New York- There is a good article titled “Death of the Tiger” in this week’s New Yorker on the end of the Sri Lankan war, which meant the end of the LTTE, the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran (the LTTE’s late supremo/cult leader), and ultimately the end of the concept of Tamil Eelam, a sovereign, separatist ethnic Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka which has vanished. Anderson does an idea I’ve contemplated since the war’s bloody end in May of 2009. He travels to some of the recently conquered parts of the island where the LTTE had for years a functioning, de facto state which I always found the most fascinating aspect about the situation, When most people discuss the Tigers, they talk of their innovations in suicide bombing technology or the hackneyed bit about the cyanide capsules dangled around the neck in case of capture. But the image of that war that made the biggest impression on me some years ago was of a Tiger courtroom with LTTE judges wearing white wigs and black robes practicing Anglo-Saxon style law and meting out sentences. And then of course there were the neatly dressed traffics cops in Jaffna. Tamil Eelam was more interesting in form than the LTTE itself. Anderson points out that it was such an unusual end to a war like that where there was a decisive military victory (slaughter) on the battlefield. Of course, though the Tigers were a transnational organization at least across the narrow Palk Strait to Tamil Nadu state in India, and the fundraising in Canada, Norway etc, their ideology did not reach beyond the bounds of their territorial aspirations on the island of Ceylon (what Sri Lanka used to be called). Part of the reason the LTTE was such a successful terrorist organization is because they were not opposed to any government other than the Sinhalese one in Colombo (with the exception of India for a few years following the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka) and therefore it was not terribly difficult for them to operate in the West because the West cared little for the various governments in Colombo during 26 years of war. There are some interesting bits in the article about the last days of Prabhakaran and the end of the war as well as what it’s like to travel in the area now, something I have been very curious about. Sri Lanka is a damn dangerous place for journalists of any stripe but like a beautiful siren strapped with a suicide belt, alluring and irresistible in her deadly gaze.
Washington D.C.- The University of Chicago’s Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) and the New America Foundation hosted a conference in the Capitol’s subterranean auditorium entitled “Cutting the Fuse: Moving Beyond the War on Terror” which was a day-long symposium about the future of the war on terror for lack of a more progressive or nuanced term. It was co-hosted by Steve Clemons of New America and Robert Pape of Chicago. The central presentation was of course Pape’s new book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (the sequel to 2005′s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism) and many of the panelists who followed his presentation commented on his theories both positively and negatively. I overall tend to concur with Pape’s overarching thesis on the relationship between suicide attacks and foreign military occupation and I loved Dying to Win for its emphasis on the (for) now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were fighting for an ethnic Tamil homeland carved out of northern and eastern Sri Lanka until they suffered a leadership decapitation with the death of their cultish leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE’s subsequent defeat on the battlefield in the spring of 2009 (for further reading on the bloody conclusion of this tragedy, see my piece Sri Lanka: The UN’s “Bloodbath” in Context). Pape makes the important point which is largely lost on a Washington audience because of its perceived utter irrelevance to U.S. foreign policy.
Until the start of the Iraq war in March of 2003, the LTTE, a little understood Marxist Hindu Tamil personality cult operating on the fringe of South Asia’s southern tier, ran the world’s most successful suicide bombing campaign which assassinated two world leaders (former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993) in their 26 bloody years on the world stage. In his first book, Pape clearly laid out with the excellent example of the LTTE, that suicide bombing in and of itself is not a phenomenon of global Islamic radicalism. A later panelist, Sahar Aziz, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown and a prominent civil rights attorney made another point I applauded. In what Robert Pape might describe as a minor “Black Swan event” in his new book, Aziz brought up the bizarre case of the suicide attack on the local IRS office in Austin, Texas on February 18 of this year when an deranged man of a European-American Christian background carried out a suicide attack in a single engine plane. The federal government took immediate pains to state that the incident was a criminal act and not one of terrorism while Muslim civil rights groups decried the hypocrisy. Aziz told the audience, correctly in my estimation, that had the attacker had an Arabic name rather than Andrew Joseph Stack III, it would have undoubtedly been immediately and irreversibly classified as a terrorist attack, case closed.
