Global liberalism confronts Sri Lanka’s ethnocracy.
Sri Lanka has reacted with characteristic hostility to the most recent international efforts to compel its Sinhala nationalist government to conduct itself in accordance with accepted international norms. Colombo’s vehement and vitriolic response to both the appointment of a UN advisory panel on the horrific war crimes in Sri Lanka and the EU’s offer to extend the GSP+ subsidy conditional on specified actions on human rights and political freedoms was, of course, utterly predictable.
However, this is not merely a peculiarity of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, but a consequence of the Sinhala supremacist logic embedded in the very fabric of this post-colonial state. It is clear, after all, that the international community is, through its myriad actions, seeking to create the space for the peaceful and secure flourishing of the island’s long-suffering non-Sinhala communities. As such, the world is now gradually discovering what the Tamils have been experiencing for six decades: that Sinhala supremacy, not equitable governance, is the central register for Sri Lanka’s strategic decisions.
At the same time, for all the bluster and histrionics from Colombo, some international levers are discernibly disciplining the Sinhala state. For all the talk of sovereignty (and the hype of competing external donors), the IMF is slowly but steadily effecting the restructuring of the state required of economic globalization. The state has also had to accede to important, if very basic and preliminary, international steps to connect the Tamil homeland with the rest of the world. There is no doubt that the Sinhala state will vehemently resist, actively subvert and seek to rollback such changes - the defiant nationalization detailed by the island’s Sunday Times this week makes that quite clear.
What is at stake here is the very nature of the future Sri Lankan state. As several scholars have detailed over the decades – in arguments largely ignored amid the ideological blindness that infused international efforts since the mid-nineties to produce liberal democracy and market economics in Sri Lanka and elsewhere – the post-independence state has entrenched, fostered and defended a Sinhala ethnocracy. It has done so before and after the Cold War, during both war and peace. During the war, however, Sri Lanka was able to adopt the rhetoric of market democracy, without actually having to adopt it. The lack of progress could be blamed on ‘the war’ and, by extension, the Tamil armed struggle, and in this way, the active support of the international community could be secured to destroy the most potent resistance to Sinhala hegemony: the Liberation Tigers.
This Sinhala-Buddhist utopia, pursued through genocidal military violence and racist persecution, is not merely about the Sinhalese people building a bastion for Buddhism (in keeping with a self-claimed divine mandate), but the construction of a specific form of state, one dedicated primarily to fostering the wellbeing of the Sinhalese and Buddhism, at the deliberate expense of the non-Sinhala - who in this logic pose the greatest threat to this vision.
As the state protects, it must provide: the taken-for-granted state subsidies and patronage to the Sinhala majority goes hand-in-hand with the denial of economic and social space for the Tamils. The logic is evidenced in the state’s privileging of the South over the Northeast in the distribution of developmental aid, humanitarian relief and so on (the only exception, of course, has been state-funded colonization of the non-Sinhala areas.). The point here is that the Sinhala majoritarian logic that has increasingly driven the state’s economic, political and social policies since independence will readily accept international assistance when it benefits the South, but resist when it’s directed at the Northeast. The state’s sullen resistance to resettling the hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils is a case in point.
As we have argued before, the Tamil struggle for independence is not about isolationism and exclusion, but the exact reverse: the bypassing of the Sinhala domination by the Tamil-speaking people to integrate with the rest of the rapidly globalizing world, and thereby flourish. Conversely, this is exactly what the Sri Lankan state has viciously sought for so long to prevent, actively restructuring the island’s economy, political apparatus and even infrastructural architecture to privilege South over Northeast.
However, as the dynamics of the past twelve months make clear, the Sinhala nationalist project is now being confronted by the challenge of global liberalism – and vice-versa. This is why Sri Lanka, on the one hand, seeks to replace the bogey of the LTTE with that of the Diaspora and, on the other hand, sees every international effort to compel adherence to international norms as “supporting the LTTE’s agenda”. It remains very much to be seen if the international community can indeed transform the Sinhala state. But its active efforts of late have certainly raised hopes that Sinhala supremacy can yet be denied.