TamilWeek Mar 5, 2006
What is terrorism, and who is a

By Dr. Devanesan Nesiah

Many who attended the Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial
Cultural Programme at the Bishop’s College Auditorium on
31 January 2006 would remember seeing the placards held
outside the gates by members of the National Movement
Against Terrorism (NMAT) challenging attendees to publicly
identify the organization responsible for Neelan’s

The objective of the Memorial Cultural Programme was to
celebrate his life, and neither to mourn his death nor to spit
venom on his killers. Many of us have little doubt as to the
identity of that organization, or any hesitation in deploring
the assassination of a widely-liked and respected person of
brilliant intellect and outstanding character. But are we
called upon to publicly pronounce judgement on that, or on
any other assassination? Have we, or NMAT, pronounced
judgement on the assassination of Joseph Pararajasingham
or Kumar Ponnambalam or the five students killed recently
near a military checkpoint in Trincomalee? If, indeed, we are
against assassinations, condemnation of those attributed to
one party and avoiding condemnation of those attributed to
other parties is, surely, counterproductive. If we have doubts
as to who the assassins were, we could show our concern
by demanding a thorough investigation by a body
acceptable to the relatives of the victims. Those who oppose
such investigations are serving to aid and abet the further
commitment of such crimes.

Judicial Officers are required to pronounce judgement in
cases that come up before them; so too Commissions and
Committees of Inquiry duly appointed to investigate
disappearances and other crimes. Sadly, little or no action
has been taken to adequately investigate or to follow up on
tens of thousands of disappearances and killings that
appeared to be related to the ethnic conflict. If the public
could be faulted, it is not for failure to pass judgement in
these cases but for not pressing for full investigation by a
body not linked to any of the suspected assassins. Perhaps,
that body could be a specially appointed Commission of
Inquiry suitably constituted and empowered; or the Human
Rights Commission adequately empowered as
recommended by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into
Involuntary Removals and Disappearances of Persons
(Report of March 2001) and the HRC Committee of Inquiry
on Disappearances in the Jaffna Region (Report of October

There are also the questions of what terrorism is, and who a
terrorist is. All assassinations are unlawful and deplorable,
but many may not be categorized as terrorist. There was a
pioneer attempt as far back as 1937 to arrive at an
internationally acceptable definition of terrorism for the
proposed League of Nations Convention. But that
Convention never came into existence. In keeping with the
state-centred thinking prevalent at that time, the focus of the
proposed Convention was, - All criminal acts directed
against a State and intended or calculated to create a state
of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of
persons or the general public -; we note that terrorism was
seen as essentially against a State.

Much has changed since then, and we now have many
relevant international conventions and protocols and an
understanding of terrorism as inclusive of that by the State.
However, there is, as yet, no internationally accepted
definition. It has been suggested that terrorism is the -
peace time equivalent of war crimes - (A.P. Schmid to United
Nations Crime Branch, 1992). This would include deliberate
attacks on civilians, hostage taking and the killing of
prisoners. Other definitions would specifically cover, - Acts
of murder and destruction deliberately directed against
civilians or military in non-military situations - (www.jafi.org.
il/education/hasbara/glossary.html), - the calculated use of
violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to
attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in
nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or
instilling fear - (www.wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn), and
- use of terror, especially the systematic use of terror by the
government or other authority against particular persons or
groups; a method of opposing a government internally or
externally through the use of terror - (www.imna.

The failure to arrive at a precise, agreed definition may be
due to the fact that, - Terrorism is a controversial and
subjective term with multiple definitions. One definition
means a violent action targeting civilians exclusively.
Another definition is the use or threatened use of violence
for the purpose of creating fear in order to achieve a
political, economic, religious or ideological goal - (www.en.
wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism). Moreover, it may be seen as, -
a psychological strategy of war for gaining political ends by
deliberately creating a well-founded climate of fear among
the civilian population. Such a strategy may be used by an
occupying army on the occupied population. Many terrorist
acts, especially against an occupying military or against
illegal occupants are acts of war or resistance, and not
terrorism - (www.naiadonline.ca/book/01Glossary.htm).

