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Oppression and resistance; Sri Lanka's unchanging reality

Last month in the dormitories of Jaffna University, a group of students humbly lit candles in a modest yet daring act of remembrance. The brutal crackdown that followed and the ongoing state of heightened terror across the Tamil homeland, is yet another indication of the enduring ethnic conflict that has driven the island’s politics and will also shape the politics to come. The events surrounding the Jaffna University students’ remembrance present a microcosm of the ground realities; a paranoid ethnocracy attempting to forcibly establish Sinhala-Buddhist order upon an unyielding Tamil nation that remains defiant.
 
Three years since the brutal end of the armed conflict, there is now growing international acknowledgement that Sri Lanka has yet to reach a state of peace. The Sri Lankan state’s intensified crackdown in the Tamil homeland has led to expressions of concern and criticism from international actors, along with global acts of solidarity from Tamils in the Diaspora. However, international concern can only effect a meaningful change in the island’s poisoned ethnic relations if it tackles the rationale of Sinhala supremacy that underpins the state’s behaviour; a rationale long recognised by the Tamils.
 
The brutality of the Jaffna crackdown is indicative of the Sinhala polity’s edgy apprehensiveness. Paranoid about threats to the Sinhala Buddhist order, the Sinhala state is swift to quash any flicker of Tamil dissent. There are no bounds to the measures that can be taken. From the frenzied destruction of cemeteries, to armed troops forcibly removing bells from temples and the raiding of student dormitories, not a single act of Tamil national remembrance will be permitted. Even the most miniscule act of defiance, the tiniest candle in the smallest room, will provoke an overwhelming backlash from the state.
 
The predictable invocation of the ‘terrorism’ label is simply part of the ongoing attempts to crush all and any perceived threats to the Sinhala ethnocracy. The labelling of Tamil dissent as 'terrorism' is not a new phenomenon, but a well worn tactic that has persisted throughout the post-independence history of Sri Lanka, and continued long after the end of the war. This has not been limited to those on the island either. Tamils in the Diaspora are now labelled as the 'rump of the LTTE' and 'terrorist supporters'. The terrorist label is even extended to non Tamil critics of the Sinhala state characterised as 'white tigers' and worse. The rhetoric is of course intended to slur, defame, delegitimise and criminalise perceived threats to the Sinhala order.
 
For the Tamils, the current behaviour of the state follows a long and well established pattern of violent repression. And it was in spite of this that these poignant acts of defiance were held. The lighting of candles that day was a modest act of mourning and remembrance that also expressed the tenacity of Tamil aspirations, persistent amidst intensifying Sinhala oppression. It showed resolve, resilience and resistance.
 
As Sinhala oppression intensifies, Tamil defiance will continue to be intractable, despite the faltering Tamil leadership in Colombo. The recent comments made by the TNA leader, R Sampanthan, in which he deployed the Sinhala state’s language of ‘terrorism’ demonstrates how utterly out of sync he is with Tamil sentiments on the ground. Limited by his fixation with Colombo’s parochial politics, Sampanthan is also fast losing touch with shifting international realities. In short he is rapidly becoming an 'unspeakable nonentity’, joining other Tamil apologists for Sinhala ethnocracy who have long since faded from memory or sunk into irrelevance.
 
As the New Year unfolds, Sri Lanka’s reality will continue to be defined by the persistence of Tamil aspirations for self rule amidst increasingly frantic Sinhala oppression. The state will continue its violent pursuit of Sinhala Buddhist order across the Tamil homeland but it has not and will not succeed in securing Tamil submission. Those in the international community who are genuinely committed to securing lasting peace and stability must now work to contain the Sinhala ethnocracy, for as long as it remains unchecked, oppression will intensify. And, as students in Jaffna have clearly demonstrated, so too will resistance.