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The Peaceful World

26 May 2013

The Peaceful World

By Gwynne Dyer

Imagine for a moment that all the wars of the world have come to a peaceful conclusion. Most violent crime against people and property has also been eradicated. The worst outbreak of violence in the world in the past 24 hours has been a fight in a bar in Irkutsk, Russia.

What item do you think will lead the international news for the next 12 hours, or however long it takes until something fresher come along? The bar fight in Irkutsk, of course. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says the axiom, and the world’s media follow it slavishly, so they will always give you the impression that the world is drowning in violence. It is not – but people think it is.

Stop people at random and ask them how many wars they think are going on in the world right now. Most people would guess around a dozen, although they wouldn’t be able to name them. The right answer is two, and one of them, Afghanistan, is probably approaching its end.

There are close to 200 independent countries in the world, and only one in a hundred is currently at war. They are both primarily civil wars, although there is some foreign involvement in each case. The Syrian civil war is extremely destructive of lives and property, the war in Afghanistan less so, and in both cases the fighting occasionally slops over their borders, but that’s it.

There are a number of other countries where there is a lower level of civil conflict: the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, or Colombia (although the latter is now engaged in peace talks to end the fifty-year conflict between the state and the FARC guerillas). But the Sri Lankan civil war is over, the Iraqi civil war is at least over for the moment, and the many little wars of West Africa are all over.

Then there is Somalia, the world’s only failed state, where twenty years of violent anarchy may finally be drawing to an end. But the actual scale of the fighting has rarely risen to a level that would qualify what has been happening there as a full-scale war. Not, at least, what would have qualified as a full-scale war back in the days when that sort of thing was still common. Most of the time Somalia’s conflict has been more like gangland wars on steroids.

There is terrorism in various places, like Boko Haram’s bizarre campaign to impose Islamic law on Nigeria (where only half the population is Muslim), the Pakistani Taliban’s campaign of murder against their Shia fellow-citizens, and the Naxalites’ long and forlorn struggle to make a Communist revolution in India. All nasty, but none of them real wars.

And there is, finally, the famous “war” on terror, which these days amounts to little more than over-zealous law enforcement at home and selective assassination by drones abroad. Like the “war” on drugs in Mexico, it is only a metaphor for an activity that is not really a war at all.

So that’s it: two real wars, and a clutter of lesser conflicts that really do not merit the term. In a world of seven billion people, only a few hundred million have even the slightest experience of organised violence for political ends. Why, then, do so many people think that the world is still overrun by war?

The media are partly to blame, but they are also manipulated by various governments that raise the spectre of war for their own ends. Wars that have not happened and are never likely to fill the imaginations of the public: a war in Korea, a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran, Western or Israeli intervention in Syria, a war between China and South-East Asian countries over islands in the South China Sea, a US-Chinese conflict in the Pacific, and on and on.

A lot of people, some in uniform and some not, make a living off these mostly phantom fears, and they contribute to the general impression that the world is still a place where war, however deplorable, is the normal state of affairs. It is not. We live in an era where, for the first time in history, no great power genuinely fears attack by any other, and where the number of actual wars can be counted on the fingers of one badly mutilated hand.

Almost 90 million people died in the world wars and other big wars (including the Russian, Chinese and Spanish civil wars) of the first half of the 20th century, out of a world population that was one-third of what it is now. In the second half of the century the death toll dropped steeply to 25 million or so, most of whom died in colonial independence wars and civil wars.

And so far, in the 21st century, the total is less than one million people killed in war. What we have on our hands here is a miraculous and mostly unsung success story. There will doubtless be more wars, but they may be small and infrequent. We are obviously doing something right. We should figure out what it is, and do more of it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Then…steroids”; and “And there is…at all)

 

 

Sri Lanka’s Future

22 December 2009

Sri Lanka’s Future

By Gwynne Dyer

First, the good news. Sri Lanka’s government, whose 26-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers ended in total victory last May, is keeping its promise to let all of the 300,000 Tamil civilians who were captured in the final battle go home again. Not only that, but it is going to hold a free election next month – so free that the ruling party might even lose it.

