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History Repeats

The bloody confrontations between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tigers that marked late July and August have subsided. But this is a mere pause. Despite the exhortation of the international community, the Sri Lanka military is preparing another offensive in Jaffna. Colombo's determined aggression is fuelled by a confidence that the LTTE is militarily weak. As has always been the preference, the southern polity again believes a military solution is feasible. Consequently, this confidence has underpinned a number of moves by President Mahinda Rajapakse's government that are pointedly antithetical to dialogue, ethnic reconciliation and negotiated peace. The proclivity of Sri Lankan leaders to heap vitriol on the LTTE, even though the former claim an interest in constructive negotiation with the latter, is one. The complete and defiant disregard for international calls for urgent talks is another - along with pointedly derogatory comments about Norway and Oslo's senior facilitators - is another.
 
But perhaps the most telling sign of the nature of the Sri Lankan state is the manifest transformation in its attitude towards the Tamil people. Amid the government's mocking assertions about being concerned about the Tamils' welfare, Colombo's military has unleashed a campaign of terror amongst them. Each week scores of people are being abducted and 'disappeared.' The bodies of many others picked up by the 'white van' death squads are being dumped along roadsides. Many others are being shot out of hand on the streets of the Army-controlled towns in the Northeast. The masked killers depart casually afterwards. These tactics are not new to Sri Lanka - nor indeed to any country that has witnessed a major counter-insurgency campaign where human rights are discarded at the outset. The logic is terror. But it is not merely one of denying guerrillas the support of the public; it is about teaching the upstart minority a lesson on whose country Sri Lanka is.
 
The international community's response to this appalling state of affairs is also straight out of the history books: murmurs of disquiet amid manifest apathy - whilst specific bi-lateral interests are pursued anyway. In the past few years the Co-Chairs - the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway - have hectored much about human rights. Yet amid the Sri Lankan military's sustained campaign of extrajudicial killings, the best the international community can manage is a feeble call to prosecute 'those responsible' and to demand 'independent monitoring.' The call for the latter is, understandably, being made vociferously at the UN's Human Rights Commission in Geneva this week. But, as the Tamils across the Northeast will attest, it is not a question of monitoring, but of protection. With the international community demonstrably unable to restrain the Sri Lankan military from its now undisguised excesses, what is the point of better monitoring?
 
The Sinhala south's confidence that a military solution can be effected also permeates its wider political moves. It remains very much to be seen if the much-vaunted SLFP-UNP arrangement will emerge and, more importantly, if it does whether it will be on a basis that can allow a lasting and just solution to emerge. If there's one thing the entire international community is agreed on, it is that a bi-partisan offer is a sine qua non for a solution. This is true. But, as the international community also insists, any southern offer must meet the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils. The Tamils have ample experience of governance of both mainstream Sinhala parties. The international community has fervently maintained faith in the present UNP leadership. The Tamils know full well why the UNP won't take an open and strong anti-war stance. We also know why the 'main opposition' won't take the lead in mobilizing resistance to the state's militarism or even to the wave of abductions and killings occurring not only in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Vavuniya, but even in the capital.
 

And it is not just that the Tamils doubt the southern polity will come up with a credible powersharing arrangement. More importantly, the Tamils also doubt the international community can hold Colombo to any deal. The past few years have demonstrated the impotence of the international community, including the self-styled Co-Chairs, in this regard. Competing interests, diplomatic orthodoxy and tepid commitment to the Tamils' wellbeing are demonstrably to blame. Just consider the serial failures of agreements reached within the Norwegian peace process - not least the much-vaunted P-TOMS. India is taking a more pro-active approach to peace, but other actors are providing countervailing dyanamics. And amid the prevarication, Sri Lanka's deepest ethnic tensions are surfacing.