A Discourse on "Terrorism"

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: TamilCanadian
| Date: 20000100

There is little or no discussion on the political and ideological nature of the use and genesis of the word/concept terrorism within the social science literature. The inability on the part of analysts to go beyond the nation-state framework has inclined them to give little importance to non-state actors.

Invariably only state actors are given consideration as they by definition are central to the very functioning of the international system based on the multiple existence of independent nation-states. The role of non-state actors are acknowledged in terms of their role in the civil society but beyond this framework their existence

Sri Lanka state TERRORISM

is not very crucial to dynamics of the international political order. Thus, in this context discourses about national or international politics are very often biased in favour of the existence and perpetuation of the nation-state. In national settings, those who control state power often set the agenda for political, economic and social discourses. More specifically, if one examines the use of the term terrorism, it for all intents and purposes, bears the stamp mark of state-sponsored agenda. In the international political arena, the use of the term terrorism is very much a project deliberated, planned and executed by elites in control of the instruments of the state. Principally challenges posed by non-state actors to the existing to the holders of the existing state power have come to be described in very negative terms. In the last few decades, the word terrorism has been repeatedly used by states to depict acts or challenges posed by non-state actors. This interpretation of terrorism of course does not take into question whether state policies are democratic or not and whether existing states take care of the need of the welfare of their people. Thus, state elites by defining and interpreting even the slightest level of challenges to their rule actually expect the international community to come to their rescue. Labelling organisations or groups as "terrorist" provides much help for state elites to paint an extreme picture. Thus "terrorists" are more often than not described as groups that indiscriminately kill people, have no respect for human lives, live by the gun, prefer violence to peace and harmony.

The use of the word terrorism serves regimes a number of purposes. First, it protects regimes from being challenged and if not defeated. Even if regimes have

Thamizh Nadu rally agaist Sri Lanka, 1983

terrible human rights record, the very invocation of the term "terrorism" provides them some measure of support form the international community. Second, the use of the label "terrorism" seeks to hide the ugly aspects of regimes and thereby provide them with some respect in the international community. Third, hue and cry about "terrorism" has the prospect of internationalising the problem. Countries or regimes faced with problems of "terrorism" can certainly count on some powerful countries which have similar problems to come to their rescue. Normative/subjective/political/ideological factors are clearly behind the employment of the word "terrorism" by regimes in the world today. It is basically a self-serving mechanism that contributes to legitimise many undemocratic measures undertaken for regimes preservation. Thus regimes losing their popular mandate with their citizens are more prone to employ such a term to strengthen their longevity. By painting and propagandising about the "threats" from "terrorists" elites tend to stay in power longer than otherwise possible. It is really a tragedy that uncritical acceptance of the use of this term has worked to the detriment of the democratic process in the world today. More importantly millions of lives and properties could have been saved had the international community not bought the argument advanced by state elites in their messianic crusade against "terrorism".

The genesis of this term must be sought in the historical process that resulted in the demarcation of states on the basis of certain artificial boundaries. The re-drawing of these boundaries for the creation of independent

Tamils protest at Hague

post-colonial states led to incorporation of nations within nations. Following World War II, many countries or states that obtained their independence from colonial powers contained more than one ethnic group. Independence and modernisation process resulted in the kind of historicism as described by Ben Anderson where ethnic majorities took control over the instruments of state power whereby marginalizing ethnic minorities. The inability or the general reluctance on the part of certain ethnic majorities to engage in a meaningful dialogue with ethnic minorities in states resulted in the political and economic marginalization of the latter. Demands forward by ethnic minorities and others for recognition were rejected. This rejection process combined with repression of ethnic minorities actually set the stage for violent conflict. Thus, it was in this context of violent conflict that state elites belonging to the dominant ethnic groups sought to define and interpret the nature of the struggle waged by the affected groups. So rather than providing an avenue for peaceful negotiations, state elites often used the military power to subdue minorities. In the realm of propaganda, state elites undertook the task of labelling counter-hegemonic movements as "bandits", "thugs", "terrorists" and others. One powerful reason for attaching the label of terrorism to groups was the presence of violence. Two things must be considered here.

Chandrika's government TERRORISM on Sinhala people !

First, more often than not, the option to use force was something that was imposed on them. As stated it was the general inability and obstinate reluctance on the part of the dominant groups that actually set the stage for the use of violence. In fact, empirical evidence would easily indicate that the action on the part of state elites not to entertain the demands of minorities and the subsequent use of repression to subdue gave the latter no alternative but to opt to use force in self-defence (in the form guerrilla movements) to protect themselves and their members from annihilation. Therefore it would be wrong to claim that subordinated groups have a natural tendency to opt for violence and force to back their demands. Guerrilla movements seeking autonomy or independence do not have a choice in this respect. To meet violence they cannot adopt Ghandian tactics; it is simply not workable. It is state violence that set the stage for subordinated groups to employ the same in their life and death struggle. Second, the so-called "terrorist" groups do not have a complete monopoly of violence. In fact investigation would easily reveal that state violence is much more diabolic and cruel. State violence has unleashed terror upon innocent people in the name of destroying "terrorists". But then the nature of international discourse is such, states despite their propensity to engage in the most extreme forms of violence, have often been spared from being labelled as terrorist. So much so, the use of state violence is often predicated on the grounds of preserving the nation-state, protecting innocent people, and others. For instance, the United States, the leading proponent of anti-terrorism, refuses to consider proposals to include certain countries in its "terrorist" list. U.S. like other nations is more prone to label non-state actors as "terrorist" if these are seen as inimical to U.S. interests. Thus, a leading power as the U.S. does not have the intellectual capacity to go beyond the mundane nature of the present discourse on terrorism in the world today. Unless the international community takes a more objective assessment of the nature of terrorism, state violence will be continued to be used against non-state actors all in the name of defending the sovereignty of the nation-state.

Historical, political, and ideological circumstances actually determine the usage of the term terrorism. Thus, given the subjective nature of its use, criteria employed in labelling groups as terrorist or not changes according these circumstances.

Another Sri Lanka state Terrorism !

For instance, about two decades ago organisations such as the PLO, IRA, ANC to a name few were considered as terrorist organisations. But today, these groups have become respectable organisations and what more some of these are considered as the backbones of newly established governments. LTTE is considered to be a terrorist organisation only by three countries in the world—Sri Lanka, India and U.S. But interestingly, the Sinhalese establishment knows very well that for any lasting peace to come to Sri Lanka, the problems of Tamils have be to solved with the participation of the LTTE. Well, if the LTTE really sustains itself through the use of terror, how come it has survived so long and for that matter winning major battles against the Sri Lankan armed forces. Surely, there is something else that is missing in the way the establishment looks at the LTTE. It can be certainly said that uncritical and unreflective use and employment of the word terrorism to describe the actions and habits of certain organisations suffer from a number of problems. First and foremost, the present nature of usage benefits and serves the political and ideological desires of state elites to perpetuate the international system that is based on the principle of the sovereignty of nation-states. Furthermore, the international networking among nation-states makes it possible for these states to concur and devise grand strategies to counter terrorism. But in actual fact, the actions of these nation-states might be contributing to a situation where undemocratic and non-egalitarian nature of the present system are condemned and perpetuated. Second, the present paradigm does not consider actions taken by states that can be considered as repressive and anti-people. So there is need to extend the usage of the term to incorporate states that engage in acts of violence against their own citizens. Third, not all actions coming from non-state actors are negative. Therefore blanket condemnation of them as terrorists should be stopped.

Prof P. Ramasamy Department of Political Science National University of Malaysia

Courtesy: TamilCanadian - January 15th,2000