Response to Noam Chomskyвs comments on the ongoing war in Sri Lanka sign now

Response to Noam Chomskyвs comments on the ongoing war in Sri Lanka

The following joint letter is being sent to Professor Noam Chomsky, one of the world's leading anti-war intellectuals and linguists, following his recent interview on Sri Lanka And American Affairs, by Sri Lanka Guardian's Washington correspondent Eric Bailey, Sri Lanka Guardian, 12 February 2009.

Professor Chomsky's interview can be read in the following sites:
Sri Lanka Guardian

Response to Noam Chomskyвs comments on the ongoing war in Sri Lanka

The interview, as can be seen below, sidesteps the crucial issue of suffering of the Tamil people during the war in Wanni. Hence, the following response has been circulated by friends after a thorough discussion to focus on this issue and urging him to have a relook at his own interview

We (the undersigned), who have immense respect for Professor Noam Chomskyвs work for peace on a global scale, are nevertheless dismayed by his recent comments on the ongoing war in Sri Lanka, made in a telephonic interview to a military analyst working for a journal known to be close to the Sri Lankan government (1).

The interviewer describes Professor Chomsky as a вa self-described anarchistв probably most famous for his strong stances in support of suffering peoples, such as those in Palestine and Somaliaв and hopes to вapply his years of experience and insight to Sri Lanka to help the nation make the transition from a house divided to a united and peaceful country.в

Ignoring loss of lives
The interviewer and, more unfortunately, Professor Chomsky clearly sidestep the key issue of the suffering of the ordinary Tamil people in the Wanni region facing the artillery and aerial onslaughts of the Sri Lankan armed forces in its drive against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas fighting for a separate Tamil State.

Professor Chomsky does state, right at the outset of the interview, that вI don't feel that I have a profound enough knowledge of the details to offer a confident opinionв, but вit is clear that.. the military aspect of the conflict seems to be coming to an end.в But the interview totally ignores that this war is increasingly fought away from the eyes of the world, with enormous cost of lives.

A war without witnesses
Professor Chomsky should have been aware that the Sri Lankan government, on 16 September 2008, ordered all international relief organizations out of the Wanni region which was under the control of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The Sri Lankan armed forces have repeatedly charged the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, probably numbering around 5,000, of holding around 150,000 to 200,000 civilians at ransom in an ever-shrinking patch, now around 50 sq. km in the coastal Mullaitivu district; something denied by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

No journalist, domestic or foreign, is allowed to go beyond Vavuniya town to independently verify information emanating from the battlefields; all journalists travelling to these areas are embedded with the armed forces; unofficial censorship on news from the front including those of casualties of armed forces has been in force in Sri Lanka. One Colombo-based journalist who tried to verify such information, Chris Morris of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), received an open threat from Sri Lankaвs Defence Secretary, Gothabaya Rajapakse, who also happens to be the Presidentвs brother and a US citizen, that he would be chased from Sri Lanka. In a few days, Mr. Morris left the country (2).

Enduring suffering
Reports from the battlefields nevertheless indicate that more than 1,000 civilians, all of whom ordinary Tamil people, have been killed; a far higher number of people injured, as the Sri Lankan armed forces have shelled homes, roads, makeshift hospitals and even homes for the aged and bombed civilians, which if proved, could amount to war crimes. The suffering endured by the people is in addition to the lack of food, shelter, water, transport, essential drugs and medical care. Some of the targets lay in designated safe zones by the Sri Lankan armed forces where people had taken shelter. The International Red Cross alone has a thin presence of medical personnel in the region and they have recently managed to ship 1,150 injured persons to Trincomalee port for emergency medical treatment.

The armed sources estimate that around 25,000 people have made it from the battlefields to the areas now fully controlled by the armed forces; we understand that they are being held in several makeshift detention camps after a screening process. Some reports say the Tamil Tigers have attacked civilians fleeing the war. Very few independent journalists or political leaders have met with those who had fled the battlefields or had been evacuated from there (3). We also learn that plans are afoot to detain the fleeing population a period of three years in five вmodel villagesв, which is in gross violation of international norms for taking care of internally displaced persons (4).

World aids the war
More importantly, the Sri Lankan governmentconducts this war with various levels of military assistance from governments around the world - the United States, the United Kingdom, some European nations, India, Pakistan, China and Iran. Thus, the Sri Lankan government is emboldened to ignore calls from international humanitarian agencies including those of the United Nations, to ensure safety of civilians caught in war; it has also ignored calls from prominent human rights organizations including the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for a truce and a humanitarian corridor to provide relief for the suffering people; the only exception so far has been the ships which have evacuated 1,150 injured persons to Trincomalee.

