avatar
Sri Lanka And American Affairs


As the Sri Lankan Civil War’s military aspect slowly but surely draws to a close, questions about Sri Lanka’s future are becoming more and more pressing. What should happen to former rebels, especially those who may have committed war crimes? What will be the fate of the Tamils in Sri Lanka as a people and will their rights be protected? While no one can answer these questions before events occur, we can hope to expose Sri Lanka to the best minds available in the relevant political and social fields, and the most diverse advice available.

Appearing for the first time in Sri Lankan media, MIT’s linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky has given the Sri Lanka Guardian an exclusive interview to discuss the events unfolding in Sri Lanka, as well as in his home country, the United States. Professor Chomsky has gained fame worldwide for his political activism and has been an outspoken critic of United States Foreign policy over the years. He is a self-described anarchist, but is probably most famous for his strong stances in support of suffering peoples, such as those in Palestine and Somalia. Now we hope to apply his years of experience and insight to Sri Lanka to help the nation make the transition from a house divided to a united and peaceful country.

Here is full text of Interview;

Eric: Can you still hear me alright?

Chomsky: Yes I can hear you.

Eric: Ok, great. I’d like to talk with you about several world events, but especially starting with Sri Lanka because that’s where this newspaper is from.

Chomsky: Yeah.

Eric: You may have been hearing some news about their civil war that has picked up in the last year.

Chomsky: Yes, yes I’ve been following.

Eric: Yes, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, have been fighting for an independent country for over a quarter century now, but have been facing defeat after defeat for the past few years, especially in the last year when they lost their capital city of Kilinochchi and several other key bases. In fact just yesterday their last major naval base fell. Could you please tell me a little about your views of Sri Lanka and how it’s handling the separatist problem?

Chomsky: Well, I don’t feel that I have a profound enough knowledge of the details to offer a confident opinion, but it is clear that there is a problem of Tamil Rights and now that the military aspect of the conflict seems to be coming to an end what would be necessary, and humane, and best for everyone concerned, is to arrive at some kind of political solution that gives a recognition to the valid claims for some form of autonomy or self determination within the Sri Lankan state. To work that out you’d have to know more than I do.

Eric: Do you feel that an independent state for the Tamils is a viable option or do you feel that it is in the best interests of the island to remain as one independent nation, or one united nation, rather?

Chomsky: I think the idea of a single state is a bad option in much of the world and in fact parts of the world, like parts of Europe, for example, are moving towards more federal arrangements. So take, say, Spain. In Spain, Catalonia by now has a high degree of autonomy within the Spanish state. The Basque Country also has a high degree of autonomy and the same will increasingly be true of other regions. In England, Wales and Scotland in the United Kingdom are moving towards a form of autonomy and self determination and I think there are similar developments throughout Europe and they’re mixed with a lot of pros and cons, but by and large I think it is a generally healthy development. I mean, the people have different interests, different cultural backgrounds, different concerns, and there should be special arrangements to allow them to pursue their special interests and concerns in harmony with others. Some form of federalism I suppose is a good outcome in multinational, multicultural, systems, especially where there is a fair amount of geographical separation. You know, it just depends on local circumstances, the kinds of accommodations that are possible. Without a really deep knowledge of these matters would be just too presumptuous for an outsider to offer opinions.

Eric: I understand that. I would like to talk a little bit about how Sri Lanka is going to be dealing with reconstruction, basically, after the LTTE is finally defeated, which most military analysts are saying should occur in the next month or two. What do you feel should be the fate of the tens of thousands of rebels who have fought over the decades-

Chomsky: I’m sorry, say it again. What do I think, in terms of what?

Eric: What do you think should be the fate of the tens of thousands of people who have fought with the LTTE over the decades, including lower level soldiers all the way up to leading officers?

Chomsky: I understand. Well the general approach, I think, should be, the general presumption should be that there will be a form of amnesty. It’s probably not a bad idea to establish some kind of truce commission without punitive powers, but with investigatory powers, that would bring to light atrocities and crimes committed on all sides, as a step towards reconciliation and living together.

Eric: Yes, the war crimes and atrocities is actually going to be a hot issue in Sri Lanka, given that so many top rebel leaders are accused of (ordering) several massacres and that this is the group that actually invented the suicide bomber, or at least the suicide belt, as far as I understand it.