The bad news is that it does not much matter who wins that election. Both the incumbent and the challenger are committed Sinhalese nationalists whose policies towards the Tamil minority militate against any reconciliation between the two groups. Tamils are less than a fifth of the population, so if tough treatment is enough to keep them quiet, then Sri Lanka faces a peaceful future – but repression has not worked in the past.

It’s easy to understand why the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapkasa, insisted on a decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers, whose insurgency had caused 70,000 deaths over the years. There had been cease-fires and peace talks over the years, but the Tigers never really abandoned their goal of total independence for the Tamil majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

That was utterly unacceptable to the Sinhala-speaking majority, so the war was bound to end in a last stand by the Tigers sooner or later. They could have carried on with suicide bombings and assassinations forever, but their territorial ambitions drove them to seize and hold ground with a more or less conventional military force. (They even had a navy and an air force of sorts.) That made them vulnerable to military defeat.

All it took to make that happen was a government willing to devote all the resources of the state to building an army able to defeat the Tigers in stand-up battle, and tough enough to refuse all negotiations until the enemy was completely destroyed. The Rajapaksas provided that government.

All the well-meaning foreign pleas last May for a cease-fire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped with the Tigers were quite rightly ignored by the Sri Lankan forces. The Tigers always made sure that they had lots of innocent civilians around when they fought. The civilians absorbed a lot of the enemy fire, their deaths served to radicalise other Tamils – and cease-fires to protect civilians had frequently allowed the Tiger fighters to escape in the past.

Nor was Colombo wrong to round up all 300,000 Tamil civilians who were caught up in the Tigers’ last stand. Any surviving fighters were bound to try to hide themselves among the civilians, so a protracted sorting-out process was needed. But the Sri Lankan government promised that everybody except suspected fighters would be released within six months – and it has kept its word, more or less.

The camps have been emptying out fast over the past couple of months, and Colombo promises that everybody will have gone home by the end of January. There are justifiable complaints that not enough is being done to help former detainees re-settle, but there have been much uglier ends to long and brutal wars like this one.

The problem lies not in the past, but in the future. The Tamils are always going to be there, and the prospect of a peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on reconciling them to coexistence with the Sinhalese in a state that treats both communities fairly. They will probably never again create a semi-conventional army like the Tigers, but it would be all too easy for them to resort to terrorism again if they feel desperate enough. And it would be almost impossible to stop it.

The trouble is that it took an ultra-nationalist Sinhalese regime to create the army that defeated the Tigers, and it is still in power. It does not want to welcome the Tamils back into equal citizenship, nor does it feel that it needs to. The Rajapaksa government has called an early election for 26 January to exploit its victory and consolidate its hold on power – and if it should happen lose the election, then things may just get worse.

The Rajapaksas’ challenger is none other than General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the army that finally defeated the Tigers. The main opposition group in the Sinhala community, the United National Party, has banded together with nine smaller parties and put Fonseka up as their presidential candidate.

Fonseka could actually win, for his role in the defeat of the Tigers was just as large as that of the Rajapaksas. But he is also just as uncompromising a Sinhalese nationalist: as the war was nearing a conclusion, he was heard to say that Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese…(Minorities) can live in this country with us, but they must not try to demand undue things.” Like equality, perhaps?

That is the attitude that drove the Tamils into insurrection in the first place. The next time it wouldn’t take the same form, but it could guarantee another generation of misery, insecurity (and perhaps also tyranny) for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“All the well-meaning…past”; and “The camps…this one”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Tamil Aftermath

28 May 2009

Tamil Aftermath

 By Gwynne Dyer

“(The war) is not going to end soon,” said Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the Sri Lankan army’s spokesman, last month. “It will take some time to completely eradicate terrorism from the country — we think about two years.”

