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Representing Tamils

The outcomes of Sri Lanka’s forthcoming parliamentary elections are inconsequential to the island’s future. April’s polls will merely further consolidate the island’s already entrenched majoritarianism and state structures of Sinhala oppression. The emphatic – and utterly predictable - outcome of the Presidential election makes this clear. The Tamils, meanwhile, will continue to resist Sinhala oppression. Moreover, the turn to armed struggle in the seventies came after three decades of increasingly meaningless parliamentary Tamil politics.

 

Notably, with just over a week to go before the polls, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Mr. David Miliband, has released a video-statement outlining what London considers Sri Lanka’s priorities ought to be “in the months and years ahead”. He began his statement by obliquely criticizing Tamil armed resistance. It was “through politics, … not violence” that “social and economic change occurs,” Mr. Miliband opinioned, adding that “violence doesn’t serve any of the communities in Sri Lanka.”

 

This is all well and good. But the problem in Sri Lanka, as the Tamils have repeatedly made clear, is the utter impossibility of peaceful change from within the entrenched Sinhala ethnocracy.

 

To begin with, the Tamil-speaking Northeast accounts for less than thirty seats in the 225-seat Parliament. The Sri Lankan Parliamentary system is thus not intended as a mechanism for resolving contradictions in society, but is deliberately geared towards the perpetuation of Sinhala majoritarianism. Any constitutional change, moreover, needs a two thirds majority – and a popular referendum. And the one thing the Sinhalese are united on is not sharing power with Tamils. Since independence from Britain, the Sinhala people have consistently voted for the party that more convincingly makes the case for advancing Sinhala dominance. The ‘Sinhala Only’ vote of 1956 is emblematic.

 

Secondly, the state has since shortly after independence been restructured to serve Sinhala interests, which include weakening and dismantling Tamil and Muslim socio-economic capacity. At a basic level, the state civil service has largely been purified of Tamils, especially in its centres of power. The military has been entirely Sinhala since well before the war began in the eighties.

 

The point of repeating these often-made points is to underline the irrelevance of looking for opportunities for ‘peace’ in gradual changes from within, and especially, in the outcomes of Sri Lanka’s elections: whatever the outcome, for six decades, Sinhala majoritarianism has advanced. In short, the Sinhala state is not just unconcerned by Tamil grievances, its very raison d’etre, as set clearly set out in the constitution, is to ‘protect and foster’ Buddhism’s ‘first and foremost’ place in the island’s social and political life.

 

Especially in this context, but as ever, the Tamil political parties matter little to the island’s internal dynamics. Thus, even if a free and fair election was possible in this violent ethnocracy, the only purpose served by the Tamil people electing any representatives to Sri Lanka’s Parliament is to represent, yet again, their long-standing political aspirations to the international community. This, lest it be forgotten, was precisely why the people voted so enthusiastically for the then newly formed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the 2001 and again in 2004.

 

In this context, rather than engage in hair-splitting debates over possible constitutional models or the definitional nuances of ‘nation’, ‘nationalities’ and so on, aspirant Tamil representatives should, in seeking (re)election, firstly, make clear what the Tamils’ legitimate political aspirations are and, secondly, focus on concrete strategies to secure decisive action by the international community. If they can’t, or won’t, such representatives are not fit for purpose.

 

Even after sixty years, intensified Sinhala repression has only led to intensified Tamil resistance. This cycle will not be broken from within, but from outside the state’s political and constitutional system. All Tamil actors, including those surviving as extensions of Sinhala rule, know this well. The Tamil armed struggle (the LTTE, lest it be forgotten, was not the only armed movement to emerge) was a vehicle of extra-parliamentary politics.

 

As conflict-sites all over the world have proved time and again in recent decades, the smothering of armed resistance by overwhelming state violence is no bar to its reignition, especially when no meaningful peaceful means to address grievances and achieve aspirations are available. In other words, as Clauswitz put it, war is the continuation of politics by other means. His dictum also underlines the idiocy of referring to situations such as today’s Sri Lanka as ‘post-war’.

 

In short, amid Sri Lanka’s ongoing, even deepening, conditions of racialised oppression, international exhortations or demands that Tamils renounce and do not resort to violence are meaningless without concrete, and decisive, external action to defend them and secure their rights against Colombo’s chauvinism.