The carefully balanced language of the UN General
Assembly Resolution 51/210 of 1999 on - Measures to
eliminate international terrorism - reflects the clear shift
away from the exclusive statist focus of 1937. Whereas the
1937 definition was centred on - Criminal acts directed
against a State -, the 1999 resolution:

(i) Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of
terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by
whosoever committed;

(ii) Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to
provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of
persons or particular person for political purposes are in
any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations
of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic,
religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

My dictionary defines a terrorist simply as - one who favours
or uses terror-inspiring methods of governance or of
coercing government or community. By extension, any
person or organization harbouring or assisting terrorists is
tainted with terrorism, even if that person or organization is
not terrorist. While it needs to be emphasized that it would
be incorrect to condemn an organization as terrorist unless
terrorism is integral to its objectives, it could be argued that,
based on their track record over the last two or three
decades, all the armed services of the State and the allied
armed groups, as well as the LTTE and allied armed groups
are, to a greater or less degree, tainted with terrorism. If it is
presumed that every part of this island is controlled either
by the State or by the LTTE, there could be no armed
individuals or groups that are not in some way dependant
on either the State or the LTTE. It follows that either the
State or the LTTE must bear direct or indirect responsibility,
whether through sins of commission or omission, for all acts
of terrorism in the island.

Nearly everyone claims to be against terrorism, but even
unarmed individuals and groups who favour or use - terror
inspiring methods of governance or coercing government or
community - are caught up within the dictionary definition of
a terrorist. This will include politicians, journalists, community
leaders and others who seek to legitimize terrorism
(including what may be claimed to be counter-terrorism) of
one kind or another, or who advocate impunity to terrorists
(including counter-terrorists). The track record of those who
profess to be against terrorism should bear scrutiny. The
litmus test is to check for bias in their pattern of
protestations. How many will pass this test? What is at stake
is more than political even-handedness. It could be argued
that those who are selective in their condemnation of
terrorism are effectively condoning and legitimizing the acts
of terror that they gloss over.

We now return to the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam.
Was it a terrorist act? What of earlier political
assassinations? Were those of Joseph Pararajasingham,
Lakshman Kadirgamar, Gamini Dissanayake, R.
Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Nalanda Ellawala, A.
Amirthalingam, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and others acts of
terrorism? In terms of the dictionary definition, an
assassination is, however deplorable, not terrorist if the
objective is not the spread of terror but the elimination of a
person or a group for other reasons such as revenge, or
because that person or group stood in the way of the
assassins. In contrast, exploding a bomb in a crowded public
place without targeting any individual would be terrorist.
Also, terrorist were the recent coordinated but scattered
bombings in Colombo (24 January 2006), the burning down
of the Jaffna Public Library (May 1981), the attack on
Katunayake International Airport (July 2001) and, possibly,
the eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province (October
1990), although there may have been no immediate
causalities in any of these cases. Whether the perpetrators
or the organization that commissioned it had a history of
terrorism is not relevant. The classification depends not on
who did it, but on whether the objective was to inspire terror
or to eliminate an identified individual or individuals for other

Few countries can match Sri Lanka’s dismal record of
recurrent terrorism and political assassinations. In addition
to many targeted assassinations, we have had major
terrorist pogroms in 1958 and 1983, and a long succession
of terrorist bloodshed and massacres. These include
Anuradhapura (August 1977), Kent and Dollar Farms
(November 1984), Murunkan (04 December 1984),
Valvettithurai Public Library (09 March 1985), Akkaraipattu
(May 1985), Anuradhapura Sri Maha Bodhiya (14 May
1985), Pullumalai (November 1986), Kokkatticholai (January
1987), Aranthalawa (February 1987), Kituloothuwa (14 April
1987), Pettah (April 1987), Aranthalawa (June 1987), Jaffna
Hospital (21 October 1987), Valvettithurai (02 August 1989),
Rufuskulam, Thirukkovil (11 June 1990), Veeramunai
Pillaiyar Temple Refugee Camp (12 July 1990), Kurukkal
Madam (12 July 1990), Kaththankudy Mosque (03 August
1990), Eravur (12 August 1990), Eastern University (05
September 1990), Sathurukondan (09 September 1990),
Mannar (28 October 1990), Jaffna (30 October 1990),
Mailanthanai (09 August 1992), St. James Church Refugee
Camp, Jaffna (November 1993), Navali RC Church (09 July
1995), Nagarkovil (21 September 1995), Ampara (October
1995), Central Bank (January 1996), Kilivetti (11 February
1996), Jaffna (July & August 1996), Jaffna (January 1997),
Gonagala (September 1999), and many more, including
many of the acts of violence in the North and the East in the
last three months. There have been numerous victims and
many perpetrators from among the Sinhalese, Tamils and
Muslims; no community and no organization has the
monopoly of either victimization or demonisation. There are
no just assassinations or excusable acts of terrorism. We all
need to press for full investigations and justice, irrespective
of the identity and political claims of the perpetrators.
Addressing the issues of terrorism and targeted
assassinations is equally of the highest priority for all of us.
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