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Are Resistance Movements Held to a Higher Standard?

Shaheera Farook

Summary: Many non-state armed actors would argue that resistance for them is not about greed or grievance, but about a lack of alternatives. A lack of alternative means to protect themselves from the violence of the state — be it laws that dehumanise or marginalise them, the men in suits that draft and vote on those laws, the men in robes that legitimise those laws, or the gun-yielding men in uniform that enforce those laws. But in the fight for dignity, are they being unfairly hindered by misplaced, idealistic notions of what we want or expect resistance to look like? 

In 1993, while Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in dismantling the apartheid regime and in the establishment of the new democratic South Africa, his name remained on the United States’ terrorism watch list. It would be another 15 years before President Bush would sign a bill removing him from it, ending an embarrassing impediment to US-South Africa relations.  

The African National Congress (ANC) was condemned as a terrorist group for undertaking armed struggle in the hopes of undermining the repressive apartheid government that most of the West, including the US, quietly supported for the majority of its reign. This is but a small instance of a much larger pattern; of states condemning acts of violence by resistance efforts more heavily and quickly than the brutality that informed these efforts in the first place. Resistance efforts are held to a higher moral standard by states and the international community, a double whammy for groups that face a power asymmetry in their fight against a repressive state. Moreover, this disparity in standards is seemingly shaped more by geopolitical dynamics, rather than a genuine belief in who holds the moral high ground. 

In 1961, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, rose in response to the intensifying repression of the apartheid government, symbolising a departure from the formerly largely peaceful protests of the ANC, which aimed to realise a non-racial, non-sexist democratic government in place of the discriminatory, oppressive apartheid one. The ANC only launched the MK almost 50 years after its inception - and only in response to increased state repression, wherein apartheid measures like pass laws, which restricted and policed the movement of non-white South Africans, were intensified.

In 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre occurred, in which 69 people were killed (including 10 children) by police at a largely peaceful protest against pass laws  — where thousands of people offered themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks (a state-mandated form of identification used to enforce racial segregation). Many regard the massacre as the catalyst that led to the founding of the MK and changed the nature of the struggle against apartheid into a militaristic one.

Another instance of state violence provoking the formation of violent resistance is that of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), amongst many other groups fighting for Tamil rights. The LTTE was formed in 1976 in the wake of decades-long violent persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka and years of nonviolent struggle for secession into an independent Tamil state. Instances of this disenfranchisement include the 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom—in which violent riots and attacks against Tamils saw an estimated 300-1500 killed— and state-sponsored resettlement of Sinhalese farmers into formerly Tamil dominated areas. The LTTE proceeded to grow into one of the most notorious guerilla warfare groups in the world, enacting suicide bombings and allegedly establishing networks with the likes of Al-Qaeda. The group was thus rightfully designated as a terrorism outfit and banned by the UK, the US, and the EU, amongst others. These same denouncers, however, had often failed to adequately address the state-sponsored brutality against Tamils that the LTTE’s founding was premised upon. 

Resistance movements are more often set against an asymmetrical landscape that favours their oppressors, who outweigh them in terms of resources and perceived legitimacy. In South Africa during the apartheid era, the ANC faced bans and violent crackdowns from the ruling National Party (NP), which enforced apartheid and bolstered white power. Furthermore, the right to vote was largely restricted to white men, meaning that non-whites and the liberation movement found themselves severely disenfranchised and unable to challenge the white minority in power via legitimate means. Furthermore, peaceful demonstrations were met with arbitrary arrests and killings. The MK was established in response to the ANC being driven underground, as the state’s repression of non-whites saw no end, as well as the structural inequalities that impeded their ability to wage a legitimate challenge to the ruling government. These inequalities were a result of policies like land dispossession, forced removals, inferior education and healthcare, and systemic exclusion from employment sectors.

