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Revealing Silence

The much anticipated meeting last week of the quartet overseeing the 'peace process' in Sri Lanka has, unsurprisingly, delivered little substance. There wasn't even a joint statement from the US, EU, Japan and Norway afterwards. There have been vague suggestions of demands for a resumption of peace efforts. The Sunday Times says the Co-Chairs representatives had been 'very critical' of the state of affairs in Sri Lanka. But, tellingly, no concrete action was agreed on. Little wonder - given the diverse and utterly contradictory approaches of the quartet. It is clear that some European countries are dismayed by Sri Lanka's inexorable decline anew into nasty conflict - marked prominently again by indiscriminate and vicious violence against civilians. But other powers are more concerned with their own economic interests or the coherence of the '(global) war on terror.' The demonstrable contempt with which the Sri Lankan government has responded to the Co-Chairs' calls for peace efforts says it all: the international community is, collectively, going to do absolutely nothing to restrain the state's violence.

It has been a while since the Co-Chairs last came together. There was that ambassadorial level event earlier in the year. But what stands out now is the thundering statement that came out after the high-level meeting in November last year. The Co-Chairs then viewed "with alarm the rising level of violence in Sri Lanka that has led to significant loss of life and widespread human rights violations." There was a specific call, too: "We call on both sides to seize the historic opportunity created by the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement to resolve the country's conflict peacefully. Only by committing to sustained and substantive negotiations can the downward spiral of hostilities and human rights violations be reversed."

But at the same time, the US representative, Under Secretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns observed: "I'd just say on behalf of the United States that we have faith in the government and faith in the President [Mahinda Rajapakse] of Sri Lanka. They do want to make peace. We also believe that the LTTE is a terrorist group responsible for massive bloodshed in the country and we hold the Tamil Tigers responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the country." If there was any doubt, he also declared: "We are not neutral in this respect. We support the government."

Those statements outline the context in which the international community's commitment to promoting peace or to restraining Sri Lanka's racially motivated violence ought to be viewed. It should be recalled that at the time of that Co-Chairs meet last November, the Sri Lankan military was continuing a massive onslaught against Tamil Tigers, one which killed and wounded hundreds of Tamil civilians and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. There was absolute confidence amongst a great many international observers the LTTE could be wiped out. It is also worth keeping in mind that this year the US has increased arms sales from $2m to $60m while Britain has sold as much in arms as London donated in post-tsunami aid. Japan's Peace Envoy Yasushi Akashi last month emphatically ruled out cutting aid to Colombo.

The Co-Chairs dissatisfaction with the Sri Lankan government has more to do with clumsy execution of the 'war on terror' than with any principled commitment to resolving Tamil grievances. The confidence that President Rajapakse's military solution inspired has dissipated somewhat - the armed forces are unable to breach the Vanni, despite relentless bombardment and the east remains volatile despite being 'captured' (or to use the parlance the Co-Chairs also adopted last year, being 'cleared') and, meanwhile, the emergence of a Sinhala nationalist emerging not as a viewpoint but the overarching order of things in which Tamils, Muslims and foreigners know their place.

The Tamils know some countries are making a principled commitment to human rights and humanitarian law. But the overarching logic of international engagement in Sri Lanka is self-interest and real politik driven. This is not a howl of moral protest, but acknowledgement of why Tamil suffering continues after so many decades. International interests are achieved through relationships with the state - that means with the Sinhala leadership. As long as Sri Lanka's leaders can convince international community of the efficacy of a military solution, they will receive the financial, military and political support to pursue it. In contrast, in the absence of violent rebellion against the state, why would any of the international community's diverse interests be furthered by standing up against the Sinhala leaders on behalf of the rights of Tamils?