20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lanka?

Recently, there have been reports about the killing of large number of civilians in the recently concluded military operations in Sri Lanka. Now, I have never followed Sri Lankan politics in any detail. So I cannot comment on which side (if any) is in the right. But that is not the purpose of the post. I am writing this post because I am a little surprised at my own reaction to this. Or rather the lack of reaction. I feel nothing at all. No sympathy for those killed, no anger or admiration for the fighters on either side, nothing at all. A single untimely death can be a tragedy but 20,000 just leaves me untouched. I believe in the benevolent universe premise and thus have a default good-will toward people I do not know, an expression of the idea that human life is valuable. Does the lack of reaction contradict this premise? Have I turned into a cynic?

To get atleast some minimal understanding of what the conflict was all about, I looked up LTTE on wikipedia. In a long article, the only reason mentioned for the cause of the conflict is this one line: “The Tamil Tigers claimed to be fighting to protect the country’s Tamil minority from discrimination at the hands of the successive Sinhalese majority governments that have ruled the country since independence”. That and the two maps in the same article indicate that the conflict is ethnic. An ethnic conflict is inconceivable to me in the sense that I cannot even remotely understand the kind of thinking that would motivate a person to participate in it. I have zero respect for any religion (never had any) or for tradition for its own sake. That people are willing to fight and kill for the sake of religion and/or tradition is inconceivable.

The conflict is not new. It has been going on for decades. What have all these “civilians” been doing while a civil war was raging in their country? Either they have actively supported it or they have ignored it even though they knew they would be caught in the cross-fire. Either way they have not demonstrated any respect for human life, not even their own. If they never cared much about their own lives, why should I? Anyhow, I don’t even subscribe to the idea that civilians should be exempt from military operations.

The first time I heard about the LTTE was when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. I was only a kid then. It is telling that in all the time since then (almost two decades) I did not even know what the conflict was about. I have never been particularly interested in politics but that does not explain it. I knew what the American civil war was about, for instance. I never knew what the conflict was about because in all the reports that I must have read or glanced at, I found no sensible reasons.

To sum up, my lack of reaction was because I did not care about these people at all, not because I did not know them but because I knew (only implicitly) that they were not acting sensibly. I still hold that “human life is valuable”. But human (in this context) is more than a biological description. And people who are willing to participate in ethnic strife or to live passively while it destroys everything around them do not qualify.

Note:
As I was writing this I remembered that Aristotle The Geek had recently written somehing about Prabhakaran (the LTTE leader). So I searched for LTTE on his blog and found these two posts. The first reveals that socialism was part of the idealogy of the LTTE. So the civilians who supported the LTTE are not just tribalistic but also socialist. The comments in the second raise another issue – how do collectives relate to individualism and should one recognize them? I will write about that later.

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2 Responses

  1. # “…indicate that the conflict is ethnic.”
    It is. For more background, try this, and this, and this and this.

    # “An ethnic conflict is inconceivable to me in the sense that I cannot even remotely understand the kind of thinking that would motivate a person to participate in it.”
    Its really not that difficult to understand the motives – language, religion, culture or some such issue is where it all begins. Insecurity, or an assertion of an “identity” by one group sets the ball rolling – Lanka, the partition of India, then of Pakistan, casteism in India, apartheid in South Africa, sub-nationalism in India, racism throughout the world, the cold war between the various regions in Britain and the not-so-cold war in Northern Ireland, segregation in the US, Malaysia and its Bhoomiputra policy, etc etc etc are all related.

    When a society deals with an individual not as an individual but as a member of a particular “group,” ghettoization – physical and mental – necessarily follows. A few people on both sides of the divide try to fix things, but such efforts generally fail. Some of them are marginalized, others are eliminated, or called sell-outs. Hard-liners rule on both sides. All such societies, sooner or later, reap what they sow.

    # “What have all these “civilians” been doing while a civil war was raging in their country?…And people who are willing to participate in ethnic strife or to live passively while it destroys everything around them do not qualify.”
    Some supported the war because they thought they were fighting for freedom. It was much later that Prabhakaran became a predator. After that, most of the population, that which could not afford/ manage to go and settle abroad, or could not flee to India, was caught between the two forces.

    Rand once talked about life on a desert island being preferable to life in the USSR. But its not that easy to – a) escape, b) find a desert island, or better – a civilized country that would let you in. To “escape,” one has to know what one is escaping from. Most people never understand that, or hit the limit where risking death for a better life is preferable to life at a sub-human level. I think that’s what happened in Lanka. Most Tamil civilians, finding themselves either in LTTE-controlled territory, or the Lankan one, would have been coerced into taking sides. When the end came, it must have come as a surprise to many. No one expected that the conflict would end so soon. The Sri Lankan government should thank Pakistan and China, countries that offered military support when India refused.

  2. Its really not that difficult to understand the motives
    In a sense I do. What I meant was that I cannot put myself in such a person’s place. I cannot identify at all.

    All such societies, sooner or later, reap what they sow.
    Yes, that is why I am unable to feel anything about the massacre.

    After that, most of the population, that which could not afford/ manage to go and settle abroad, or could not flee to India, was caught between the two forces
    I am not so sure of that. Can an organization like the LTTE remain in existence without the implicit support of the majority of people in its region? I think not.

    But its not that easy to – a) escape, b) find a desert island, or better – a civilized country that would let you in.
    Yes, but I wonder how many people actually wanted to escape on principle. In a place where violence is perennial, can even a few individuals actually understand the causes of the violence or is the culture an inpenetrable barrier? I would like to know.

    When the end came, it must have come as a surprise to many.
    It certainly came as a surprise to me.

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