Chomsky: Yeah, well there are plenty of crimes on all sides, undoubtedly, and there should be- You know, it’s not easy. A lot of people have suffered and it’s hard for them to face that their side too is guilty of crimes, but it is quite important for that to take place. It has been moderately successful in other places; in South Africa, in El Salvador, in Guatemala. It doesn’t overcome the problems, but it leads to a basis for a degree of reconciliation and a basis for living together in some constructive fashion.

Eric: Alright, I understand that. In regards to the very top leadership of the LTTE, do you think it might be more healthy or harmful for Sri Lanka to create its own Nuremburg trials to try these top Tiger leaders?

Chomsky: I frankly doubt it because the Nuremburg trials, if they were serious, would have to avoid the profound immorality of the actual Nuremburg trials. Remember, the actual Nuremburg trials were trials of the defeated, not of the victors. In fact, the principle of the Nuremburg trials was that if the Allies had committed some crime, it wasn’t a crime. So, for example, the German war criminals were not accused of bombing urban, civilian targets because the Allies did more of it than the Nazis did, and Nazi war criminals like submarine commander Dönitz was able to bring as defense witnesses, American and British counterparts who testified that they had done the same things so these automatically became non-crimes. In other words, a war crime is defined as something you did and we didn’t do and that turns the trial into a sham. It has been a sham since. The Chief Justice at Nuremburg, Chief Robert Jackson, the American Chief Prosecutor, he made very strong statements at Nuremburg, admonishing the judges there that, as he put it, "we are handing the defendants a poison chalice and if we sip from it (meaning if we carry out crimes like theirs) then we must be subject to the same punishment." Of course, nothing like that has happened or is even conceivable. Jackson said, "If we don’t do this it means that the trial was a farce." Well we haven’t done it so that means the trial was a farce, even though the guilty were maybe the most guilty criminals in modern history. So a Trial modeled on Nuremburg would not be a good thing at all. It would simply be a trial of the defeated and that only engenders further hatred, anger, and promises an ugly conflict. An honest trial, which tries everyone, might be conceivable, but my guess is that it’s probably not a good idea, just as it wasn’t carried out in the countries that I mentioned.

So in South Africa, Guatemala, and El Salvador there were plenty of people guilty of terrible crimes, mostly the government, but they weren’t punished. There was a truth commission that allowed for coming to terms with the crimes or at least recognizing them and was kind of an apology for them, but there was no punishment, and that was probably a wise move. Since you have to have to find a way to live together and maybe there should be punishments, maybe not, you know that depends of the society and how it decides to address these matters, but I think it should be done with caution and in a way that looks forward to the future, looks forward to laying the basis for the future of reconciliation, recognition of mutual rights, and the development of a viable social system for everyone.

Eric: So it might be more beneficial to Sri Lanka to give general amnesty to leaders on both sides instead of bringing trials against some of their own leaders?

Chomsky: Well that’s a delicate problem for the society itself to face. How do we proceed to deal with the crimes and at the same time recognize that we’re going to have to live together, and there’s no simple answer to that.

Eric: There is some thought about how Sri Lanka might have global implications in the lessons for future conflicts. Since World War Two there have been countless conflicts where the UN and the global community have called for cease-fires to occur as quickly as possible, peace talks to begin, and even peacekeepers to be deployed, but in so many cases, even if the war does stop momentarily, it will rise up again, such as in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in Sri Lanka several times, and in other cases. Might it be that more lives will be saved if conflicts are allowed to see themselves out and decisive military victories and defeats are allowed to be determined instead of stopping a war before it can be really resolved?

Chomsky: Well, I think every possible effort should be made for peaceful diplomatic resolution. There’s a terrible burden of proof to bear for those who would advise violence as a solution, and I think the resort to violence has almost always been harmful, almost bitterly so, so I think the first assumption should be that international peacekeepers and diplomacy would be a far preferred outcome and only if it is simply impossible to execute should the situation be allowed to deteriorate into violence, which is usually very harmful for everyone. There are some places where peacekeeping has pretty well worked.

Eric: Could you maybe name an example of that, such as maybe Korea?

