In the wake of the Sri Lankan government's abrogation of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement earlier this month, there has been increased activity by the international community. The self-styled 'Co-Chairs' - United States, European Union, Japan and Norway - broke their year long silence to reject a military solution and call for negotiations. To this end they called on the militarist regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse to "to finalise a politically sustainable devolution plan." Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, warned that human rights abuses in Sri Lanka left perpetrators and their commanders at risk of international war crimes charges (she earned a sneering retort from the Sri Lankan government for her trouble).
Although it is clear to all that President Rajapakse's administration is wholly uninterested in a political solution to the island's ethnic crisis, the international community - and they're the only ones who do - has long treated his All Party Representative Committee (APRC) with inexplicable gravity. As a consequence, the APRC has provided President Rajapakse with a convenient excuse, no matter how implausible, to ignore international calls for him to seek a political solution to the Tamil question. However, and most importantly, the APRC has also provided the international community with a plausible excuse for doing nothing while the Sri Lankan state wages a brutal war in the Northeast.
This is why the APRC, whilst considered nothing more than a political circus in Colombo (and it is not the first in the history of the ethnic crisis), is treated with such reverence in the international arena. Countries like Britain - a great power whose colonial links supposedly gives it greater insight than others into the Sri Lankan crisis - continues to insist the APRC must be given a chance. In a Parliamentary debate last week, British junior foreign minister Kim Howells, again calling for a political solution, reminded President Rajapakse that "the world is watching and waiting…" Unfortunately, as everyone, including Rajpakse, is aware, Britain and the rest of the international community are doing only that: watching and waiting.
For all the hectoring about human rights by the Co-Chairs during the Norwegian peace process, for over two years now, there has been no international action - save the temporary halting of a fraction of Sri Lanka's foreign aid - as the Sri Lankan state forces and their paramilitary arms have sustained a murderous campaign against the Tamils. Lest we forget, the prime targets of the state's dirty war have not been the LTTE's fighters, but Tamil journalists, politicians, political activists and aid workers. The fact of the matter is the Sri Lankan state is quite confident that the international community will not take steps of any consequence (despite the assurances some states have been giving to Tamil expatriates).
Indeed, for over the past eighteen months we have seen the international community standing encouragingly by as President Rajapakse unleashed an all out war in the Tamil homeland. It began in April 2006, notably, with a bombardment that displaced 43,000 Tamils from Sampur. Since then, 300,000 Tamils have been displaced and thousands of civilians killed in aerial and artillery massacres, extra-judicial killings and abductions. Yet the world is still issuing warnings.
Last week Mr. Howells quoted the UN Human Rights Chief, Ms. Arbour, as being alarmed by the “weakness of the rule of law and the prevalence of impunity for those abusing human rights” which she found when she visited Sri Lanka last year. She makes it sound as if this is something new. We refer her to the numerous reports on Sri Lanka published by Amnesty International and other international human rights groups during the past few decades (material she ought to have made herself familiar with before flying to Sri Lanka for her whirlwind walkabout). Indeed last week, Ms. Arbour was the latest senior UN official who had to swallow a contemptuous riposte from the Rajapakse regime. Her threats of war crimes charges against Sri Lankan military commanders, Colombo, quite justifiably said, were 'pathetically unenforceable.'
The confidence underpinning the rhetoric and conduct of the Rajapakse regime, along with the demonstrable empty threats by the international community, should bring home to the Tamils that nothing fundamental has changed in international perspectives on the Sri Lankan state. It is the international community's proclivity for forgiving abuses by states they wish to pursue shared interests with that Colombo is counting on as it continues with both conventional war and brutal counter-insurgency. In short, if the Sri Lankan state can crush the LTTE and put an end to Tamil agitation, then business can continue as usual.
Moreover, the Tamils should remember that the international community's insistence on 'the need for a solution' to the Tamil question only began in the late nineties when President Chandrika Kumaratunga's 'War for Peace' backfired spectacularly, forcing the conflict into the calculations of the donor community in Sri Lanka. Like all the Presidents before him, Rajapakse will only pursue the peace option when his military project fails. It has been the consistent practice of Sinhala leaders to tide over crises by making whatever undertaking is asked of them and simply tearing up the agreement when conditions are more propitious for their Sinhala-hegemonic project to advance. Moreover, Sinhala leaders have always preferred violence to accommodation in dealing with Tamil demands. In these ways, President Rajapakse is no different to his predecessors.
Every time Sri Lanka's conflict has resumed anew, the violence has been more destructive than ever before. The fighting in this latest phase of the war continued this week with heightened confrontations on the northern frontlines and, in an unexpected development, a sharp rise in attacks on Sinhala civilians and security forces in the deep south, which the government has blamed on the Liberation Tigers. The government's response has been to begin handing out weapons to the Sinhala population and training local youth as paramilitary guards. During the eighties and nineties, such 'Home Guards', recruited in their tens of thousands, were responsible, alongside the security forces, for massacres and ethnic cleansing of Tamils from areas subsequently colonized by Sinhalese.
President Rajapakse's government has been mobilizing the Sinhala community behind its planned war by training paramilitaries and conducting a campaign of demonization of the LTTE (i.e. Tamils). Those concerned with such matters have warned (on the assumption a lasting solution is negotiated, in the first place) of the consequences for long term peace and security of the militarization of Sri Lankan society and the ready availability of weapons across the island. However, given the specific understanding of the trinity of people, government and military within the Sinhala nationalist project, such measures are inevitable. The nature of the war to come is likely to irrevocably deepen ethnic antagonisms in the island. In the absence of decisive international action, this and other dynamics that the Sinhala leadership will unleash across the island in the coming years will ultimately result in a simple choice for the world: perpetual conflict in the island or a two-state solution.