August has been the bloodiest month in Sri Lanka for five years. Hundreds of combatants have been killed and many more wounded in heavy fighting on the Jaffna peninsula. As was the case during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s infamous ‘war for peace’ the details are obscured, but what is clear is that the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers have clashed substantially. War reporting is a difficult matter, particularly when the battlefield is inaccessible and both sides are revealing little. But nonetheless, the fighting has dominated the headlines. The unfortunate consequence of that is the fascination with casualty figures and maps has obscured another grim consequence of Sri Lanka’s armed forces going to war: at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced, hundreds have been killed and many more are wounded.
Whilst trotting out the tired counter-insurgency rhetoric of ‘hearts and minds’ and a glib insistence that Tigers, not Tamils, are the target, Sri Lanka’s military has always been ready to punish the Tamils for the LTTE’s violence. There are several reasons for this. Some argue that the state is fuelled by a ‘just war’ mentality - ‘in defence of the Dharma’, as one respected academic put it. This goes back to the Mahavamsa and posits the Tamils as brazen interlopers on Sinhala soil. Of late, many international voices have been muttering about language rights and anti-discrimination measures as a step - in their misguided view, a big one - towards getting Tamils and the Sinhala-dominated state to accept each other. But the Tamils know it runs much deeper than that. The post-independence history of ethnic relations in the island is one framed by a paranoid, bitter majoritarian loathing of the non-Sinhala minority. It began with the 1956 Sinhala Only and is today enshrined in a majoritarian constitution, a racist bureaucracy and chauvinistic military.
This is why, despite its Buddhist pretensions, the Sinhala state invariably and swiftly resorts to a strategy of collective punishment when faced with what- in moments of forgetful sincerity - it calls ‘Tamil terrorism.’ Embargos on entire districts, bombardments of whole villages and towns, massacres of entire neighborhoods, pogroms. These are the tools Sri Lanka’s state intuitively deploys against the Tamils. The racism is manifest even in peace, though the starry-eyed peaceniks refuse to acknowledge the signs: the police statements in Sinhala the Tamils have to sign, the ready demand Tamil households - not all Sri Lankans, just the interlopers - must register at the local station. Even the Sri Lankan military’s websites publish in English and Sinhala only.
The massive forced displacements of the past month, and the earlier waves that began in April, have all been directed to punish the upstart Tamils for defying Sinhala rule. Some Tamil writers have again raised the charge of genocide. How else to describe a strategy of driving 160,000 Tamils from their homes and then denying them access to food and clean water? How else to describe the readiness with which heavy artillery and air strikes are unleashed against Tamil villages, places of worship and children’s homes? And what other logic can underpin the blocking of aid convoys to the displaced Tamils or the massacre of aid workers seeking to help?
Amidst the international hand wringing over the slide back to war and natural prejudice against the LTTE that has underpinned so much patently useless analysis over the past few years, the reasons for the present escalation have been forgotten. Sri Lanka’s military started this war. It did so most openly on July 21 with a major ground offensive under the pretext of a closed water sluice, of all things. But that clash is the culmination of a three year cycle of shadow violence that has steadily grown in intensity.
The simple fact is that Sri Lanka’s government doesn’t give a damn for international opinion. For a very good reason: the state will always be backed, irrespective of its infractions. Peace conditionality collapsed because the international community gave itself too many excuses. Unfort-unately that has left the Tamil community as exposed (as it always was) to Sri Lanka’s racist ambitions. The violence will now soar. Sri Lanka, unfettered by notions of ‘legitimacy’ will prosecute the war. The LTTE will strike back. It is no good lamenting the slide to the war or calling for both sides to ceasefire. The international community must restrain the state.
Above all, it is the policy of collective punishment that must be stopped. Else Sri Lanka will establish its own norms and develop its own local dynamics. Internat-ional humanitarian law and other international norms will dissolve in a mutually intelligible cycle of atrocity amongst the island’s communities.