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The Liberal Moment

This week the Sri Lankan state celebrated what it hails as the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Several of the liberation movement’s top commanders died in a last stand in Mullaitivu, determinedly resisting the onslaught by 50,000 Sinhala soldiers. The government claims LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan was also killed, but uncertainty continues amid contradictory messages from different LTTE departments. Whilst it remains to be seen what the consequences of a conventional military defeat are for the LTTE, several analysts note the organisation’s substantial untouched capacity for asymmetric warfare. As ever, this newspaper will refrain from military predictions and commentary, but will simply note that never before in the freedom struggle has the LTTE enjoyed its present near hegemonic standing amongst the Eelam Tamils. This stems directly from two interrelated aspects: the unbridled Sinhala chauvinism that culminated this year in the organised slaughter of over 20,000 Tamil civilians, and the cold-blooded support of international actors, including the United Nations, for Sri Lanka’s violent project.

What is clear, therefore, is that Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. So, crucially, is the global liberal project. For decades, the international community, especially the Western liberal democracies, have simply refused to confront the Sinhala chauvinism at the heart of the island’s crisis. Instead, through the frameworks of ‘liberal peace’ - ‘democracy and free markets’ - and, especially, the ‘War on Terror, it has blamed the LTTE solely for the morass. Without the LTTE, it was unshakably believed, compromise, reconciliation and peace were inevitable in Sri Lanka. According to the liberal orthodoxy by which the Sinhala state was allowed – indeed, encouraged and assisted – to violently suppress the Tamil liberation struggle, the absence of the armed group would make possible the advance of democracy, development (free markets), political pluralism, and so on. All good things, it was declared, would come together.

Now, according to Colombo, the LTTE is no more. However, what is taking place is something very different to liberal peace. The Sinhalese, it seems, have little interest in liberalism or in peace with the Tamils. Rather, convinced the Tamils are now defenseless and powerless, the chauvinism that has long been embedded in the Sri Lankan state is rampant, infusing the Sinhala polity (including the UNP, the darling of the liberal peace) and the triumphant Sinhala populace. And it is not only the Tamils, but Tamil speakers more generally, who are being reminded that that they are interlopers in Sinhala-land. President Mahinda Rajapake is talking about a ‘solution’ based on ‘Buddhist philosophy’. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what the Sinhalese and their ‘king’ are thinking of.

Meanwhile, the Tamils of Vanni are being subject to the deprivations last reported in the Balkans of the nineties and memorably inflicted on ‘lesser’ peoples during WW2. In the north, east and the south, Tamil are being harassed and mocked by Sinhala troopers and civilians. For the Tamils, none of this is unexpected. It is an inevitable consequence – indeed, it is merely the ultimate intensification of the exclusionary processes that began at independence and led to the overwhelming mandate in 1976 for an independent Tamil Eelam.

Just as importantly, the Sinhala state is now snarling viciously at the liberal West. Rather than gratitude for the extensive support extended by global liberalism for its murderous project of crushing and disciplining the Tamils, the state is heaping vitriol on the very forces that did the most towards stifling the Tamil political struggle. However, this was also an inevitable consequence. The problem, as we have often pointed out, is that the Sinhala vision for the island long pursued by the state is fundamentally and utterly incompatible with liberal values. The Sinhala hegemonic ambition is not the preserve of a lunatic fringe. It cannot be dismissed as the platform of the JVP, JHU et al. Rather, it is mainstream. It has formed the bedrock of policies enacted by both mainstream Sinhala parties, UNP and SLFP, since the fifties. This is not a ‘Tamil claim’, but extensively documented by several eminent scholars, including those from the Western liberal core.

Some international actors have recoiled in horror. The United States has been the most forthright in the defence of the liberal vision for which so many Tamils have been killed. Britain, France and other Western states have followed Washington’s lead. It remains to be seen what the custodians of global liberalism will and won’t do. Given the long history of Western support for the Sinhala-dominated state, Tamils are right to be sceptical about these states’ commitment to liberal peace. However, if Colombo is to be believed, and the LTTE is no more, then there is no reason all those good things shouldn’t now flow. In other words, the international community has the opportunity to ensure our ‘grievances’ are addressed.

The foremost of these is not a political question, but a quintessentially liberal one: the incarceration and brutalization by the Sinhala state of 300,000 Tamil civilians. The excuse is, as ever, the LTTE. But we don’t see how sobbing toddlers separated from their parents or the elderly dying amid the wretched conditions or tens of thousands of families struggling with disease and starvation require ‘screening’. The Sri Lankan state clearly seeks to humiliate and traumatize the Tamils. However, it is on this process that the efficacy of future Tamil militancy rests. Thus, what the international community does in the near future will have a direct bearing on the conflict.

Secondly, what is clear is that Sri Lanka has deliberately and systematically exterminated over 20,000 Tamils in just four months. The extensive investigations by The Times of London and Le Monde in France have produced a compelling dossier of evidence, for those who still stand by the Sinhala state, which also points to UN officials’ complicity in covering up – and thus enabling the continuation of – the massacres. The UK and others have explicitly called for war crimes investigations. So too has the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay. Tamils who have been in contact with senior UN officials say that the charge of genocide is being debated. The question, however, is what is going to be done. For those (liberals) who think, now that the LTTE is no more, “ethnic reconciliation” and peace will inevitably follow, we point to the Sinhala triumphalism, the escalating state-backed humiliation and, especially, brutalization of the Tamils in the island, and the now concrete polarisation amongst the island’s peoples.

The Tamil people have quite understandably been shaken by the events of the recent past. However amid the despair, the Diaspora has begun to reorganize and regroup. New initiatives and projects are being conceived of and organized to take forward the liberation struggle. Most turn, quite rightly, on greater engagement with the powerful custodians of global liberalism. Our priority, therefore, is to structure ourselves so as to bring our collective intellectual, financial and political resources to bear towards the liberation of our people and beloved homeland. On this, there is a remarkable convergence in sentiment, reflecting renewed unity in purpose. These are, as they say, the worst of times and the best of times. And in the background, of course, Tamil militancy will renew and watch closely the outcome of our efforts.