In the last of a recent series of mass rallies by the Tamil Diaspora, thirty thousand expatriates in Britain turned out last weekend to emphatically reiterate a simple message: the Tamil people want their independence. A week earlier, seventy five thousand Tamils in Canada had done the same. Before that, there were record turnouts at rallies across all the other Diaspora centers. The Pongu Thamil rallies of 2008 reveal the structural changes within Sri Lanka’s crisis today.
Firstly, the idea of a single multiethnic island state is demonstrably all but dead. In its place is a militarized Sinhala dominated state in which ethnic polarization is not only at its most acute ever, but is inexorably deepening. Just as the vast majority of Sinhalese have – for over a decade - consistently voted for the more hardline of Sri Lanka’s main political parties, the Tamils’ have been rallying to the Eelam project as never before. Secondly, they are doing so despite massive repression – not only in Sri Lanka but also in the self-styled liberal democracies of the Western world. Proscriptions of the LTTE have been followed in many Western countries by undisguised intimidation of their Tamil residents (as civil liberties groups point out, the Tamils are not alone in this regard). Indeed, it is this international repression – which is contemporary with massive ongoing support for the Sri Lankan state, even when its persecution and Sinhala chauvinism is unabashedly naked – that has done most to compact Tamil sentiment towards the Eelam project. International support for Colombo has also helped consolidate southern support for militarily crushing the Tamil rebellion and reimposing Sinhala hegemony. The implications of all this for Sri Lanka’s armed conflict are obvious.
Undoubtedly, the Pongu Thamil rallies –like all those rallies before - will have no discernable effect on international attitudes towards Sri Lanka’s conflict – at least for now. Despite the repeated efforts by the Tamil Diaspora to argue their case – of state oppression, of racial persecution, of a slow genocide, the West-led international community has decided it knows better what Sri Lanka’s crisis is about: terrorism against a flawed democracy. There is a stubborn refusal to accept the racist logic at the heart of the Sri Lankan state and a proclivity to reduce the crisis to the LTTE’s armed struggle. There are, of course, self-serving interests (economic, geopolitical and others) that make this particular ‘problem definition’ eminently more palatable than the Tamils’ argument. Beyond this, there is the arrogance which says that Third Worlders like us, unable to appreciate cosmopolitan visions because of our tribal passions, simply don’t understand how wonderful the liberal peace could be. But no matter, it will be delivered to them by development agencies’ 4x4s – preceded, of course, by the battle tanks of the Sri Lankan Army.
Having decided for us that what the Tamils really want is economic opportunity and cultural freedom – as opposed to national liberation from state oppression – the international community has decided to escalate its long-standing support for the crushing of the LTTE. For the past two years the Rajapakse regime has been given a green light to smash the LTTE and discipline the rebellious Tamils. Progress has been far slower than envisaged at the outset. International confidence in the military project is shaky, but remains. As ever, we shall desist from making military predictions; instead, firstly, we point to the self-evident lessons of anti-insurgency campaigns of the past few decades the world over and, secondly, note that the deepening ethno-political crisis (quite apart from the LTTE) in Sri Lanka. In short, there will be no peace without justice here.
Whilst the international community continues to grumble about the ‘intransigence’ of the LTTE – meaning the Tigers continue to insist that an independent state is the only way Tamils will have lasting security from Sinhala oppression – the international community has shown absolutely no interest in whether the Sri Lankan state will actually accept the Tamils as equal to the Sinhalese. As we have often argued, this is the only basis in which there can be a lasting solution within a united Sri Lanka. Will the Sinhala state accept that Buddhism does not have a ‘first and foremost’ place in the island and that the state’s purpose is not to ‘foster’ Buddhism? Will it accept that the Tamils are one of the constituent nations of the island, that they – like the Scots in Britain, the Quebecois in Canada, the Kurds in Iraq, the Kosovans, the Eritreans, and others – have a homeland in the Northeast? Undoubtedly not. But that is not the Tamils’ problem anymore. The more important question for us is: will the international community accept that there can be no peace in Sri Lanka, liberal or otherwise, unless these things happen? Not, as we noted earlier, at this stage. There are too many benefits to sacrifice just for the sake of the Tamils’ ‘grievances’.
This week British Foreign Minister Lord Malloch-Brown is visiting Sri Lanka. He first met with President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother, Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rakapakse. It must be recalled that over the past three years, these two men, along with the rest of the Sinhala military leadership, have presided over the one of the most sustained and vicious campaigns of military repression of the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s history. A clutch of UN officials, international human rights groups and numerous local voices have highlighted the extra-judicial killings, ‘disappearances’, torture and other atrocities that Sri Lanka’s armed forces and paramilitary allies have carried out. These are the individuals that have command responsibility the deaths of many thousands of Tamils - as well as the massacres of thousands more in airstrikes, artillery bombardments and other attacks. However, given the staunch international support for the Sri Lankan state in its campaign of violence, Lord Malloch-Brown’s photo opportunities alongside them is symbolically apt.
The past few decades have seen several cases of murderous states enjoying international – especially Western – support whilst persecuting and wiping out ethnic groups. When Saddam Hussein’s regime gassed the Kurds, when Indonesia’s military slaughtered East Timorese, when Ethiopia tried to wipe out the Eritreans, when whites ruled over blacks in Rhodesia and South Africa, they did so with the active support of the liberal democracies of the West. A number of despots – Pinochet, Marcos, Mobuto, Zia-ul-Haq, Saddam, and Mugabe amongst others – have long enjoyed staunch Western support during much of their rule. The point here is that Western lectures to the Tamils on ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’, ‘human rights’ and so on need to be considered against the manifest hypocrisy of Western geopolitical practice.
Despite the rhetorical calls for ‘negotiations’, for ‘a political solution’, and so, the international community couldn’t care less what happens to the Tamils, provided their respective interests are served by the Sri Lankan state. Even when it comes to ‘development’ of the East – or, for that matter, the south – what is important is that the economic benefits that might accrue to international actors should not be disrupted by the instability of ‘terrorism’. It is within this logic that the Sinhala state, no matter how despotic, will remain a vital partner of international activity in Sri Lanka. In short, neither the Sri Lankan state nor the international community are interested in a lasting political solution. Rather, they are concerned with imposing a militarized stability on the Tamil homeland so that a specific economic program – ostensibly for our benefit, but in reality for theirs – can be rolled out.