Fighting Terrorism at Too High a Price

Aravind Adiga, bestselling author of The White Tiger, on how the free and democratic country of Sri Lanka has become warped by its prolonged war on terror.

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi AFP / Getty Images

One of the world's oldest, best-organized, and nastiest terrorist groups is about to be wiped out in Sri Lanka. This sounds like good news, but the world may soon discover that the elimination of this particular terrorist group came at a terrible price. Indeed, in so many ways, what is happening in Sri Lanka—this small, sunny, and incredibly beautiful nation—seems like a perfect libertarian's nightmare of what can go wrong in a war on terror.

Bloodshed has always seemed incongruous in Sri Lanka, an island nation of about 20 million people in the Indian Ocean that is a favorite tourist spot for visitors from Europe and England. Hidden far away from Sri Lanka's gorgeous beaches and Buddhist temples, though, the fighting has been vicious: no one knows how many have died in a civil war that is a quarter of a century old, but estimates start at 60,000 and go up.

In the post-9/11 world, how could any foreign government possibly ask the Sri Lankan government to show moderation in its war against a terrorist group?

The civil war grew out of the island's major ethnic fault line. Most Sri Lankans are Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, but a large minority are Tamils (who are Hindu and Christian). Many Sinhalas felt that the Tamils were unfairly favored by the British, who ruled the island until 1948. After the British left, Sinhala nationalists tried to get even through heavy-handed attempts to impose their language and culture on the Tamils. This led to tensions between the two ethnic groups. Things came to a head in 1983, in a vicious anti-Tamil pogrom during which thousands of Tamils were killed by mobs. A civil war followed, with the government taking on a variety of Tamil guerrilla groups who demanded a separate homeland for Tamils within Sri Lanka—the most important of which was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE became a pioneer in terrorism—its cadres were some of the world’s first suicide bombers, and it developed a global financial network to shake down expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils living in Europe and Canada. Run by a shadowy supreme leader named Prabhakaran, the LTTE became a lethal organization that specialized in assassinations—including the 1991 killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. What made its cause morally complicated was the fact that many Tamils did have genuine grievances within Sri Lanka, and felt that the fear of the LTTE was the only thing forcing their government to extend basic rights to them. For this reason, “the Tigers” (as the LTTE were called) were never short of finance or manpower, and though the long civil war had its ups and downs, the Tigers managed to defy the Sri Lankan army and seized control of parts of the country's north and east.

In 2002, a ceasefire was struck between the government and the Tigers, who pretty much ran a quasi-independent state in the north of the country. I made three trips to Sri Lanka during this ceasefire, including two to cover the tsunami, which struck the island in 2004. Although the horror of the tsunami produced a brief desire for national reconciliation, tensions between the LTTE and the government still simmered, and most Sri Lankans expected the civil war to flare up sooner or later. It did resume last year, but what happened took everyone by surprise. The LTTE simply collapsed. An internal fight during the ceasefire weakened the LTTE, and Sri Lanka had a new president, Mahinda Rajapakse, who seemed determined to crush the Tigers once and for all.

The LTTE has also been the victim of a new global attitude toward terror. All through the 1990s, far too many governments could take a neutral—or even sympathetic—attitude toward terrorist groups, as long as they didn’t explode bombs in their territory. It was widely known, for instance, that Pakistan, a big recipient of U.S. military aid, was channeling some of that money to fund Islamist terror groups operating in India—but who really cared in Washington? (India, for its part, was guilty of allowing the LTTE considerable access to its territory for a part of the 1980s.)

After September 11, 2001, attitudes changed. Governments across the world classified the LTTE as a terrorist organization, and began to crack down on its international finance network. There is a new global consensus on terrorism—and the Sri Lankan government has used it to its advantage. Sri Lanka, a recipient of international aid and tourism, is dependent on the goodwill of the world community; and foreign governments, in the past, have asked Sri Lanka to negotiate with the LTTE rather than continue the bloody civil war. But in the post-9/11 world, how could any foreign government possibly ask the Sri Lankan government to show moderation in its war against a terrorist group?