In the euphoria over the recent military victory that ended the conventional war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”) and wiped out most of their leadership, most people in Sri Lanka have forgotten that prediction, but it remains likely. In fact, the brigadier may even have been optimistic in saying that two years would “completely eradicate terrorism” in Sri Lanka.

In the last weeks of fighting, foreigners called for a ceasefire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped within the diminishing perimeter held by the Tigers, solemnly warning that a crushing military victory by the government would embitter the Tamils and cause just such a terrorist war afterwards. But that was just foreigners being naive: after 26 years of war, the bitterness among Tamils is already quite enough to fuel a post-war guerilla war.

However, whether that war actually occurs depends on what happens next, not on how Tamils feel about the way the war ended. The ordeal of the 300,00 Tamils who were trapped with the Tigers’ army in its last stand was extreme, but it was not just due to government shell-fire.

The survivors of that ordeal, who are now being held in government-run “displacement camps”, were forced to accompany the Tigers in their retreat to serve as shields. They were killed by the Tigers if they tried to leave, so they are not in the least romantic about that last stand. Whereas the very large number of Tamils in the diaspora overseas are.

Diaspora Tamils are in shock about recent events, for most of them saw the founder and leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakan, as an invincible defender of the Tamil cause. They can scarcely believe that he and almost all the other senior leaders of the Tigers are dead. Moreover, the Tiger support network in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom that provided 80 percent of the organisation’s military budget is still intact.

There are plenty of young radicals in those communities who are ready to continue the war in Sri Lanka, if only by guerilla and terrorist attacks for the time being. This is strikingly different from the situation in Sri Lanka itself, where it is clear that most Tamils in the areas formerly under the Tigers’ control are ready to stop fighting. They have personal experience of the Tigers’s ruthless rule, they have lived through 26 years of constant insecurity and recurrent violence, and they have had enough.

That would normally be the deciding factor in the equation, for if the Tamils at home in Sri Lanka really want to end the war, who could make it continue? There are, unfortunately, two possible answers to that question. One is: the dogmatists in the Tamil diaspora, for whom the goal of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka is sacred. The other is: the victorious and deeply intolerant government of Sri Lanka, which may well throw its victory away.

Many Tamils living abroad just want to integrate into their new countries and leave all that unhappy history behind them, but family ties back home and the pervasive presence of Tiger radicals in the overseas communities make it hard for them to do so. There is a risk that the Tamil diaspora, like the millions of Irish who emigrated to the United States in the famine of the 1840s, will become the base for a permanent war against the oppressor back home.

That is what the Fenians became in 19th-century America, even launching unsuccessful “invasions” of British North America (i.e. Canada) in pursuit of their goal of liberating Ireland. If the Sri Lankan government cannot create an acceptable future for its Tamil population at home, the same thing will happen in the Tamil diaspora.

There is no good reason why Sri Lanka’s Tamils should not live peacefully as the country’s largest minority, but history is against it. The ethnic nationalism of the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority has poisoned Sri Lankan politics, beginning with the laws that made Sinhala the sole official language and imposed restrictions on Tamil access to universities and the professions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Those laws were mainly the work of the Bandaranaike political dynasty, which deliberately cultivated a resentful Sinhalese nationalism for electoral reasons. The laws aimed to redress the grievances of the Sinhalese majority, who believed that the Tamil minority had prospered at their expense by collaborating too closely with the British colonial power, but they went too far and they have lasted too long.

What the country needs now is a clean slate where everybody’s language has equal status and every ethnic group has equal opportunities. At the end of these terrible months, and despite all the killings and the “displacement camps” crammed with dazed Tamil civilians, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has enough political credit in the eyes of the Sinhalese majority to make that revolution happen.

Unfortunately, his government probably lacks the imagination for that, in which case the terrorism will probably start up again soon.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“However…are”)

What Matters in Sri Lanka

26 April 2009

What Matters in Sri Lanka

By Gwynne Dyer

As the 26-year war in Sri Lanka nears its end, every busybody in the world is urging the Sri Lankan government to stop. Spare the poor civilians trapped in the combat zone, declare a cease-fire, it’s time to negotiate, they all implore. Even the US government has now joined the chorus.

