Genocide and a Subtle Linguistic Distinction

Readers may have heard vaguely on the news about the civilians ‘trapped’ in the last remaining strip of LTTE-held Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government, in between shelling them, has called for them to leave/be released by the LTTE, who are supposedly holding them hostage. That, supposedly, is why so many of them remain there.

Or it might have something to do with what happens when they leave: they are put in internment camps. And in such camps children get crushed to death in stampedes for food. There have been a few deaths reported, and since the government so helpfully bars journalists from entering the area, we can only assume there have been others that were not reported, as well as greater numbers of assaults, rapes, etc.

These camps are mentioned in the article in the following terms: “controversial camps, which the Government says are necessary to root out the rebels, but some Tamil activists and MPs have likened to concentration camps.”

Now this enflames both my burning hatred of injustice and my concern with precise understanding of words. These camps are not like concentration camps, they are concentration camps, in the original meaning of that phrase.

Like the British used in Kenya or South Africa, or like the US did to the japanese in WWII, the point of a concentration camp is to concentrate a civilian population in an area where they can be controlled and surveilled (and, typically, abused and emiserated). The point of this is to separate them from an enemy force (real or imagined) which operates within the civilian population and draws support from it.

As I understand it, the camps involved in the Holocaust were not in fact concentration camps: they were extermination camps. The Nazis called them concentration camps to conceal the fullness of their purpose, suggesting that they were simply to control and monitor people.

But as a result of the association now forged between the phrase as the Holocaust, it has come to be understood as ‘extermination camp’. The result is that now some further euphemism is used, like internment camp. The whole process bears a certain resemblance to the ‘cycling’ of genital euphemisms: a word which originally is merely an innuendo, through its strong association with the organ in question, comes to be a ‘graphic’ word and must be replaced by another innuendo.

Extermination camps are rare. Internment camps, and internment more generally, are more common, precisely because they are justified in the terms that states generally accept: restrictions on freedom in order to ensure ‘security’. They are no less a weapon used by governments against civilian populations.

Butchery in Sri Lanka/Tamil Eelam

It is probably a pity, but as reactions to the G20 protest policing show, images often matter. So for example the analysis of new images may work as an important confirmation of “the persistent verbal testimony…from doctors, aid workers and civilians fleeing the area” – the Sri Lankan government is massacring civilians.

I’m reluctant to set much store by the category of ‘war crimes’, since very few crimes are as serious as the crime of starting a war itself, but for what it’s worth, this government is committing war crimes. That government is of course also, for what it’s worth, an authoritarian and racist one, even by the standards of modern governments.

I don’t have much to add personally, it just felt like something that could do with saying. It is of course interesting how little coverage and how little protest this conflict has prompted in the West, especially compared to the Israel-Palestine conflict, to which it bears many resemblances (apparently the governments involved recognise this, and do a lot of business trading weapons with each other). There has been protest, of course, some of it involving very brave hunger strikes, but it seems to have mainly been carried out by Tamils themselves, with less of the shouty lefty students.

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Depressing Similarities

Hundreds killed, thousands wounded?

Government in denial?

Aid organisations warn of an impending humanitarian crisis?

UN staff being shot at?

It’s almost like the Sri Lankan government have been taking notes from Operation Cast Lead.

Or alternatively these things are inevitable results of fighting in situations where the civilian population hate you.

No Answers on Sri Lanka

So it’s looking pretty clear that the Sri Lankan government is going to finally win its civil war and destroy the Tamil Tigers.

Is this a good thing?

On the one hand, the Tigers seem to me to be pretty clearly no-hopers – they don’t offer anything much for anyone. Their main contribution to humanity has been to popularise the idea of suicide bombing. Thank you very much, Tamil Tigers.

On the other hand, have any of the factors that led to vicious pogroms and systematic discrimination against Tamils disappeared? Can Sri Lankan Tamils expect that the coming period of rule by a Sinhalese governmen will be different from the past?

On the one hand, an end to civil war is a very good thing – this civil war in particular has supposedly caused 70,000 deaths.

On the other hand, could a ceasefire have worked in the long run? Could concessions have stabilised the situation, or a compromise around federal autonomy ended the conflict peacefully? Is it perhaps that the Sinhalese electorate wouldn’t have allowed it – or is it more the monks and chauvinists who manage to get hardliners elected?

And will victory bring peace? Or will the remaining Tigers shift to a different form of warfare, operating covertly. The Hindu al-Qaeda?

The war that is soon to end cost a lot of lives. The offensive that will soon end it has cost a lot of lives. Who knows what the peace that will follow it will cost?


EDIT: there’s an article about this at Znet. Points it offers include:

-This does not mean the end of the Tamil Tigers, although it weakens them.

-President Mahinda Rajapakse, who already holds the portfolios of defence, finance and nation-building, has just made himself minister of the media as well” – this comes together with the news that an unpopular TV station gets attacked by unknown assailants.

-The suggestion that “the EU also recognises that they speak for many, if not most, Sri Lankan Tamils in denouncing the discrimination that Tamils suffer…the Tamil diaspora is unlikely to end its funding for the Tigers any time soon.”

In relation to that last point, I am put in minds of reports that described that LTTE’s foreign agents as forming a sort of mafia that extracted money from foreign Tamils through threats and violence.