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Gone with the Wind

As Sri Lanka's military struggles to make progress against the Liberation Tigers' determined resistance in the island's north, and the Mahinda Rajapakse government's frantic efforts to defeat the LTTE shreds the already frayed social, economic and political fabric of the island, international disquiet is mounting. It is against the now apparent inevitability of a protracted, bloody and utterly destructive war - despite the best will of the international community, the destruction will not remain confined to the northern battlefields - that international calls for negotiations have reemerged. However, despite murmurings of there not being any military solution to the conflict, the core of present international policy in Sri Lanka turns on precisely that: the military crippling, if not destruction of the LTTE. It is on this basis that the international community first armed and prepared the Sri Lanka armed forces during the Norwegian peace process and, secondly, then pointedly stood aside as Colombo went to war, inflicting widespread suffering on the Tamils.
 
In an interview with the state-owned Sunday Observer newspaper two weeks ago, the United States' Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Robert O' Blake, gave voice to the international community's anxieties. "We do not believe," he regretted, "a military solution is going to be possible." 25 years of experience has shown that the LTTE is a rather formidable organization, and it will be very difficult to defeat them militarily, he conceded. Therefore, Mr. Blake said, "the way to reach a solution to the conflict is through a political solution." In short, it is only because the Tamil struggle is so difficult to put down militarily that there must be a 'solution'.
 
To the US and likeminded members of the international community, the problem in Sri Lanka is simply the LTTE i.e. 'terrorism'. There is, despite sixty years of easily accessible history, including three decades of militarised brutality, no acknowledgement of the oppression by the Sinhala state - with which, as Mr. Blake proudly says, the US "has been close friends for more than 50 years now." So much for defending freedom. For the international community, the Sri Lankan state, which they are unashamedly ready and eager to do business with, is in no way racist. It's just bad at governing. This is why Mr. Blake won't make clear why he thinks the Tamils "suffer disproportionately from human rights violations," or why they don't have "a sense of respect and dignity" in Sri Lanka. Consequently, it is not at all clear why he feels the Tamils "should be able to have a very high degree of self-governance within a united Sri Lanka" - and why they don't have any of this, even after sixty years of ethnic strife.
 
The contradictions in Mr. Blake's statements are reflective of international hypocrisy vis-à-vis the oppression of the Tamils. Despite the solemn moralising on human rights, on ‘grievances’, on dignity and so on, the international community in fact has very little commitment to these things. In short, if the Tamils can be militarily disciplined and their demands silenced, then that'll do just fine; international interests can proceed undisturbed.
 
A little reflection on recent history is in order to put things in perspective. To begin with, the US-led international community approached the Norwegian peace process with cynicism and insincerity. Rather than seizing the moment and making the restoration of the Tamils' dignity and self-rule their focus, the international community made the weakening and marginalizing of the LTTE their preoccupation. Why is why, despite everyone agreeing it was a military 'stalemate' that forced negotiations, the US took the lead in rearming and reconstituting the Sri Lankan military. According to Brian Blodgett, an American military scholar, within the first year of the talks, 2002, the Navy and Air Force doubled in size, the Army's artillery firepower was doubled and tank strength tripled. Mr. Blake's predecessor, Jeffrey Lunstead, boasted of this as the US's contribution to peace.
 
Quite apart from this, whilst maintaining the suffering of the Tamils in the Northeast, the international community worked to restore the war-damaged economy and strengthened Colombo's hand as much as possible. In short, the international community made it possible for the Sri Lankan state to confidently resume its war against the Tamil rebellion to Sinhala rule. And before Colombo resumed its onslaught, the international community moved to hamper the LTTE's ability to resist: this is essentially what the bans by the EU and Canada were about. As any fool knows, without the LTTE, there is no question of the Sinhala state making any 'concessions' to the Tamils. So much for 'a very high degree of self-governance', let alone 'a sense of respect and dignity.'
 
The problem, as is also blatantly clear, is Colombo still can't do it. Despite being given as much firepower as it can deploy, unlimited logistical support and, above all, the political space to inflict the suffering and terror necessary to compel the Tamils to give up their demands, the Sinhala state has failed to crush the Tamil rebellion. Of course, the military question is still unresolved and there is still hope in Colombo and in many other capitals of the world that the Sinhalese can do their part, but there is no longer the confidence that engendered the arrogance with which Tamil suffering has been repeatedly dismissed over the past two years. By giving Sri Lanka the means and, thereby, the encouragement to smash the Tamil struggle - and its demands for justice - militarily, the international community is responsible for the unfolding catastrophe.
 
However, even when it comes to seeking a negotiated solution to Sri Lanka's crisis, the international community prefers to somehow make the LTTE the problem. Mr. Blake wants the LTTE to give up its demand for Tamil Eelam and accept a united Sri Lanka - as if it is the Tamils' demand for independence which is the fundamental problem, rather than the racism of the Sri Lankan state which has, over sixty years, pursued a project of Sinhala supremacy in constitutional and military terms.
 
Thus, not only is the international community not committed to a negotiated solution in principle, it is also not committed to defending the Tamils' rights vis-à-vis state oppression or racism. Indeed, it was Ambassador Lunstead's predecessor, Mr. Ashley Wills, who grandly suggested in 2003, during the peace process, that it was time for the LTTE to disarm because "now that the world is paying attention to Sri Lanka as never before, the international community will be watching closely to see that no one's rights gets abused systematically." Well, history - and that includes the track record of the international community as well as the Sri Lankan state - have revealed the hollowness of such external assurances.
 
The point is this: as much as the Tamils may want it, genuine prospects for a lasting negotiated peace in Sri Lanka are nowhere in sight, irrespective of the noises international actors make. They will only improve when the Sri Lankan state's sword is blunted in the battlefields of the north and it turns - as in 2001- to the international community to rescue it from a predicament of its own making. Even, then, rather than assurances, it is only when the international community takes concrete steps to discipline the Sri Lankan state that the Tamils can take international claims of wanting peace seriously. At present, whilst an imposed solution is in the interests of everyone except the Tamils, a just solution is, conversely, only in the interests of the Tamils.