Procuring consent for war
We can well understand the interviewerвs motive in suppressing the above information. But we wonder why Professor Chomsky, having been eloquent on the US administration and mediaвs attempts to manufacture consent for war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, fails to question this (Ironically, the interviewer later asks Professor Chomsky about such strategies of the US administration!). Professor Chomsky appears to be unaware of the Sri Lankan governmentвs tactics of intimidating and bulldozing sections of the media which have refused to be part of the machinery manufacturing consent for this war. Several journalists who have questioned the cost of this war, in terms of lives of civilians and soldiers which are unreported or deliberately underreported, have faced intimidation and even murder.

Indeed, the most well-known case has been that of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader, a prominent critic of the government who was gunned down last month in Colombo while he was on his way to work (5). Following his murder, at least five journalists who have criticised the Sri Lankan government have fled the country so far (6). Earlier this month, the BBC World Service suspended the flow of its Sinhala and Tamil language services to the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation after the latter censored selective programmes since November last (7). These indicate that Sri Lanka continues to be one of the most dangerous places for journalists; paramilitary organizations widely perceived to be supported by the authorities stand accused of suppressing media and killing journalists, something which the Tamil Tigers earlier stood accused of (8).

No to truce, yes to war
The interviewer continues to attempt to procure Professor Chomskyвs consent for the Sri Lankan governmentвs stand of ignoring the demands for a truce and resumption of peace talks with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. He advocates a bitter fight to the end and asks Professor Chomsky: вMight it be that more lives will be saved if conflicts are allowed to see themselves out and decisive military victories and defeats are allowed to be determined instead of stopping a war before it can be really resolved?в Professor Chomskyвs reply to this, advocating a peaceful resolution of the conflict, is most welcome (9).

The interviewer is keen to ask Professor Chomsky about the fate of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, whether those charged with atrocities and war crimes should be tried in tribunals; however, when he deals with those committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, he slips in the word вpeopleв: вwhat do you think should be the fate of the tens of thousands of people who have fought with the LTTE (Tamil tigers) over the decades, including lower level soldiers all the way up to leading officers?в The interviewer, as seen above, does not even acknowledge the suffering of the Tamil people in the ongoing war, tries to equate members of the armed forces who are fighting on behalf of a majoritarian government, with вpeopleв, revealing a clear bias.

Federalism denied
At the political level, the interviewer tries to lead Professor Chomsky to the point that вit is in the best interests of the island to remain as one independent nation, or one united nation, rather.в Professor Chomsky, while replying to this issue, puts forth a вfederal arrangement,в listing the Basque, Catalina, Wales and Scotland questions, all in Europe. Strangely, he does not cite the more intractable Irish national question. It is also important to point out that for both Basque and Catalonia regions of Spain, federal systems were reached after a prolonged civil war which also was part of the Second World War. These issues continue to be raised in some manner. Thus, Europe appears to have arrived at this вfederal arrangementв after two world wars, but the recent Balkan experience belies this as well.

Professor Chomsky does not cite the post-USSR experience where countries were able to secede without much violence. Also, more crucially, Professor Chomsky does not discuss longstanding similar issues in Asia and Africa, much of which are fallouts from the colonial era and have been characterised by violence. He also does not cite the fact that colonial powers divided regions and incited discourses based on rivalry, identity and ethnicity.

Knowledge is must
As for Sri Lanka, Professor Chomsky says вwithout a really deep knowledge of these matters would be just too presumptuous for an outsider to offer opinions.в Nevertheless, it will not be difficult for him to recognize that:

в Sri Lankaвs majoritarian political establishment remained averse to any federal arrangement, provoking the Tamil youth to take up arms in the seventies; thus, when the democratic rights of the Tamil people have been violated by successive governments, a violent form of resistance grew.
в Sri Lanka continues to have a unitary constitution giving preferential treatment to the majority in terms of ethnicity and religion (Sinhala-Buddhism) and its cavalier treatment of the minorities has a long history;
в time and again, Sri Lankaвs major political parties have missed opportunities to amend the constitution towards a secular, federal framework and failed to ensure equal rights to minorities and nationalities in the country.
в Sri Lanka has lo far preferred outcome and only if it is simply impossible to execute should the situation be allowed to deteriorate into violence, which is usually very harmful for everyone.в

9. Professor Chomsky goes on to caution the interviewer that war crimes are usually committed by both sides and that all of them need to be investigated if a tribunal were to sit on judgment; instead, he recommends that the society decide on the issue of amnesty and suggests a truth or reconciliation commission without punitive powers on the lines of South Africa, El Salvador or Guatemala. Professor Chomskyвs recommendation is a welcome step which can be part of a peaceful resolution.

10. Ravi Nessman, Sri Lanka war near end, but ethnic tension remains, Associated Press, 5 February 2009.

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Heidi CordovaBy:
International PolicyIn:
Petition target:
Professor Noam Chomsky


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