So not fun. This post may strike you as a strange way for the ethnomusicologist to start her stint as a guest blogger here, but bear with me. Given the news this week, this question has been on my mind, and I need to get it off my chest before I start blogging about all the other things dear to my heartâ€”- music, movies, food, art, driving my parents crazy with my music major, and living at 6200+ ft above sea level in a pristine Alpine desert climate. Rest assured, thereâ€™s time for all of that.
Over the past few months, I have noticed that many people (ok, Iâ€™ve especially noticed one) have used the term â€œgenocideâ€ to describe what has happened to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. The word is a strong one, evoking the most heinous acts that can be committed against humanity. Tamil civilians have indeed suffered in the civil war over the past two decades, but echoing Amardeep earlier this week, Iâ€™m uneasy with the term.The word â€œgenocideâ€ is loaded with historical baggage that dates back to the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948. In a recent book on Darfur, Mahmood Mamdani provides a working definition that represents how most people think of the term, and why the term wouldnâ€™t, for example, apply to the high numbers of casualties of Iraqi civilians: â€œOnly when extreme violence targets for annihilation a civilian population that is marked off as different â€˜on grounds of race, ethnicity, or religionâ€™ is that violence termed genocide.â€
This definition is straightforwardâ€”mostly because it leaves out any mention of who is committing that violence. As the term circulates, it tends to clearly distinguish those who are committing violence from those who are the victims of that violenceâ€”whether itâ€™s Hutus attacking Tutsis or the Janjaweed attacking Sudanese civilians in Darfur. The reality on the ground is rarely so black and white, and Mamdaniâ€™s book (which has, admittedly, ruffled a few feathers) lays out the intricate, tangled strands that compose that complicated reality in Darfur.
With respect to Sri Lanka, Tamil civilians (as well as those in the considerable Muslim minority) have been the victims of abductions, disappearances, and systematic killing by the government of Sri Lanka and armed groups linked to the government. During the war, they were caught quite literally in crossfire and subjected to intensive aerial bombing and shelling. These same civilians were also until very recently prevented from trying to flee LTTE-controlled areas, and there is other evidence for internally committed human rights abuses within the Tamil community. Terms like â€œgenocideâ€ (and â€œterrorism,â€ for that matter) raise our blood pressure and focus our attention on those who have committed violence, but they donâ€™t even begin to address how minorities can be more effectively represented and fairly treated in the future.
Iâ€™m not saying it didnâ€™t happen. But now that we have peopleâ€™s attention, can we get past the name-calling?