Sri Lanka’s Sinhala dominated state is escalating its military campaign to destroy the Tamil struggle. As it does so, its contempt for the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and international humanitarian law is undisguised. As ever, there are two components to Sri Lanka’s strategy – attacking the Liberation Tigers on the one hand and inducing terror amongst the Tamil populace on the other. These elements have always been part of counter-insurgency in Sri Lanka. And they have always had the approval of the international community.
Despite its rhetoric of multi-ethnic plurality the reality is the state of Ceylon/ Sri Lanka has, since independence, functioned on the logic of us-and-them when it comes to the Sinhalese and the Tamils. And the 2002 peace process has pointedly failed to corrode this racial hierarchy. The state’s response to the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami – to ignore the Northeast and prioritise the South – is archetypical. The point was underscored last week by a frustrated Operation USA.
But it is the state’s escalating violence against the Tamil population that is doing most to illuminate contemporary ethnic relations in the island. Sri Lanka’s artillery targeted a refugee camp in Vakarai. At least 40 people were killed and 100 wounded. As ever, mimicking justifications of atrocities in another part of the world, Sri Lanka said it was counter-attacking LTTE gun positions – a claim rejected by international ceasefire monitors and human rights groups who spoke to survivors and residents. But the Army also blocked the ICRC and other aid agencies from the area for several hours. It refused to let the badly wounded civilians out to reach hospital. And for the past six months, the Sri Lankan military has been brazenly blocking food, medicine and other essentials to Vakarai and other Tamil region. The protests of international aid agencies, Tamil parliamentarians and human rights groups have been derisively ignored.
And apart from meting out this collective punishment against Tamils in areas controlled by the Tigers, in its own controlled areas, the state is waging a murderous campaign against anyone even slightly inclined to agitate against it. It is not simply a matter of LTTE cadres or supporters, but anyone dabbling in Tamil political activity. It is inevitable perhaps that parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are targets for the Army-backed paramilitaries and death squads. The assassination of Nadaraja Raviraj, MP, last Friday is, as his colleagues say, an attempt to silence their vocal criticism of the state. But it is more than that. The killing, and the wider campaign of terror, is intended to send a message to the wider Tamil community that it is the state, not the international community or the LTTE that controls their fate.
The begrudging and feeble criticism of Sri Lankan atrocities by the international community is shameful and revealing. It confirms what the Tamil sceptics have always said about the Norwegian peace process – that it is an exercise in counter-terrorism, rather than conflict resolution, that it is about hamstringing the LTTE and bolstering the state, rather than ensuring a just solution. In the past few years, there has been much public berating and lecturing to the LTTE about human rights, child rights, political assassinations and so on. But now these formerly strident voices have gone silent.
The point is that these international principles are raised only when they serve to undermine the Tamil struggle, but not when Tamils are victims. After all, we remember the approving international silence during the ‘war for peace.’ Those days are back. Dozens of ordinary Tamils are being murdered each week. Tens of thousands are being harried daily by military bombardment. Hundreds of thousands of our people are suffering shortages of food and medicine.
And it is the international community’s tacit collusion in this onslaught that we must come to terms with. The Sri Lankan state is behaving in the same manner it always has. As President Junius Jayawardene blithely observed in July 1983: “The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here. Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” What the Tamils need to understand is that if such brutality against our people will result in us abandoning our demands for our political rights then the international community will also be happy. Which is why there has been no real pressure on Sri Lanka to desist. Which is why the international response to Sri Lankan violence against us is a mocking call for the state to investigate and punish itself. Which is why, even now, there is no international diplomacy to avert the violence.