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Perpetual War

It is widely held these days that Sri Lanka’s conflict has reached a ‘decisive’ stage. This pronouncement turns on the belief that the Sinhala armed forces are on the verge of destroying the Liberation Tigers, whereupon the Colombo government would impose a ‘solution’ that the Tamils will simply have to accept. ‘Peace’ is thus close. As ever, we opt not to join the armchair military analysts that are legion Sri Lanka in predicting the future of the battlefield. However, we can confidently assert both that Sri Lanka will not see peace in the foreseeable future and that the Tamil liberation struggle is being reinforced by the very dynamics held to be destroying it. Recognizing that such views are considered by many to be laughably optimistic, if not foolish, our case follows.

 

Before that, it is worth noting that the demise of the LTTE has been pronounced many times before in the past three decades; in the mid-eighties when the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) was starving and blasting the surrounded Jaffna peninsula, in 1987 when the Indian military began its offensive – projected to last three days – to disarm the LTTE, in 1995 when the SLA attacked and occupied Jaffna city and in 1997 when it pursued the LTTE into the Vanni. In all these instances, the self-evident end of the LTTE was based on two things: the overwhelming firepower it was faced with and the hopelessness of its situation made clear by the changing map. In this context, we suggest that analysis without all the facts is mere speculation and that neither the strategy nor the capacity of the LTTE are any more discernible today than they were in 1985, 1987, 1995 or 1997. (We realize, of course, that few non-Tamils credit the LTTE with any strategic foresight).

 

More importantly, we point out – yet again - that the Tamil armed struggle emerged in the context of inexorably rising Tamil outrage and hostility towards the successive Sinhala regimes that have systematically persecuted the Tamils – politically, culturally, linguistically and economically – and unleashed regular bouts of (first non-state and then state) violence against them. The support for Tamil Eelam since the seventies and – separately – support for the LTTE’s armed struggle are thus a direct consequence of Sinhala oppression via the mechanisms of the state. We suggest that Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions are a consequence, not of under- or uneven development, but of chauvinistic state policies and practices which are loathed by the Tamils and, just as importantly, enthusiastically endorsed by the Sinhalese. Thus, with the Tamils facing with the demonstrable impossibility of securing equality by non-violent means, Tamil militancy (what the Sinhalese and the West call terrorism) is here to stay. In that sense, the cycle of oppression and resistance in Sri Lanka is no different to that in Palestine, say, or other parts of the world today. (There was a time when the destruction of the PLO was deemed the way to end the matter.)

 

Thus, the crucial factor in deciding whether ‘Sri Lanka’ will be at peace is whether Tamils and Sinhalese can coexist peacefully in the post-colonial state. In the past few years, the ethnic polarization that has underpinned the practices of the state has become especially acute. In that sense, it is worth remembering even after the economic chaos of 2001, most Sinhalese voted for the warlike SLFP and even with the Muslims, Upcountry Tamils and those Tamils outside the Northeast voting for the ‘pro-peace’ UNP, the party barely scrapped into power. This truth was there for those who cared to look, even though it suited all, including the Tamils, to pretend otherwise. Unfortunately, even making believe that the UNP had a ‘peace mandate’ couldn’t produce the inter-ethnic harmony that the international liberal peace-builders swore was waiting to erupt.

 

In that sense, the naïve faith that many Tamils had placed in the liberal forces of the international community has been thoroughly dispelled now. This week, for example, the European Union was once again anxious to reassure the Rajapakse government – the most openly chauvinist Sinhala regime of the past three decades – that they were keen to continue with business as normal. The relentless tide of extra-judicial killings and ‘disappearances’, the franchising of local governance to paramilitary sovereigns in the Northeast, the ethnic cleansing of non-Sinhalese (that the Muslims, to their alarm, are also suffering) and the naked chauvinism of the state are apparently no impediment to the arch-liberal EU.

 

In short, at no time before has the Tamils’ uniting sense of perilous isolation been more clearly delineated. This, moreover, is a consequence of the actions of the international community as well as the Sinhala state that it is supporting. This is why the wave of popular nationalism spreading through the Tamils – most palpable amongst the Diaspora – is serving to close ranks and swell support for Tamil Eelam and, consequently, the LTTE. The point here is that, for those who look beyond the maps of battlefield to the ‘root causes’ of war or the ‘foundations’ of peace, it should be clear where the island is headed.