The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland

Martin Shaw
10 June 2009

Jacob Zuma's inauguration as South Africa's new president on 9 May 2009 opened a new phase in the country's politics, following the victory of the African National Congress (ANC) in the national elections on 22 April. But there is also continuity in the use of some of the classic symbols and icons of the ANC during its rise to power - prominent among them, the gun.Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). He is editor of the global site

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin"  (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)

"Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

"The Kosovo war: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

The combination of a political leadership that draws at least part of its historic legitimacy from a past commitment to "armed struggle" raises a number of questions, among them the effect of violence (in South Africa or elsewhere) on campaigns for emancipation. The topicality of the question is further highlighted by the end of the decades-long military campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers / LTTE) in Sri Lanka; and the spasm of violent attacks by "dissident" paramilitary groups and sectarian thugs in Northern Ireland.

Beyond the gates

Jacob Zuma's political campaigning strongly features his "signature" song, Umshini wami - rendered from Zulu as "bring me my machine-gun". In the days of the "armed struggle" under South Africa's apartheid regime, Zuma was indeed once a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation / MK) - the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

If there is a problem here, it is less that Zuma has no reputation as an actual fighter than that the MK's exiled leadership and the military operations it organised inside South Africa did not play a decisive role in ending apartheid and bringing the ANC to power. Rather the opposite: it was because the ANC prioritised democratic movements inside the country over the approach represented by the MK that they could achieve a commanding political hegemony. 

For its part, members of Umkhonto we Sizwe acquired notoriety for human-rights abuses committed in training-camps run by the ANC where exiled South Africans were based. Some of these were admitted to South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Moreover, the period in which ANC members most often reached for their weapons was the early 1990s, during the conflict with Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (in, as it happens, Jacob Zuma's home province of KwaZulu Natal). The effects were disastrous, and it is hard to argue that the internecine war advanced the "freedom struggle".

This historical record seems to make little dent in the tendency of many ANC supporters to romanticise the "armed struggle". In this, they are hardly alone. A cult of arms (symbolised most prominently by Che Guevara) survives among sections of the left, middle-aged and comfortable as well as young and less secure, in London, New York and Paris; as well as in South Africa's townships and other marginalised communities n the global south. The University of Sussex, where I work, even has a "Che-Leila Society" - an "anti-imperialist" society named after Guevara and Leila Khaled, the Palestinian militant involved in a spectacular hijacking incident in 1969) - which plasters the campus with stickers showing a silhouetted figure with a gun.

A similar romanticism surrounds Islamist fighters involved in jihadi campaigns around the world. It is fuelled by an underworld of publications, websites, images and the hothouse emotionalism of sections of the alienated young. Most of those who subscribe to the cult of arms might be horrified by a close encounter with a bomb or machine-gun, yet they indulge the idea that such men (and Leila Khaled notwithstanding, they are almost all men) play crucial roles in the fight for freedom.

Inside the struggle

The ignominious defeat of the Tamil Tigers - one of the world's longest-running guerrilla campaigns - is a further confirmation of the problems that arise when "armed struggle" takes priority over democratic forms of resisting power.

The result of twenty-six years of organised violence against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state and army and in favour of an independent "Tamil Eelam" homeland has been misery for hundreds of thousands of the Tamil minority on whose behalf the struggle was waged. In the aftermath of the war, many of those who had been corralled into the last sliver of Tiger-controlled territory and bombarded by the Sri Lankan military are now interned in government-controlled detention camps; some are at the mercy of anti-Tamil paramilitaries.

In its last phase alone the Sri Lankan war caused many more deaths than (for example) the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009. There is a need now to protest the horrors that the state continues to inflict on the Tamil population and to bring to justice the perpetrators of anti-civilian violence on both sides (see Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice", 21 May 2009).

But the LTTE must take a major responsibility both for the war's denoument and for all the consequences of its long-term substitution of violence for politics in the campaign it waged ostensibly on behalf of justice for the Tamil people. Tamils in the diaspora as well as in Sri Lanka must overcome the false communal solidarity which glosses over the LTTE's crimes, and face up to the Tigers' responsibility in this situation (see Nirmala Rajasingham, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009).

Also in openDemocracy on violent legacies in divided societies:

Fred Hallday, "Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa's election: a tainted victory" (7 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice" (21 May 2009)

Rohan Gunaratna, "Sri Lanka's challenge: winning the peace" (27 May 2009)

Tom Lodge, "Northern Ireland: between peace and reconciliation" (3 June 2009)As Nirmala Rajasingham points out: "It is striking ... that in all the demonstrations [in solidarity with the threatened Tamils] not a single cry, slogan or placard [demanded] that the Tigers should let the civilians go or cease their own assaults on them. The silence of the diaspora community on this issue is deafening." Now that the war is over and the suffering of the civilians in the camps is beginning to be exposed, it is important that the Sri Lankan government should not be able to dismiss the world's protests as pro-Tiger propaganda.