The Tamils in Sri Lanka experience similar disenfranchisement, having experienced arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)—which the state employed with impunity. The LTTE and other armed resistance groups rose out of frustration at the state’s perpetuating of discriminatory policies. The Sinhala Only policy for instance, made Sinhala the only official language, marginalising Tamils  (who primarily spoke Tamil) from political participation. Such measures, in their blatant discrimination against Tamils, formed the backdrop against which Tamil resistance was born.

These states’ inability to address the concerns of their marginalised communities and their brutal repression of them forced resistance efforts to turn to more drastic measures, as peaceful demonstrations and nonviolent protests were responded with intensified repression. Denouncements of such violent repression ring feeble as they conveniently ignore the brutality of state-sponsored violence that had punished peaceful resistance and made legitimate means of protesting nearly impossible.

Instead, the responses of the international community to apartheid South Africa’s brutal regime, as well as to Sri Lanka’s persecution of Tamils was shaped largely by geopolitical dynamics and domestic priorities. The apartheid regime was regarded as a strategically important bulwark against communism during the Cold War while the ANC was allied with the South African Communist Party (SCAP). This translated to British and American reluctance to impose sanctions on South Africa, particularly since it provided them with essential commodities like coal. They repeatedly voted against mandatory sanctions, as well as other firm measures  in the UN Security Council. 

However, stances did evolve to be more firmly against apartheid, especially as tides turned in the US’s favour during the Cold War and a strong anti-communism bulwark was no longer as crucial. The civil rights movement taking place domestically also influenced foreign policy towards South Africa—the US could not champion equality and human rights at home while refusing to do the same abroad. This manifested in firmer opposition to apartheid, evident in The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, for instance, which the US Congress passed in 1986, imposing comprehensive sanctions on South Africa, in line with the ideals of equality that pervaded the civil rights movement.

Foreign policies regarding Sri Lanka and Tamil resistance were similarly shaped by the war on terror that gripped the West at the time. As the state framed its repression of the LTTE as part of the larger war on terror —employing the PTA to subject Tamils to arrests and harassment—some European nations and the US hesitated to firmly condemn it, seeing as they were embroiled in counterterrorism efforts. Moreover, they were even willing to provide military assistance against the LTTE, having been further motivated by their presence in Western countries. Towards the end of the civil war in 2009, the state launched a ruthless campaign against Tamils—including civilians—and was enabled to do so with impunity, as international humanitarian organisations like the UN had left at the state’s behest and thus failed to keep them in check. Concerns surrounding regional stability, economic ties, and diplomacy meant the state was left unchecked by the international community and atrocities that violated international law, such as targeting hospitals and civilians, and curtailing humanitarian aid,  have not been sufficiently addressed till this day.

It’s indisputable that the LTTE’s committed comparable human rights violations, having been responsible for numerous civilian casualties as well. The glaring difference is that while the LTTE was condemned and banned, the Sri Lankan state was not sufficiently brought to justice. The international community has demonstrated an embarrassing lack of will to hold the state accountable for its contempt and abuse of human rights.

Many hold that violence is never the answer, but history proves very much otherwise. The unsavoury truth that violent resistance has been the most effective tool against oppression is often disregarded in favour of a much more idealised, charming version of events that nonviolence can be constructive against oppression. But injustice and peace can coexist, so as Kwame Ture put it, “peace isn’t the answer”. Thus, condemnations of violent resistance – particularly when peaceful resistance has long been met with indifference or even intensified repression and brutality – seem feeble.

Condemnations and peaceful protests only go so far, and it’s easy to shake heads and purse lips at violence from ivory towers, only because those in it have never had to resort to such ugly measures to protect something as basic as their dignity and freedom. Pacifism is a privilege, and one only afforded to the free. Hardly anyone wants to risk their lives and undertake such brutality—particularly when the odds are stacked against them—unless all they have to lose is indignity. That is not to say violent resistance should be enabled with impunity—even the disenfranchised are obligated by basic humanity to refrain from senseless evil and the murder of innocent civilians.

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