Slavoj Zizek’s Systemic Violence and Structural Genocide Phenomena in Sri Lanka
Originally published on TamilNet
There have been quite some positions on ‘rights violations’ in Sri Lanka. Among those who recognize that there have been violations of the rights of the Tamils, two general camps can be observed. One are those influenced by liberal human rights discourse, who believe that certain horrific acts were committed in the war, but in a ‘post-war’ scenario, there is an urgent need for ‘reconciliation’, ‘peace-building’ and ‘rehabilitation’.
The understanding of this camp is that state violence happened as a onetime event, there were a few or many excesses in this event, but there is a possibility of a post-event condition within a united framework of a ‘better’ Sri Lanka.
On the other hand, the ‘structural genocide’ position contends that horrific violence on the Eelam Tamil body-politics is not a onetime event but is a process, and that it is not an aberration but is inherent to the system of united Sri Lanka.
The theme of structural genocide of the Eelam Tamil nation has been addressed in various articles, editorials and features on TamilNet. In this regard, the study of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on ‘systemic violence’ provides some valuable theoretical insights.
Prof. Zizek, who is a Marxist and critical theorist, writes in his brilliant book ‘Violence: Six Sideways Reflections’ that systemic violence has to be taken into account if at all one is to make sense of visibly horrifying subjective violence.
Zizek writes that “We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.”
The thinker seeks to point out that subjective explosions of physical violence, like in the Eelam Tamils’ case what happened in Black July or in Mulli-vaaykkaal, cannot be seen in isolation from the various forms of psychological and symbolic forms of violence that are part and parcel of the system.
For such a system to survive, it needs not just a Weberian ‘monopoly of violence’, it always needs to point out to the subjects it colonizes that it has the will to exercise this violence as and when it deems fit.
So, acts like land grabbing, assaults on villagers by Sinhala army men and settlers, rapes, attacks on student leaders etc. are all required by the system to function smoothly till a point where the colonized Eelam Tamils themselves are psychologically conditioned by the system to become ‘true Sri Lankans’.
The Sri Lankan system’s threats of violence through the physical presence of army men in all Tamil localities, the military checkpoints throughout the occupied areas of Tamil Eelam, intrusion of private spaces and its symbolic violence through the desecration of all symbols of Eelam Tamil resistance and identity serve the purpose of this conditioning.
Writing about such political systems, Zizek argues that, “One of the strategies of totalitarian regimes is to have legal regulations (criminal laws) so severe that, if taken literally, everyone is guilty of something. But then their full enforcement is withdrawn. In this way the regime can appear merciful”.
This is precisely the case in occupied Tamil Eelam where practically every Tamil is a terror suspect under the draconian laws unless proven otherwise, that is, unless he or she is willing to work within the framework set by the oppressor.
The Sri Lankan regime makes itself appear democratic by allowing token elections conducted with the full supervision of the armed forces, symbolically hinting that if the Tamils do not vote for the parties whom it is comfortable in negotiating with then the other alternative is force.
The fact of such functioning namesake elections and kangaroo courts is thrown by Sri Lanka as an argument of its ‘democratic practices’ and to cover up its omnipresent threat of violence against Eelam Tamils.
Much of Zizek’s book is also an intellectual attack on the liberal theorists who promote a depoliticised human rights discourse.
Zizek writes that while they claim to fight subjective violence, such liberals “are the very agents of structural violence which creates the conditions for the explosions of subjective violence.”
Those who followed the Eelam struggle closely will know how certain dubious NGOs and academic institutions minted money out of the misery of the Eelam Tamil people and the propaganda they spread and continue to spread on the possibility of ‘post-conflict reconciliation’ while simultaneously evading the fundamental political question that confronts the Eelam Tamil nation – the right to exercise political self-determination.
The argument of charitable donations by such organizations is cruel in its apparent benevolence in that it requires that the Eelam Tamils be first reduced to a state of penury so that they can intervene and make their lives better.
As Zizek notes, “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.” Organizations such as these only help providing a system practising structural genocide a good face.
Contrary to what certain Tamil politicians who are manipulated by India and/or western powers and intellectuals on the payroll of ‘donors’ may claim, the Eelam Tamils did not fight for individual human rights or equality.
That is not just a fallacy of missing the wood for the trees, but to actually make a criminal claim that there were ever no trees in a wood that have been razed to the ground.
Any genuine politics must start from the position that Eelam Tamils as a people are unequal, and will continue to be unless they have political power in their hands, in their own state.
It is also imperative to point out Zizek’s message to certain genuine humanitarians in the diaspora who are keen on doing ‘something’, without considering the core politics of what they are dealing with:
“Better to do nothing than to engage in localised acts, the ultimate function of which is to make the system run more smoothly.”
Unless one has the correct perspective of the needs of the Eelam Tamil struggle and the corresponding political will to serve the same in all actions, one will always be engaged in futile actions and be inevitably co-opted by the powers that reign.