Chomsky: Well in Korea there hasn’t been another war, but take Egypt and Israel. There are Peacekeeping forces in the Sinai and there hasn’t been further violence. On the other hand, in Southern Lebanon there are UN peacekeeping forces, but it has not prevented Israel from continuing to invade. It may have limited the scope of the aggression and probably did, in fact, have some sort of deterrent effect, but not much. There is just a mixture of cases around the world. It is certainly preferred and should be pursued as much as possible. One would hope it could lead to a direct resolution, which has sometimes happened. Take Sudan, which is a horrible situation, but one of the more positive steps that the Bush Administration took was helping to bring about a reduction, not total resolution, but at least a reduction of the conflict between the North and South in their civil war, and that’s the solution that should be preferred. The same in Indonesia. After the US and Britain supported, strongly supported, Indonesia’s invasion and massacres in East Timor, one of the worst in the world and probably wiped out a quarter of the population, but when the US finally agreed, under a lot of pressure, (international and domestic) Clinton agreed to tell the Indonesians to pull out, which of course, they did, then there was a peacekeeping force that was sent in, a UN peacekeeping force, Australian led, which did reduce and largely eliminate the residual violent conflict. It was far from a complete success, but it was a partial success.

Eric: I understand. I’d like to move our conversation here to America, and some of the new developments that have been going on this year. Especially now that we have a new president, I would like to get your opinion of him on some issues, but as an introduction to that, can you tell me any initial thoughts you have for the now concluded Bush Administration?

Chomsky: Well, the Bush Administration certainly ranks as one of the worst in American history, maybe the worst. It has led to catastrophe in almost everything it touched. The domestic economy and social system is entering into its worst collapse since the Great Depression in substantial measure because of measures taken by the Bush Administration, though they go back deeper to the Clinton Administration and the Reagan Administration. Internationally, it has carried out two wars, both of them catastrophic for the victims and harmful to the US too. It’s led to a decline in the prestige of the United States to a historic low. The US has never been so disliked and often hated throughout the world. In fact it tore apart the system of civil liberties. Fortunately it’s pretty resilient so it will survive, but they certainly tried to undermine The Constitution severely. It’s really not necessary to discuss it in detail. The point is that the Bush Administration was so disliked even internally that in the last election both parties ran against it. The Republican Party ran against the incumbent administration, which was considered a liability, so they tried to keep him out of it, which is a good measure of the harm it caused to the United States and even worse to the world. I mentioned one positive element and there are a few others, but by and large it was a disaster.

Eric: There are several Republicans that have stated that because there have been no attacks after September 11th, and because so many presidents that are unpopular in their day are remembered more positively in the future…what do you think his legacy will be 50 or 100 years from now?

Chomsky: You do hear that argument, which is quite amazing. There were no terrorist attacks between 1993 and 2001. In 1993 there was an attempt to blow up the world trade center which came very close to succeeding. With a little better planning it probably would have killed ten thousand people. But there were no terrorist attacks between 1993 and 2001 without the attacks on civil liberties and without the wars and aggression, so what does it tell us? The fact of the matter is that under the Bush administration, terrorism vastly increased. It was expected that the invasion of Iraq would lead to an increase in terrorism around the world and it did, but far more than was expected. Terrorism went up by about a factor of seven after the invasion of Iraq. Other actions of the Bush Administration which were alleged responses to terrorism had terrible effects elsewhere. Take Somalia. The Bush Administration started going after charities, Islamic charities and one of the charities they went in after and destroyed was a charity which they charged with terrorism and later conceded that there wasn’t any basis for the charge. Meanwhile they destroyed the charity which was providing some of the main support for the economy of Somalia. The result was that Somalia descended into chaos, and that’s even greater chaos than before. Then the Bush Administration supported an Ethiopian invasion, which made it much worse.

Now it’s one of the major humanitarian crises in Africa. A substantial part of that was alleged action to protect the United States from terror that had an effect of zero, but the effect of Somalia was horrible and there are other cases like that. So that argument is awful. As for the legacy of the Administration, that depends very largely on the propaganda system. So take, say, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not a particularly popular president. In fact, his popularity was roughly normal when he was in office or afterwards. His record was shocking. He was the most protectionist president in Post-War American history. He doubled protectionist barriers. He virtually brought The Pentagon in to teach backward American management Japanese modern production techniques. He bailed out banks. He left the country with an enormous deficit. The growth rate under Reagan was lower than in any other Post-War decade. He has a large share of the responsibility for the development of radical Islam in Afghanistan, and more crucially in Pakistan where it is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. Through the support of the Zia dictatorship h carried out massive terrorism. He’s one of the leading terrorists in the modern world and has caused hundreds of thousands of people to be slaughtered in Central America. He supported the Apartheid regime, violating congressional sanctions.