The double damage

The forms of blind or at best one-eyed "solidarity" evident in relation to Sri Lanka echo the evasions of some anti-apartheid campaigners to crimes committed under the banner of the ANC or of Irish Republicans to crimes of the Provisional IRA during the Northern Ireland "troubles". They may serve the "manifest" function of proclaiming the need to compete with the armed enemy in an "asymmetrical" fight, but what they miss is the latent function of arms - which is to enable the armed (whoever they are, and whatever the imagined justice of their cause) to exert power over the unarmed.

What happens in armed conflict - as Peter Beaumont, war correspondent of the Observer argues - is that "societies are reordered into sharply defined new hierarchies: into those who have weapons and those who have not. A man with a gun can walk to the front of the bread or petrol queue. With his militia friends he can take over a petrol station if he likes and reorganise the distribution while skimming money off the top. With a rifle you can order a woman to have sex. Weapons redistribute wealth through ‘taxes', protection rackets and straight theft. Scores can be settled, under the cover of generalised violence" (see Peter Beaumont, The Secret Life of War [Random House, 2009]). 

The various justifications for "armed struggle" remain largely untouched by such considerations - even though each is flawed:

* the moral - that the violence of those in power requires an equivalent response (but violence only trades with power in its most debased currency)

* the political - that violent acts create a powerful symbolic divide between power and its opponents (the effects of violence on civilians undermine the symbolic difference between radicals and the power they contest) 

* the strategic - that oppressive regimes can only be defeated with armed force (but authoritarian regimes have crumbled as often in the face of non-violent protest as from armed resistance).

There is too often a double damage in the way that "armed struggle" both  inflicts harm on innocent civilians - even, as in the case of the LTTE, the people it claims to be fighting for - and pushes its enemies towards more extreme repression. A regime which crushes peaceful protest will use even greater and less discriminate force against armed opposition. It is symptomatic here that the adjective most commonly applied to counterinsurgency is "brutal"; and that counterinsurgency probably turns genocidal - as in Rwanda and Darfur - more often than any other type of war.

The historic shift

Many armed movements do see a political point in "exposing" the violent and repressive character of the states they are fighting against. The problem with this argument is that it is the "armed struggle" itself which makes this character evident or reinforces it - meaning that it becomes a property of the armed conflict as much as or more than the state. The armed movement which initiated the conflict must then take a great share of responsibility for all the violence that ensues.

A cycle of this kind was apparent in the political dynamic that led small groups on the fringes of the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in western societies in the 1960s-70s towards violence that escalated to assassination and bombing - designed to "expose" the violence of the state. But the actions of the Red Army Faction in West Germany both produced a more authoritarian state than had previously existed (and might otherwise have existed); and weakened the peaceful protest movements from which they had emerged, since any sympathy for radical goals enabled media and state to smear these entire movements as supportive of violence.

It is clear that there are big differences between (say) violent provocations in street protests, terrorist bombing campaigns of the kind seen in Pakistan's cities, and the sustained armed struggles of groups like the LTTE. It is also important to note that the violence that state forces have employed in such situations - baton-wielding by police, assassination squads (as in Spain or Turkey), prolonged counterinsurgency - routinely outweighs the scale of the original threat.

But violence waged against oppression must be judged in its own terms and against its own proclaimed standards and objectives; and all the above forms of opposition share the substitution of the violence of the few for the protest of the many. In all cases radical violence both provokes greater state violence and coerces the wider movement or population on whose behalf the violent elite claims to act.

The larger story here is the fate of "revolution" - and in particular the decisive shift in the character of radical movements that resulted from the identification of revolution with armed struggle. This shift - which began with Mao Zedong's Chinese communists in the 1920s - made it possible for radicalism to be conscripted in the service of authoritarian and indeed totalitarian interests, the very opposite of democratic struggle by the oppressed.

Sri Lanka's Tamils are only one group that continues to suffer as a result of this embrace of violence as a tool of radical change. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma's celebration of the "machine-gun" may be symbolic, but points to a residual problem in the political and social culture. Northern Ireland's season of armed killings and sectarian murder expose another unresolved legacy.

There is a lesson here too for elements of the global left that still romanticise or indulge the "armed struggle" of (usually) far-away others. The politics of violence are a path to failure and regression. The trouble with guns is that they make the road to real progress so much longer and more painful.

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