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Same, Same

In the past few weeks Sri Lanka has come in for considerable criticism for the widespread human rights abuses by its security forces. Human Rights Watch published a detailed attack on the campaign of 'disappearances' being conducted against the Tamils (mainly). The United States’ State Department published its 2007 Country report slamming the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse for a range of ongoing abuses. The international panel observing Sri Lanka's 'investigations' into a select handful of extra-judicial killings stormed off, protesting obstruction by the government.

However, as always, this cacophony isn't going to amount to much because there will almost certainly be precious little by way of action. Yes, some countries have 'cut' aid to Sri Lanka - meaning they've stopped aid for now. Firstly, these states do intend to resume their aid at some less embarrassing moment in future. Secondly, they know that the shortfall will be more than made up by Japan and the new donors such as China.

When the Serbian military attacked Kosovo in the late nineties and drove 230,000 Albanians from their homes, the international community howled 'ethnic cleansing' and launched military action to force it out of the province. Yet when the Sri Lankan military launched a similar onslaught in 2006 against the Tamils of the Eastern Province, displacing almost 300,000, there was only silence - save the denunciations of the Liberation Tigers. Indeed, as soon as the Sinhala military announced the 'liberation' of the East in mid-2007, the democracies of the West announced their readiness to support Rajapakse's 'War of Development'.

We raise these points for two reasons; firstly to put the present international criticism in perspective and, secondly, to point out the futility of expecting the international community to respond to our suffering. To begin with, the present pressure on Sri Lanka to abandon the military option and pursue a political solution has more to do with the fierce Tamil Tiger resistance the US-trained military is struggling to overcome in the northern battlefronts. Whilst there is precious little 'independent' information from the warzones, one point is becoming increasingly clear: the military is unable to take and keep much ground. The offensives in Jaffna, Mannar and Manal Aru are bogged down. This is why various international actors are now fretting.

The strident criticism of late therefore has more to do with Sri Lanka's defiance of international advice than any genuine concern for Tamil suffering. After all, how is the present different to the past two decades? Remember the 'Chemmani mass graves'? In 1996 alone the Kumaratunga regime presided over the 'disappearance' of at least 600 Tamils in Jaffna. Yet, has the international community, which now makes much of 'responsibility to protect', ever taken this up, even during the halcyon days of the peace process? When the Sri Lankan military displaced hundreds of thousands of Tamils during Kumaratunga's 'War for Peace', did the international community pressure the state to stop? When the Tamil towns of Kilinochchi, Paranthan, Mankulam and Chavacachch-eri were blasted into the ground, did any international actor protest, let alone act?

The Sri Lankan conflict is an 'international issue' when it comes to containing and destroying the LTTE but an 'internal matter' (i.e. for the Sinhala state) when it comes to establishing a just solution. For six decades, the international community has dealt with a fiction: Sri Lanka the liberal democracy under attack from a violent Tamil insurgency. Under this logic, the problem is the Tamils, not the state. It is the demand for independence that is the problem, not the structural (discrimination, exclusion, persecution) and physical violence (military offensives, embargos on food and medicine) that the Tamils are being subjected to by the state.

The point here is the futility of Tamils appealing to the international order on the basis of their 'reasonableness'. In short, the international community is not interested in our problems; there's money to be made and geopolitical interests to be pursued. Over the past two years, numerous Tamil actors have taken up the plight of their people with the international community, especially the Western states. Yet there has been no substantive effort to crack down on the Sri Lankan state. This is not to say such efforts should be abandoned.; indeed, in the spirit of hope with which these are taken up, they must be followed through to their end. Rather, it is to ask why is that in response to all this lobbying, instead of taking up the Tamils' demands with the Sri Lankan state, the international community instead continues to insist, as it always has done, that it is up to the state to offer us a solution?