Naxalites, Maoists, Vimukthi-ists, Deshapremis and Liberation Tigers

Tuesday, 21 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

India’s Maoist insurgents, the Naxalites, are giving the Government of India a hard time. The Naxalite movement has its roots in a 1967 peasant uprising in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal.

The recent rise of the Naxalites is due to three factors. In 2004, two hitherto separate factions of insurgents merged into the Communist Party of India (Maoist) under the leadership of Muppala Lakshmana Rao, known by the pseudonym ‘Ganapathi,’ which has strengthened their capacity and reduced the internecine warfare which debilitated them earlier.

Second, the utter poverty and lack of economic opportunity in the tribal regions of the Indian states of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal (the region has an acronym BIMARU – it is also called the Red Corridor) has created grievances among poor and marginalised tribal youth, which provides a steady source for recruitment of insurgent fighters.

Thirdly, the rapid development of industries based on extraction of natural resources in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the old and famous ‘natural resource curse’, has given the Naxalites new, unpopularly exploitative and vulnerable targets to attack.

Things are further challenged by the worst affected states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand being among India’s worst governed, with deplorable standards of governance.

Shibu Soren, Chief Minister of Jharkhand, won an election in the recent past with the Naxalites support and is understandably reluctant to fight them. Chattisgarh went on the other historically-proven ill-fated track, of arming an anti-Naxalite tribal militia, the Salwa Judum or Peace March, which was a violent failure displacing over 50,000 villagers and generating anger which drove recruits to the Naxalites. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Naxalite threat as India’s “single biggest internal security challenge”.

Eradicating the Naxalites

India is struggling with how to eradicate the Naxalites, the classic old debate in counter terrorism on do you attack the manifestation, or the symptom, or both? Fight insurgent violence with vicious official state counter violence or alternatively and simultaneously, meet development aspirations of the poor and marginalised who support the terrorists, with schools, healthcare, jobs and infrastructure, the perceived lack of which is the inequality which drives the insurgency, while at least attempting to provide a modicum of security for the general public?

Are the might of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army to be deployed against the Naxalites? Recently the Commander of the Indian Air Force went on record emphasising the fact that India’s tribal’s “are their own people,” Indian citizens and that the question of using the might of the Indian Air Force against them does not even arise, IAF helicopters are only giving non offensive logistic support, they cannot even fire back when the insurgents shoot at them, to the Central Reserve Police Force and the various State Police forces which are being deployed against the Naxalites, highly ineffectively, up to the present time.

The opposition political parties are baying for Home Minister Chidambaram’s blood, one of his own Cabinet colleagues have spoken out against his policies. A recent ambush at Dantewada, in Chattisgarh killed 76 Policemen. Pressure and remote controlled land mines had been cunningly placed, in advance, at points which the desperate Policemen, armed with only single shot self loading rifles, vainly attempted to take cover from the ambush by insurgents armed with semi automatic AK47s and T56s which fire bursts.

There is a similarity here to the historical, General Custer’s Last Stand, in the US, where his Seventh Cavalry troopers armed with single shot carbines were heavily outgunned by the Red Indians led by Chief Sitting Bull with their Henry and Winchester repeating rifles capable of firing 17 rounds without reloading.

The possibility of some tactical and technical assistance, from other South Asian terrorist groups and intelligence agencies, including the Liberation Tigers of Sri Lanka and the Maoists of Nepal, the Chakmas of Bangladesh, Al Qaeda of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is being whispered about in hushed tones in the corridors of power in New Delhi.

The latest counter insurgency step by the Government of India is for the Indian Army to deploy in the BIMARU states with training camps, under strict rules of engagement to fire only in self defence, to dominate the ground and take away the initiative of free movement from the Naxalites. Predictably, the Naxalites will provoke the Jawans to commit excesses against poor tribals in the area.

The Indian Army officers would do well to read up and study the experiences of the IPKF in northern Sri Lanka, where the LTTE in a series of carefully-planned operations provoked Sikh soldiers of the Punjab Regiment and Gurkha’s from the Gurkha brigade and other Jawans to go berserk and commit atrocities against civilians in Jaffna.

Anecdotal evidence of the Tigers removing the turban and cutting the hair and beard of a captured Sikh soldier in full view of his regimental colleagues and how the Punjabi Sardaris reacted in uncontrolled fury, against all and sundry, is well documented in the travails of Jaffna’s citizens. This kind of activity could be expected in the BIMARU Red Corridor in the future.

Nothing new to Sri Lanka

The abject poverty and the desperation which drives ‘educated,’ idealistic young people, manipulated and misled by scheming murderous elements, with foreign assistance, to armed revolt, is nothing new to us in Sri Lanka.

In 1971 and 1989 Rohana Wijeweera led the Sinhala ‘Vimukthi’ and ‘Deshapremi’ youth on this murderous path to liberation. In 1976 Velupillai Prabhkaran’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, did the same with the Tamil youth, until he was annihilated in 2009.