It always make things interesting when people have strong disagreements with other’s ideas in a such a public setting. Kori Schake, a Hoover fellow and former National Security Advisor to the McCain presidential campaign, seemed to still cling to the terribly out of fashion neoconservative idea of remaking the Middle East and adjacent environs with a large military footprint. One of the cornerstones of Pape’s empirical study is that suicide attacks never existed in Afghanistan (with the very particular exception of the Belgian-Tunisian al-Qaeda assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood two days before 9/11), Pakistan (with the exception of the Zawahiri-directed suicide bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in 1995), or Iraq before the commencement of the war on terror. The whole concept seemed to be lost on Ms. Schake who seemed to still believe in the “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” ideology thereby missing the entire point of the empiricism. Another such one of these was Chicago doctoral student Jenna Jordan’s all numbers presentation on leadership decapitation (the capture or killing of an insurgent leader thereby evaporating the group’s momentum causing it to wither away) and her idea that the eventual death of bin Laden will have a negligible effect on the hoped-for decline of AQ Central. Her idea was immediately attacked by Peter Bergen who cited the bay’at (the oath) the member’s of al-Qaeda’s core swore to bin Laden personally. Bergen emphasized that the oath was not to AQ but to bin Laden personally and if he were to be killed in a drone strike, Bergen believed it would have a devastating effect on the group from which it would be difficult to recover.
I went to another taping of Real Time with Bill Maher down the street at CBS’s Television City primarily to hear Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus. After scoring the tickets, I saw that MIA had been added to the lineup I assumed to talk about the devastation of Tamil Eelam in northern Sri Lanka. Indeed Bill had MIA sit down for the first segment but he wasted the first few minutes asking her frivolous questions regarding her appearance at the Oscars. MIA, who is normally very confident, some would say even strident, actually appeared quite uneasy talking about the war in her ancestral land and seemed to have virtually no talking points prepared. Having recently written about the crisis myself I thought her appearance would be a continuation of her somewhat infamous Tavis Smiley segment in February. Bill then made an awkward analogy comparing Sri Lanka with 1994 Rwanda not comprehending that in Colombo, the government is run by the Sinhalese majority whereas in Kigali, it was precisely the opposite scenario with a Tutsi-led minority government. Bill may have been thinking of pre-1948 colonial Ceylon when it was considered that the British favored the Tamils in their divide et impera strategy? Not bloody likely. As usual, the context gets lost in the noise. Rwanda and Sri Lanka took very different post-colonial paths. When Ceylon became independent, it was by a Sinhalese-speaking majority thereby breaking the chain of British minority favoritism. Rwanda’s inherited divide and rule format was absorbed as policy upon independence. Both ways were paved paths to disaster. One a short outburst of hyper violence and the other a long war of attrition with a climatic ending.
The banker from Bangladesh, however, did not disappoint. Muhammad Yunus railed against overt materialism and capitalism devoid of a social context. While he was likely preaching to the converted, his message of banking with a conscience seems to resonate in a recession to a Western audience in a way that it may have otherwise not. He briefly mentioned bringing his Grameen Bank to New York which would account for the Grameen America office I spotted in Jackson Heights, Queens several months ago. Jon Meacham of Newsweek and economist Simon Johnson of MIT seemed to agree. Meacham cited the unifying qualities of the Great Depression and World War II taking Yunus’s point a line further in the notion that with great crises comes great opportunity. Within this shattered economy, there is a chance to reevaluate the descent of American virtue into the abyss. In Yunus’s Bangladesh, the quintessential global basket case, micro finance has brought a thousand points of light across a socio-region that otherwise may have taken generations to adapt by poor people traditionally being stifled in a politically and culturally top-down hierarchical society with an insular familial power structure. Meacham commented that Wall Street was also a top-down system that has failed us. A mix of a faltering, headless financial core with people in poverty whether in the United States or South Asia, is where micro finance can fill much more than what was originally considered by many to be a niche. The Grameen concept is an attempt to create an economic land bridge between traditional markets and what is referred to by Indian economists as the “Unorganized sector” which is a fanciful way of saying “People who do not pay into the taxation system nor receive anything from it.” Many Americans are forming a new unorganized sector here in the United States and they are doing it not by choice.
I have a piece on the Huffington Post this weekend on the supposed final offensive in the twenty-six year long civil war in Serendip that you can read here. Have a good weekend, there are a few hundred thousand internally displaced people in northeast Sri Lanka that won’t.