The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapakse (finally) tore up the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers last week. Whilst the truce existed only on paper after almost two years of high-intensity war, the move was not without its consequences. The ejection of the Nordic ceasefire monitors, a key set of international eyes on the ground, was one. The smashing of the vestiges of Norway’s once much lauded peace process is another. The most important, however, is the Rajapakse regime’s brazen demonstration of its contempt for international opinion.
As with all of Sri Lanka’s odious actions, the reaction of the international community, broadly defined, has been inexcusably muted. The United States is ‘troubled.’ Australia ‘fears’ for the future. Norway ‘regrets’ Sri Lanka’s action. Contrast this with the howls of rage that would have followed had it been the LTTE that had opted to exit the CFA. Indeed, despite the brazenness with which the Sri Lankan state is abducting, murdering and disappearing Tamils, the international community’s reactions have so far been limited to temporarily stopping a fraction of aid flows to the country. Compare this to the haste with which the EU and Canada rushed to proscribe the LTTE in early 2006. Indeed, since that point the newly emboldened Sri Lankan state has waged relentless and indiscriminate war in the Northeast.
The fundamental problem here is the international community’s stubborn refusal to accept, even when it is thrust in their faces, the racist oppression that underpins ethnic politics in Sri Lanka and, consequently, the impossibility of reforming the Sinhala state. In the past eighteen months the claim that Tamil-Sinhala relations are amicable, disturbed only by the agitation of ‘extremists’, has been exposed for the fiction it is. The vast majority of Sinhalese are behind President Rajapakse’s militarist project which is as much about ‘crushing Tamil rebellion’ as ‘defeating Tiger terrorism.’ And yet, for three decades now, even as the Tamils have been protesting state terror, the international community has repeatedly called for a solution “within a united Sri Lanka.” Indeed, the adamant refusal to see the violence in Sri Lanka as a cycle of oppression followed by resistance was reflected again last week. Sri Lanka’s abrogation of the ceasefire, Erik Solheim, Norway’s former Special Envoy, lamented, “comes on top of the increasingly frequent and brutal acts of violence perpetrated by both parties.” It is this ready equating of the violence of the oppressor with the resistance of the oppressed which reveals the international mindset.
Eager to pursue joint interests with the Sri Lankan state, international actors (and their local partners) have long sought to mischaracterise the island's conflict as one of opposing extremist demands (a unitary state versus independence) and, of late, the protagonists (the state and the LTTE) as mirrors of each other. Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms are equated and denounced alike. The vast majority of civilians who have died in this conflict are Tamils - mown down by Sri Lanka's military machine or diseased and starved amid government embargos. Yet, as much as the Tamils rage against Sinhala chauvinism, the international community serenely assures us it is merely poor governance. The violence of the LTTE ('terrorists') is the problem, we are repeatedly told, not state oppression. Our demand for Eelam is a quest for 'ethnic purity' as one US Ambassador told us (we doubt he would address the people of Kosovo or Somaliland in such terms).
There was a time when such name-calling, the labeling of Tamil resistance as terrorism, the mischaracterization of the Tamil freedom struggle as 'extremism' was both hurtful and alarming. That was when the Tamils still had faith in the international community's preparedness to stand up for principles of justice and humanity and were eagerly, even naively, trying to make their case. However, the lethargic response of the international actors to the Sri Lankan state's ongoing brutality and its defiance of international norms have revealed - to both the state and the Tamils - the limits of international commitment to principles that were, not that long ago, brandished as justification for denying the Tamils not only urgently needed humanitarian aid, but a peace process on our terms. In short, we have become accustomed to be being blamed for our own suffering. Especially under the prevailing conditions in Sri Lanka, the equating of the state's violence against our people with the LTTE's resistance to the state says less about the moral standing of our freedom struggle than the strategic imperatives of those making this argument.