Wijeweera was killed in somewhat controversial circumstances; his acolytes have since ostensibly entered the mainstream of democratic politics, under a bewildering range of banners, most of them resoundingly rebuffed by the voters or adroitly switching sides, as is the Sri Lankan base political culture.

Politicians at various times used the incipient insurgents to propel themselves to power, but were unable to deliver the promised fruits of development, which further frustrated the insurgent youth. Prabhakaran and the vast majority of his acolytes have been dispatched to the next world under somewhat similar controversial circumstances. The survivors and those who double crossed and sold him out, are also in the mainstream ‘democratic’ politics, under an equally bewildering set of banners, all resoundingly rebuffed by the voters.

The Government is making ominous warnings of an expatriate LTTE rump. Wijeweera’s wife and children are alive, though under the radar, while Prabhakaran’s wife and children are allegedly, not alive.

Lack of employment opportunities, rampant corruption, discrimination in university admission, mismatch between the product of State education and the demands of the job market, poverty, perceived language and cultural oppression were among the factors which motivated Sri Lankan youth on this murderous path. In India the reasons are similar, compounded by caste oppression of the tribals.

Sustainable solutions

In Sri Lanka’s case, foreign governments, in various ways, assisted the insurgents. This is possible currently in India too. India should think as to whether the Sri Lankan Government could have ever overcome the twin insurgencies if they had not deployed the full might of the Army, Navy and Air Force, combined with a humongous procurement of sophisticated weapons (which brought its own set of problems), admittedly at massive human cost and destruction of infrastructure, against the insurgents.

To think that the anti-Naxalite strategy is a mere Police internal security operation may be a costly and expensive mistake. Nations and their political leaders, the history of the world shows, unfortunately, insist on learning the hard way and insist on playing at cutthroat domestic, regional and international power play politics at massive cost to themselves, their people and their progress towards development, instead of instituting pragmatic political and developmental reforms and strategies which benefit their people and address their fundamental development and economic needs.

Good governance, the eradication of poverty and maximising opportunity for self advancement for the marginalised – these are the only sustainable solutions to the frustration of the deprived, who aspire for a better life and resort to violence. Not an eye for an eye, which, as famously said by Nobel Laureate Prof. Amartya Sen, will result only in mass blindness! To quote India’s greatest son, Gautama the Buddha, “Hatred never ceases through hatred, in this world.”

UN report

The publication of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka has brought all these issues into sharp focus. The Panel chaired by Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian Attorney General, was tasked with advising the UN SG on the implementation of the join communiqué included in the statement issued by the President of Sri Lanka and the UNSG at the conclusion of the SG’s visit to Sri Lanka in March 2009, underlying the ‘importance of an accountability process’ and the Government’s agreement that it “will take measures to address those grievances”.

The report has found what it terms as ‘credible allegations,’ which it says “if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime on international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.”

Government stance

This is very different to the version maintained by the Government of the ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ it carried out in the last days of the conflict. From 31 April to 2 May the Government organised an international seminar in Colombo to present to the world how it successfully eradicated LTTE terrorism. Attendees report that there seemed to be a readiness to discuss the issues arising from the manner in which the last stages of the war were conducted.

Dr. David Kilcullen drew the attention of the participants to the possible human rights violations that may have happened during the war. He also said that Sri Lanka had a great case to make for the end justifying the means, because the war was being conducted against an organisation which had been recognised as an especially ruthless terrorist organisation.

Regarding the controversy of some of those killed attempting to surrender under a white flag, the American Defence Attaché at its mission in Colombo, a Lt. Colonel, referred to the ‘fog of war,’ that in a rapidly changing environment, individuals do not have the luxury of validating to a high degree all information received and that quick decisions on scant unverifiable information must be made on the spot. The US State Department later distanced itself from the Lt. Colonel’s statement.

‘The Cage’ by Gordon Weiss

Gordon Weiss, who was the UN spokesman in Colombo at that time, has published a book entitled ‘The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers’. The book’s outline of Sri Lankan history confirms the view of those who have lived and suffered through the nation’s tribulations that brutality is not an aberration to us. The war against the Tigers was exemplified by brutal and heartless savagery, but before that in the insurrections of 1971 and 1989 an equally excessive, if not higher level of savagery was shown by all sides.

The suffering of the people of the north and east during the occupation by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the conflict with the Tigers has been chronicled extensively elsewhere. The real value of ‘The Cage’ lies in its detailed account of the last days of the war. Weiss recounts, unproven of course, compelling evidence of inexcusable disregard for human life by both sides of the conflict. If some of the alleged massacres and murders described do not constitute war crimes, one wonders what would. But this description by Weiss has to be tested against evidence and proven before a competent tribunal.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has reported that it has obtained photos of atrocities committed during this time from a driver employed by the Australian Red Cross who in turn it is claimed has obtained the pictures from a Sri Lankan soldier, who had allegedly taken them on his mobile phone.