On and on with an awful record, but a couple of years after his death the right wing of the Republican Party initiated a propaganda program called the Reagan Legacy which tried to construct an image of him as a great hero and the holy saint of free trade, which he opposed and on and on, and now you can’t go into a town in the United States without seeing a Reagan library or Reagan airport or something. The memorial when he died was one of the most embarrassing period of American history with something you might expect in North Korea, but it did create a totally fabricated Reagan legacy which has now instituted itself into the historical consciousness. So it can be done with massive propaganda and maybe this will be done with Bush. I kind of doubt it, but it’s conceivable. If the legacy is based on the actions, it will be viewed as a very dark part of America history.

Eric: We’ve been talking about the War on Terror led by the USA and her allies for several questions now, but I’d like to talk about it directly. I know that you are opposed to the Iraq war, as well as several other incursions, such as what we’ve done in Somalia, but what are your thoughts regarding Afghanistan? Was the US right in invading Afghanistan following 9/11?

Chomsky: I felt that was a major crime and still do. The United States invaded Afghanistan for a very explicit reason. It was made public, but there has been a lot of lying about it since, but it was very public. The reason was that the Taliban- the Bush Administration demanded that they hand over Osama Bin Laden to the United States and they asked for evidence of his crime. Well the Bush Administration wouldn’t provide any evidence so they invaded. The reason they didn’t provide any evidence, it later turned out, was because they didn’t have any. Eight months later the FBI conceded that after the most major international investigation in history, they simply didn’t have any evidence. They believed the plot for 9/11 was hatched in Afghanistan, but was probably implemented in the Arabian Peninsula and in Europe.

So they invaded, and they invaded with the knowledge that they were putting several million people at risk of starvation. They were right at the edge of starvation and an invasion might have driven them over the edge. Their estimate was 2.5 million people. In fact, the aid agencies and others were infuriated by this and they had to pull out their support and so on. Fortunately the worst didn’t happen, but to carry out an invasion on that assumption, when your sole goal is to get the government to hand over somebody when you can’t provide evidence is just a major crime and the invasion has had a horrible effect on Afghanistan. Some of the current studies of public opinion reveals that one of the most popular figures in Afghanistan right now seems to be Najibullah, the last Communist ruler of the country after the Russians had withdrawn. Since then the US has turned the country over to warlords who tore it to shreds, then invaded, and now the country is heading towards disaster.

As for current policies, I think Obama looks more aggressive and violent than Bush. The first acts to occur under his administration were attacks on Afghanistan and in Pakistan, both of which killed many civilians and are building up support for the Taliban and terror. He wants to extend the military side of the war. There is an Afghan peace movement, which is calling for a reduction or an end of terror. President Karzai has pleaded with the United States not to carry out attacks that will hit civilians and, in fact, has demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces, American forces, but that’s just totally disregarded and the opportunities for a peaceful settlement are just ignored. There are reasons for that I won’t go into, but I think it’s a terrible policy. They’re ruinous for the Afghans and maybe for the Americans as well. It’s also spilling over into Pakistan, naturally, which is really dangerous. Pakistan, by now, is partially under the control of the radical Islamist elements that Reagan helped install there. It’s an extreme danger for Pakistan and actually for the world, since Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

Eric: On that note, Obama has previously stated that he would send troops into Pakistan‘s tribal regions if the Pakistani military forces were unable to crush the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces there. Do you think this is a real possibility, and if so, does Obama risk a similar backlash at home and across the globe that maybe President Nixon got after the Cambodian Incursion and the American air support for the ARVN’s efforts in Laos back during the Vietnam War?

Chomsky: It’s possible, but the real issue will be what it does to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there I think it would be ruinous.

*At this point we ran out of time so we said our goodbyes.

Eric Beilay can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a comment