The many dimensions of war and justice | Daily News

The many dimensions of war and justice

Former LTTE child soldiers.
Former LTTE child soldiers.

Violent conflicts lead to the emergence of two antagonistic categories – the victor and the vanquished. But the way the victor treats the vanquished varies depending on a variety of factors, such as: the culture and ideology of the country; the era in which the conflict occurred; and the nature of the conflict as perceived by the victor.  

After brutally crushing the Uva-Wellessa rebellion in 1818, the British, who were still to establish themselves in the island and were therefore shaky, massacred Uva’s male population above the age of 18 years, killed all the cattle, burnt homes and destroyed the irrigation system in an unparalleled show of vengeance. Brutality was also part and parcel of warfare those days, especially when the war was against “natives”.   

After Eelam War IV, the military leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were done away with as a military necessity. But the cadres who had committed no heinous crimes and had joined the militant group because they were either misled or dragooned, were put up in rehabilitation camps for about two years, de-radicalized and set free. Reformed military leader Karuna Amman became an MP and a Central Minister of National Integration, and former child soldier Pilleyan became an elected Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and an MP.  

However, while the rehabilitated cadres were leading a quiet life, the Tamil political class brought up the issue of “war crimes” and agitated for it at the UNHRC abetted by the Tamil Diaspora and by Western powers eager to overthrow the nationalistic Mahinda Rajapaksa Government. One-sided data on the horrors of war and an exaggerated number of deaths led to demands for untenable reconciliation mechanisms. This led to the hardening of the Government’s stand on the larger issue of reconciliation with the Tamil population.  

Tamil politicians began to observe events in the LTTE’s calendar to invoke the old rebellious spirit in the hope that this could be harnessed to get them elected to Parliament again and again, irrespective of whether the Tamil people gained from it or not.  

While the government showed eagerness to help develop the war-torn Northern and Eastern provinces, it was determined not to let the Tamil extremist-separatist sentiment or movements raise its head again. It therefore bulldozed scores of LTTE cemeteries and other symbols of Tamil militancy and banned the public commemoration of deaths and events in the LTTE’s calendar such as Heroes’ Day, and Thileepan’s “martyrdom” day.  

Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, an International terrorism expert who is now an Honorary Professor at the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, says that the LTTE’s propaganda should remain banned forever just as Germany banned Nazi symbols and activities after World War II. Warning against laxity on the part of the State, Dr. Gunaratna said: “After the US declared victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism re-emerged because the terrorists’ support infrastructure remained intact. The tolerance of democracies revived violence. If a democracy permits display of terrorist paraphernalia and allows the dissemination of propaganda, the next step will be protests and demonstrations breaking out into violence. Like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, LTTE glorified death. If commemoration and celebration of death is permitted, it will lead to a culture of destruction.” 

“Research demonstrates that if there is looseness (Governmental neglect) as opposed to tightness (Governmental vigilance), terrorist groups exploit the gaps and loopholes and come back. The groups and personalities that glorify terrorism should be identified and punished to deter future violence.”  


The Tamil Progressive Alliance leader and MP, Mano Ganeshan, argues that there is ethnic discrimination in the matter of allowing commemoration of the dead. He points out that while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which was a Sinhala terrorist organisation in the 1970s and 1980s is allowed to commemorate its dead, the Tamils are not allowed to commemorate the dead of the LTTE.  

But according to a keen observer of the Sri Lankan scene, the reason for the differentiation is that while the JVP did not want to break the country, but only to change the ideology of the State, the LTTE was hell bent on dividing the island of Sri Lanka into two independent States. The JVP was revolutionary but not anti-national, while the LTTE was anti-national and deserved no quarter. Both the JVP and the LTTE were vanquished with brute force, but the followers of the former were allowed to honour its dead while the followers of the latter were debarred because the State saw a vital difference in the objectives of these movements. The LTTE’s separatist ideology is viewed as an existential threat, while the Marxist ideology of the JVP is no longer seen as a credible threat. Hence the tolerance shown to the JVP. 

Other countries  

When the American war of independence ended in a British defeat in 1781, not everyone was celebrating. An estimated 20% of the population remained loyal to the British Crown and these were beaten up and harassed. When the British pulled out, tens of thousands of loyalists migrated to Britain and other parts of the British Empire and Canada. This ugly and embarrassing part of American history is generally not mentioned in history books. 

However, the United States had ideologically mellowed by the time the Civil War broke out in the early 1860s. The Confederates who fought for independence from the Union on the issue of slavery were branded traitors and by law could be tried and sentenced for treason. Indeed, treason was talked about in pamphlets, newspapers, and public meetings. People also took the law into their own hands. A lack of Government machinery helped lawlessness to thrive. As one study put it, it was not clear what level of government— Federal, State, or local—could make an arrest, or who could decide what acts were treason. Even criticizing President Abraham Lincoln was treason in the minds of the vigilantes. In 1863, President Lincoln himself identified a list of top Confederate Generals (who included such iconic figures as Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston) as deserving of imprisonment.  

But eventually, leniency prevailed. Confederate soldiers of all ranks were mostly paroled and faced no formal charges of treason. And no one was executed for treason. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was not even tried. The Northern leaders ultimately felt that continued cries of “treason” would interfere with the more important task of nation-building and bringing about social justice. 

Indian cases  

In the case of wars in India, massacres and pillage after winning pitched battles were the done thing up to mid-19th Century. Foreign Muslim invader Nadir Shah ransacked Delhi in 1739, and Ahmad Shah Abdali looted and massacred thousands in Delhi and Punjab several times between 1748 and 1761. After the British crushed the Great Indian Mutiny in 1858, up to 20,000 civilians and rebels were killed. Many were publicly hanged or worse still, tied to a cannon and blasted in public. Some of the Mogul Princes were shot dead on the streets. The Last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was buried in Rangoon in an unmarked grave so that nobody will make it a shrine. The official figures were low - 3,306 persons were tried, of whom 2,025 were convicted and 392 were executed while 57 were given life imprisonment. 

However, Queen Victoria, who had a soft corner for Indians, disapproved of the carnage. She took over the administration of India from the brutally exploitative East India Company in 1858, and sent Viscount Charles John Canning as the Governor General of India. His humane approach earned him the epithet “Clemency Canning”. Victorian values eventually triumphed and made reconciliation with the vanquished possible.  

Nuremberg and Tokyo trials  

As Elliott Adams says in his World Beyond War the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials of Nazi and Japanese leaders after World War II were meant to punish only the losers for alleged war crimes. The beginning was quite truly horrifying. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin proposed executing the top 50,000 Nazi leaders. Given the wanton killing on the Eastern Front experienced by the Russians, it is easy to understand why he considered this to be legitimate. Churchill being British toned it down to 5,000 executions.  

However, it was finally decided that mass executions were ill-suited to the anti-Fascist ideals of the war. Though the war ended with the carpet bombing of Germany and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan killing countless civilians, the idea was not to be vindictive towards the vanquished after the war. Only 19 people were sentenced in Nuremberg and 25 in Tokyo and the punishments varied from death to imprisonment for a few years.