In Britain Channel 4 showed the films it had obtained entitled ‘Sri Lanka – The Killing Fields’ and shown earlier at the Geneva meeting of UNHCR (not at the main venue but in an ante room) on 14 June. The UK Foreign Office has issued a statement that the Government should be pressurised to investigate the alleged atrocities shown on Channel 4. Britain’s Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said he was “shocked by the horrific scenes shown. The UK was ready to join the international community in pursuit of all options available to pressurise the Government of Sri Lanka to act.”

Across the Atlantic, in Canada, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, MP, speaking in Canada’s Federal Parliament, called for an independent inquiry into the allegations. The Government has rejected the authenticity of the footage, calling it an attempt to discredit Sri Lanka. The UN Special Investigator into Extrajudicial Killings has described the photos as “trophy footage” taken by combatants.

Weiss interviewed by the ABC has said that recording such trophy footage was a common occurrence during the conflict. There was a news report that the Government Human Rights Commission will hold inquiries on human rights violations during the conflict. The Government has also appointed an ongoing Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which is inquiring into the causes of the conflict.

Three reasons

The Government’s Colombo seminar on the humanitarian operation, sponsored by two Chinese Government-owned corporate arms suppliers, brought out that there were three reasons which created the environment that generated the brutality which has been alleged.

Firstly, the ruthless awfulness of the LTTE, who have been described as “a vicious and totalitarian bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national liberation strategy”. Whatever is alleged against the Government troops, the LTTE has done much worse. Secondly, tight information management and control of news, limiting access to battle areas and putting out a set line consistently to the rest of the world and brooking no contradiction whatsoever and resolutely stamping out alternative views using whatever resources at its command, in some instances it is alleged going beyond the pale of the law.

Thirdly, at the international level, big brother neighbour and one time mentor of the LTTE, India backed the Government fully and also provided, it is alleged, intelligence. Further, veto wielding UN Security Council permanent member China, also backed Government.

China has been a consistent and long standing supporter and supplier arms and ammunition on credit during the three decade conflict. In India’s case, payback time, some commentators allege, has come. A high level delegation from New Delhi’s South Block, is in Colombo, including two former External Affairs Secretaries and High Commissioners earlier resident in Colombo, pressing for “meaningful constitutional reforms,” which would meet minority aspirations in Sri Lanka. Analysts wonder, what will happen if the Government, due to well-known historical domestic political constraints, is unable to deliver?

The precedent of veto wielding Russia and China, abstaining on the Responsibility to Protect Resolution 1973 of the UNSC on Libya, due to the Arab unanimity on the need to stop Gadaffi committing genocide on his own people, is before us. What if there is a South Asian consensus on the need for inquiry into what exactly happened during the last days of the war?

This is doubtful, in the real politic world we live in, since all South Asian countries have a bad record of dealing with domestic unrest and insurgencies, even Maldives and Bhutan, so none of these countries would want to encourage international investigation into domestic counter insurgency.

It would open a Pandora’s Box of possibilities, of potential inquiries on how other South Asian countries deal with internal violent dissent, India and the Naxalites, Pakistan and Al Qaeda, Taliban and the Baluchs, Nepal and the Maoists, Bangladesh and the Chakmas, Bhutan and the Nepali immigrants, Maldives and its youth and political unrest, Burma and its Karens and other minorities, Afghanistan and Taliban and Al Qaeda. The covert and overt activities of external intelligence agencies, India’s RAW and Pakistan’s ISI would also come under the scanner. So the chances of that happening are remote. But international politics is, if anything, simply not predictable.


The Government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is due to report soon. Respected Ambassador, UN civil servant Jayantha Dhanapala, in his written submissions to the LLRC said: “The lessons we have to learn go back to the past-certainly from the time we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948. Each and every government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality. Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens.”

Leading businessman and former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Chandra Jayaratne, in submission to the LLRC said: “Years of inequitable allocation of national resources and consequential disparities in regional economic development, infrastructure development and public service delivery have sown the seeds of discontent and disillusionment leading to conflict, insurrections of the South and the North and even an armed struggle for a separate administration.”

It is fitting, in conclusion for the reader to mull over these comments by two respected leading non political personalities, from business and the professional public service. It is back to the original counter insurgency doctrine; do you deal with the symptom, the manifestation or both at the same time? Can you fight a brutal anti terrorist war and alleviate the problems of the poor and marginalised at the same time?

Sri Lanka has a once-in-an-epoch opportunity, armed revolt, the manifestation, has been suppressed and eliminated, we have to only to address the symptoms. Will we do it? History will be the judge. Remember, history does not forgive. There is a price to be paid for failure. We have paid only the first instalment, if at all!

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

Recent columns