal pogrom, but chose to ignore it.
Twenty-five years later, nothing has changed. Outside a few expert academic circles, there is little international recognition of the genocide of the Tamils. And certainly neither sanctions nor redress against the perpetrating government
This is a direct result of a blind spot in liberal genocide theory.
For the predominantly North American community of genocide theorists finds it difficult to accept that democratic states are perpetrators of genocide. Sri Lanka after all is not totalitarian.
Stephen Chalk, a leading genocide scholar, exemplifies this blind spot “we must never forget that the great genocides of the past have been committed by [state] perpetrators who acted in the name of absolutist or utopian ideologies”. He wrote this prior to Rwanda in 1995, of course.
Australian scholar, Dr. Dirk Moses, explains this blind spot in his paper “Toward a theory of critical genocide studies”: “In its initial incarnation, then, genocide studies was really a version of totalitarianism theory because by definition a genocide—at least a true one—can only be committed by a totalitarian or at least authoritarian state.”
Moses calls this attitude “ a conceptual blockage” arising from the cold war background in which many of these studies took place.
The 1983 Sri Lankan genocide took place in the context of major economic reforms initiated by President Jayawardene, a champion of market capitalism. Shortly afterwards, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a fan of Jayawardene’s liberal economic policies hailed Sri Lanka as “a five star democracy”.
Dirk Moses explains that (according to theorists with the blind spot), “genocides occur in societies—“failed states,”—that have experienced perverted modernizations. Had they followed the western, preferably the North American, road to modernity, it is implied, they would not have become totalitarian states and perpetrated genocide on their own or neighboring populations.”
But genocide does take place in democracies. As later studies, following the Rwandan crisis, have begun to recognise: Rwanda was a democracy.
If we accept James Smith’s definition of genocide as extreme exclusion, to the point where a group of people is destroyed, then that extreme exclusion began with legislation that the Sinhala people enthusiastically voted for - democratically.
The UNP government of Jayawardene that presided over 1983 was chosen democratically and remained in power for decades afterwards: the UNP despite its culpability in the pogrom is the second largest political party in Sri Lanka today.
Sri Lanka, as a “model” democracy, has been able to deny genocide both in 1983 and to the present day.
It took 21 years and the potential benefits of a peace process with the LTTE, before Chandrika Kumaratunge, leader of the (equally racist) opposition SLFP party and a member of the Bandaranaike dynasty, apologised to the Tamil victims of 1983. A mere 937 victims were offered a derisory 600 pounds, after 21 years of inflation-adjustment.
Jayawardene’s own party, the UNP, never apologised for its role in the state sponsored pogrom. Neither were party members involved in the pogrom investigated or disciplined.
Despite Jayawardene’s personal culpability in the ethnic pogrom, following dynastic tradition, it was his nephew Ranil Wickremasinghe who took over leadership of the party after his uncle’s death.
Notably, Wickremasinghe has been described by Rajiva Wijesinha (former Secretary-General Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process) as the “last significant politician left who contributed to the excesses of J R Jayewardene’s years in power.”
And in 2005, in an astonishing display of denial, Wickremasinghe and his UNP party sought the Tamil vote in Presidential elections: in fact they felt entitled to it.
Gregory Stanton of “Genocide Watch” defines the eight stages of genocide: “Denial is the eighth stage that always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide … deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims.”
Denial of genocide in Sri Lanka is closely linked with politicide.
Jayawardene’s immediate reaction to the 1983 pogrom was to criminalize any attempt to seek the most attractive political remedy to the genocide: separation. And this criminalisation means today, that Tamils are arrested, tortured and killed for their aspiration to a free Tamil Eelam, which they see as the solution to the genocide.
But Jayawardene was acting according to his democratic mandate. Opposition to Eelam is the litmus test of the state of denial and refusal to accept responsibility of the Sinhala population - a truly remorseful Sinhala population would not oppose a demand that arose legitimately from the genocide.
Denial bodes ill for Sri Lanka. Helen Fein notes in her paper “Accounting for genocide after 1945: Theories and some findings” that most users of genocide are repeat offenders.”
The genocide framework explains why Western human rights officials are unable to make any headway with Sri Lanka. The UN rapporteurs, UN High Commissioner, Louise Arbour, the eminent people of the IIEGP, all start with the premise that the government is accountable or has obligations to the Tamil people.
They are working to a fundamentally flawed paradigm.
For in the genocide framework, the Tamil people are outside the “universe of obligation” of the ruling elite. Hence they may be arrested and deported en masse from the capital, they may be arbitrarily executed by troops as were the 17 ACF aid workers, they may be disappeared, tortured, raped and so on.
The International diplomatic community has wholly misread the Sinhala ruling elite’s “universe of obligation”. It thinks this universe somehow includes the Tamils when all the evidence points otherwise. So it continues to work on the flawed paradigm of “better implementation” of the ruling elites obligations to the people. And has got absolutely nowhere.
But academic genocide theory has begun to catch up with Sri Lanka.
In 2008, genocide intervention network lists Sri Lanka as one of eight areas of concern – along with Darfur, Iraq and Congo. Genocide watch lists Sri Lanka as a country in stage 7 – the stage of mass killings.
But for the Tamil people, the challenge at hand is not just the recognition of genocide but even after the recognition, whether international assistance will be either likely or timely or competent. History tells us the answer is “No”.
In the Part 2 the confluence between genocide and politicide is considered as is the suggestion genocide as the dark side of democracy.

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