Last weekend, the White House said that it was “deeply concerned about the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mounting death toll.” It called on both sides to “stop fighting immediately and allow civilians to safely leave the combat zone.” The Tigers immediately declared a unilateral cease-fire, while the Sri Lankan government called it a “joke” and continued its final offensive. But the government is right.

More than 70,000 people have died in the Sri Lankan war. Some hundreds of civilians, or maybe even a few thousands, will be killed in this last battle, but that’s far fewer than would die if the war continued for years more. Every time the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” were granted a cease-fire in the past, they used the breathing space to rearm, and then relaunched their struggle for independence. So no more cease-fires; just get it over with.

Besides, the civilians in the combat zone, all Tamils themselves, were not just “caught up in the conflict” between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. As the rebels lost control of most of northern Sri Lanka over the past two years, they forced tens of thousands of Tamil civilians from their homes and made them join the retreat. If the civilians tried to escape the ever-dwindling territory controlled by the Tigers, they were killed.

They are hostages, held prisoner in order to hinder the government’s use of heavy weapons against the Tigers’ defences. In a just universe, all the mealy-mouthed diplomatic formulas that omit that fundamental fact would earn eternal damnation for those who utter them.

Even when the Sri Lankan army managed to breach the Tigers’ defences last week and tens of thousands of the hostages escaped, the Tigers sent along suicide bombers among the streams of refugees to punish them for their “treachery”. Next to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Tamil Tigers are probably the worst bunch of ultra-nationalist extremists that Asia has seen in the past half-century.

They do, however, have an effective propaganda service, and command wide support among the large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Not all of this is voluntary: one Tamil-Canadian in Toronto explained to me how he always avoided filling stations run by Tamils in order to avoid being indentified and “taxed” by the Tigers, with unpleasant consequences for his relatives back in Sri Lanka if he failed to pay up.

However, since there are many more Tamils than other Sri Lankan immigrants in most Western countries, their governments tend to take the course of least resistance, which in the current context is to back the Tamil Tigers’ pleas for a cease-fire. Calling for a cease-fire always sounds good, and the Western governments don’t have to live with the consequences.

If the sanctimonious foreigners really wanted to make themselves useful, they would stop calling for a cease-fire and instead demand full civil rights for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka after the war, including broad autonomy in the areas where they are the local majority. It was the brutal suppression of Tamil rights in the decades after independence, extending even to pogroms against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese population, that caused this war. It will eventually cause another if it is not ended.

The current Sri Lankan government is not the ideal vehicle for attaining this goal. The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a nasty piece of work, and his brother Gotabaya, the defence secretary, is even nastier. Together they have turned a once-flourishing democracy into a country where critics of the government often die violent but unexplained deaths.

If your goal is a tolerant, multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, you would not choose to start from here. But that is where Sri Lanka is, and so the choice is between evils.

The Tigers are a cancer that needs to be eliminated. The present government will probably then do almost everything wrong, alienating the defeated Tamils from the Sri Lankan state by repressive measures when it should be trying to reconcile them. But once the Tigers are gone, the raison d’etre of such a brutal regime vanishes.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has had its flaws and failures over the years, but it has deep roots, and it is hard to imagine a regime like that of the Rajapaksas surviving for long in peacetime. Only war made that possible, and the war will soon be over.

So if the foreigners really want to make themselves useful, they should stop grand-standing about the civilians trapped in the Tigers’ remaining territory, which is now down to about 12 sq. km. (5 sq. mi.). Instead, they should push the Sri Lankan government to create a post-war dispensation that makes Tamils happy to be Sri Lankans.

As a start, all the Tamil civilians who have escaped from the Tigers should be freed from the detention camps where they are now being held within the next few weeks. Keeping them for the planned year or more is just vindictive.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“They

do…consequences”)