Every international actor involved in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict consistently asserts their unalloyed support for ‘peace’ and a negotiated solution. They also invariably insist that it is up to the protagonists themselves to resolve what is termed ‘their’ dispute. But this pious commitment to the abstract notion of ‘peace’ does not disguise their cynical pursuit of their own substantial interests both through the course of the conflict and shaping of its ultimate outcome. Interests in themselves cannot be faulted. However the preparedness of many international actors to sacrifice the aspirations and the well being of the Tamil people in pursuit of their own interests has served to deepen Sinhala oppression and escalate Sri Lanka’s conflict. These dynamics have been brought into particularly stark focus since President Mahinda Rajapakse came to power in Nov. 2005.
The international condemnation of the Liberation Tigers’ armed struggle as ‘terrorism’ is a political act, not moral truth. When civilians die, what is the moral difference between a bomb delivered by truck and one dropped by a jet? And a cursory survey of happenings in war zones around the world raises the question as to who is entitled to be custodian of such ‘universal’ morality? It is international conduct in relation to the contemporary dynamics of Sri Lanka’s conflict that most underlines the ethereality of international humanitarian norms.
Almost all international observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict are agreed that, from a human rights and humanitarian perspective, this is one of the most repressive periods in the island’s post-independence history. And it is the Tamils who are bearing the brunt of the state’s onslaught. On the one hand, Tamils are being abducted and executed or ‘disappeared’ by the state’s military and paramilitary forces. On the other hand, the Tamils are, as a community, being brutalized through deliberate mass displacement and indiscriminate military violence. True, civilians have died in LTTE attacks too. But even a cursory comparison of the scale of the violence reveals that the Sri Lankan state is responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths. And it is the collective sufferings inflicted on the Tamils such as the manifest deprivations of the displaced people and the food and essentials embargoes on Tamil areas that underlines the racism of the Sri Lankan state. President Rajapakse’s administration might be particularly crude in its persecution of the Tamils, but the machinery of state has been oriented thus for decades.
But it is the conduct of international actors during this phase of the conflict that is truly despicable. President Rajapakse’s government may be more chauvinist than any before, but no government has received as much international support as this one. All international action regarding Sri Lanka since Nov 2005 has been directed at undermining and weakening the LTTE and bolstering the state. In the past eighteen months the LTTE was banned by Canada and European Union (Australia is reportedly preparing its own ban) while the US and French authorities have arrested alleged LTTE agents and known pro-LTTE activists. Even Tamil humanitarian organizations are being harassed. The argument is that the LTTE is hardline and intransigent and needs to be forced to the negotiating table and, in any case, has committed acts of ‘terror.’ Even that intransigence – i.e. a insistence on Tamil independence – is a political label. The international community, led by the United States, stridently asserts Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct. Yet the same actors insist that Kosovo deserves independence. Politics, not principles.
In the meantime, the Sri Lankan state – a ‘vibrant democracy’ lest we forget - is free to brutalise the Tamils without any restraint. Indiscriminate bombardment has killed hundreds and driven hundreds of thousands of our people from their homes. They languish in refugee camps a few hours drive from Colombo where international diplomats discuss trade and economic cooperation with Sri Lankan officials. Whilst the majority of Batticaloa’s Tamils suffer abuse and deprivation in military-controlled camps, it is the development of Arumugam Bay as a future tourist resort that draws most international attention. As civilians in Mannar cower under military bombardment, the United States’ anxiety is that Sri Lanka does not have the institutional capacity to exploit the oil deposits off that coast.
The Tamil political struggle emerged from state oppression. The armed struggle emerged from the futility of political agitation against a state and political leadership beholden to majoritarian supremacy. But it also emerged as a consequence of international governments’ refusal to demand the same governance standards of Sri Lanka as their own citizens are entitled to. It sufficed that Sri Lanka was a docile client. Even in the early eighties, it was Sri Lanka’s economic liberalization, not the undisguised persecution of the Tamils that mattered most to the West. The Tamil struggle was merely ‘communist terrorism.’
Nothing has changed. There was a brief period of Norwegian-led surrealism when the Tamils’ problem of racial persecution by the Sinhala-dominated state become transformed into one of ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘human rights protection.’ But when the LTTE refused to do the right thing – i.e. disarm and disband – that project was abandoned and the international gloves came off. The objective remains the same as ever: to force the LTTE to accept the terms Sri Lanka sees fit to offer. The international proscriptions, the highly publicized arrests of suspected LTTE members and activists, the smear campaigns to associate the LTTE with organized criminality are intended to coerce the LTTE to this end.
The LTTE is undoubtedly sensitive to international opinion, but not absolutely so. As much as international analysis may conveniently blame the intractability of Sri Lanka’s conflict on the LTTE leadership’s mindset, there are inescapable realities concerning ethnic relations in this country. And it is the unalloyed international support for the Sri Lankan state that has done most to undermine the moral force on which proscription and other forms of international censure rely. The Tamil struggle emerged and expanded as a direct consequence of rising state oppression. That oppression has continued for decades as a direct consequence of unqualified international support for successive Sinhala governments. The ongoing international actions against the LTTE are not going to promote negotiations, let alone peace. It will spur the state to greater brutality against the Tamils, who will increasingly come to see the LTTE – as even some international actors privately now acknowledge – as the only means of checking the state’s violence. The dynamic of oppression and resistance ensures that it is only when the fundamental crisis at the heart of the chauvinist Sri Lankan state is ended, will the island see peace.