In the past few months, the Sri Lankan army has won battle after battle against the Tigers in the north of the country and forced them out of their strongholds. Outgunned and outmaneuvered in traditional warfare, the Tigers have responded by exposing innocent people to danger—they have taken civilians hostage in a bid to stop the Sri Lankan army from shelling them. This cynical and brutal tactic has not worked.

The LTTE are all but finished. They have been driven into a toehold in the north, and will probably be wiped out in the next few weeks—but their defeat has come at a cost: The United Nations says it believes that numerous civilians have been killed in the fighting (one estimate puts the number at several thousand, but this is hard to verify). Many displaced Tamil civilians now live in makeshift camps, and are threatened by malnutrition and disease. Has the Sri Lankan government been careful to minimize civilian casualties, as it claims, or has it cold-bloodedly ignored civilian deaths in its war against the LTTE, as many Tamil activists claim? We can’t know for sure, because whether or not the Sri Lankan government is guilty of slaughtering some of its own civilians, it certainly is culpable of another crime—a war against free speech.

Until relatively recently, Sri Lanka, a parliamentary democracy, had a press that was free and outspoken. This press freedom has been under threat for some time—and it has virtually been snuffed out during the recent war against the LTTE. Journalists have been denied free and full access to the fighting in the north—and the world has little reliable information on what exactly is happening there. Those Sri Lankan reporters who question the way the army has conducted the war are labeled traitors by the government’s top ministers and bureaucrats. Threats, arrests, and murder follow.

In a recent statement, President Obama highlighted the plight of J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan journalist who has been detained for over a year by the government. But the biggest blow against the Sri Lankan press was struck in January this year, when Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, a newspaper that had been critical of President Rajapakse, was killed by unidentified men on his way to work. Wickrematunge, a fearless editor with whom I had worked during my visits to the country, had been anticipating the worst. After his death, his newspaper published a letter, written by Wickrematunge, accusing the government of being complicit in his death. This charge is denied by the government, but few journalists feel secure in the country. Wickrematunge’s successor at The Sunday Leader told an Indian newspaper: “If you dare to dissent, if you are critical of not the war but even the conduct of this war, you are immediately labeled a traitor.”

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In its defense, the Sri Lankan government claims that press freedom exists in the country. It is true that dissenting voices can make themselves heard in Sri Lanka—but those who speak out against the government's war on terror are incredibly brave men and women, who do so in an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.

On a recent trip to the country, I found that journalists whom I had known for years were edgy about discussing the war in the north, because of the real threat that they could be picked up by thugs, beaten up, or even killed. “We tend to censor ourselves now,” a Sri Lankan blogger told me. What was most frightening to me was that most Sri Lankans did not seem to mind what was happening to their press. Most of them support the government’s war against the LTTE—and seem to view the journalists who question aspects of the war as unpatriotic members of society who deserve the worst that happens to them. In vain, the journalists argue that if the government kills innocent civilians in the north, it will only engender bitterness and paranoia among the island’s Tamils—and that the civil war will invariably resume. In vain, they argue that justice is the most important weapon in the war against terrorists.

Too many civilians in Sri Lanka now seem to buy the government’s claim that anyone questioning their army is a traitor. A free and democratic country has become warped by a prolonged war on terror.

The world has issued the Sri Lankan government a blank check in its fight against the LTTE, and it is time now to tear up that check. President Rajapakse must immediately end the climate of fear in which journalists in his country operate; he must free reporters who have been falsely arrested; and must find and prosecute the killers of Lasantha Wickrematunge. He must allow reporters, Sri Lankan and foreign, full access to the northern end of the island, so they can verify for themselves that Tamil civilians caught in the warfare there are living in humane, secure conditions. If he does not do so, the rest of the world has no choice but to assume that the worst of the charges leveled against his government are true—and act accordingly.

Aravind Adiga is the bestselling author of The White Tiger, which won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.