Armed Struggles and the Long Term Price

The debate about the way to fight for freedom is usually emotional and sometimes acrimonious. All not surprising, because ‘freedom’ is a very seminal and fundamental human need. But all actions have consequences, some perhaps unforeseen or more often ignored. Others unexpected.



This article is a thought-share. It is more full of questions than answers because that is the nature of the issues raised. It is for us to find the answers, but in that quest defining the ground is often helpful. That is what I have tried to do. All comments and ideas are welcome.

Let us see what happens in an armed struggle, wherever it may be:

1. There is a proliferation of arms and ammunition as is seen all over Africa.

2. Military training is given to anyone who is willing and to many who are not, conscripted forcibly for the cause. Witness the armies of ‘child-soldiers’ in the various freedom struggles all over Africa. Training is given especially in the use of explosives and guerilla warfare.

3. The successful indoctrination and understanding that it is acceptable to attack the government and its agencies and anyone who supports them. Add to this the ‘acceptability’ of ‘encouraging the population (often with the tacit pressure of the very visible gun) to ‘support’ the armed struggle with money and supplies as a mark and ‘proof’ of their ‘patriotism and solidarity’ with the struggle.

4. The promise of a land paved with gold when the struggle is won, where everyone will have plenty, everyone will be king and the sun will shine and rain will fall on demand. These promises are made by those who know them to be impossible to actually fulfill and are believed by those who should know better, all because at the time they are fighting the oppression is horrific enough to enable them to believe anything to keep the motivation going. Many never live to see if the promise comes true or not. Those who do are almost always
destined for disappointment to discover that to earn a living is not as easy as was promised or expected.

5. The freedom fighters (called terrorists, insurgents, rebels etc) have a cause which has wide national and international support. This support is kept alive by their governments in exile as well as their ambassadors, informal and formal.

Freedom is a powerful draw. It has the sanction of justice and ‘right’. So the money flows in.

6. Nations who make and sell weapons train the ‘rebels’ (for want of a better word), arm them and use the opportunity to test their training and weapons.

Meanwhile, of course, they sell the same weapons to the opposite side, this time openly. Russia and China in Africa. America and Britain in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Same game.

7. The heavy-handed ways that Governments in power use in their attempts to put down the freedom struggle actually always backfire and instead strengthen it.

The strategy of almost every government is to use methods that are horrific and draconian so that they will strike terror in the hearts of the rebels. That works as long as the psychology of the people works that way. But when you are faced with people who take pride in dying at the hands of an obviously superior enemy (Zulus, Khosas, Matabele, Palestinian and Iraqi Arabs, Afghans), it has the opposite effect.

8. Secondly the more draconian the method, the more sympathy it gains in the eyes of the public which is the support base of the rebel. Further those who are its victims, gain the stature of martyrs and the method actually strengthens the rebellion and makes the recruitment of new soldiers easier instead of its intended effect of putting down the rebellion.

Once the rebellion is successful there comes to the fore a new set of challenges, now for the erstwhile rebel leaders who now take off their battle fatigues and put on Armani suits to walk the corridors of power. In a word, ‘What do we do with our former comrades in arms?’ Promises made now have to be fulfilled. And people are short of patience. Also the tune has now changed – it is no longer acceptable to attack the ‘government’ because not the ‘government’ is us. People who have become used to the fact that to earn what an ordinary workers earns in a year, all that you have to do is to point a gun at someone, don’t take kindly to the idea that it is no longer possible to earn a living quite so easily. Getting an old soldier to head-load bricks is not an easy job for anyone. So crime starts to proliferate in the newly independent country. Add to this the fact that this new ‘criminal’ is not the ordinary thief but a highly trained, battle hardened mercenary soldier with extensive experience in the use of arms, explosives and tactics, with many willing, equally highly trained comrades all used to discipline and taking orders, you have a major problem on your hands. Many African countries are facing this challenge.

Psychologically the boot never fits on the other foot. The newly independent government does not look good killing its own people in the name of controlling crime. Laws of capital punishment when abolished get votes but come back to haunt when all you can do to someone convicted of violent crime including murder is to give him a free holiday for a few weeks when he is caught. A jail run according to human rights rules is a holiday with free food for a soldier used to living off the land in the bush.

The only country who dealt very successfully with the challenge of taming ex-soldiers and socializing them to civilian lives after decades of fighting an armed rebellion against the French and Americans is Vietnam. There is no crime in Vietnam that is worth speaking of and ex-soldiers have gone back to their rice fields and civilian occupations and have not turned to violent crime as a means of making a living. Perhaps it is the culture of the country and the discipline of communist rule that achieved this. However it bears looking at the experience of the Vietnamese people in detail to see how they managed to create a situation where not only is crime under control but there is also no visible hatred of Westerners even though the Vietnamese preserve the history of their freedom struggle with great pride. They have not forgotten what happened but they have not allowed its negativity to blight their lives today.

Today after the ‘successful’ campaign of the Sri Lankan army against the LTTE we have a new situation where a state was successful in crushing a rebellion militarily though it was always maintained that only a political solution was possible. In my opinion topography and geography had a big role to play in this matter but be that as it may, the fact remains that the LTTE is finished as a force. This seems to ‘prove’ to those who would like to see it that way, that as long as the government is willing to kill enough people, all such ‘problems’ can be ‘solved’. Forthcoming events will show if the LTTE problem was really solved or postponed, but as one friend put it, ‘even if it is postponed for 10 years, that is good enough because the President does not expect to be around that long’.

That seems to be the fate of such things, where the short term view predominates and long term interests are sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. We have seen many such incidents in our own politics in India. The life blood of the Naxal movement is the land-grabbing politician and his cooperative trigger-happy policeman. The real problem is that the people who are actually affected (e.g. the millions of farmers, shopkeepers, middle-class and poor in Swat and NWFP in Pakistan) have no voice. They are pawns which both sides play to their advantage.

The key challenge seems to be to give a voice to ordinary people. The big question is how? Democracy as it is practiced at present does not seem to be the answer at all, as it is very conveniently used as another tool to oppress. Our casteist politics in India and caste based voting pattern in the most recent election is a clear indicator of this trend. So what is a solution?

I ask that we be given the wisdom to work with courage and without despair to find the answers that lead to a world without oppression.

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