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Sign of the Times

Even amidst the wider escalation of violence in the past few weeks, the anti-Tamil rioting by Sinhala thugs supported by the Sri Lankan security forces marks a new nadir, reiterating, as it does, the enduring nature of Sinhala chauvinism in the island state. The first victims of contemporary Sinhala supremacy were Muslims, targeted in 1915 by Sinhala thugs egged on by monks envisaging a Sinhala-Buddhist utopia. Anti Tamil riots have occurred in every decade since independence - 1956, 1958, 1966, 1977 and, most savagely, in the pogrom of 1983, where three thousand people were slaughtered in an orgy of rape and murder. There have been other, smaller incidents, such as Bindunuwewa.



Last week’s violence in Trincomalee were almost a carbon copy of the dynamics of ‘Black July,’ bitter memories of which were instantly revived amongst Tamils. The Sinhala thugs who attacked Tamil and Muslim villagers were transported to the target areas by military vehicles. The security forces looked on as the killings and torchings were carried out. The violence was systematic and organised.



And just as in 1983, when President Junius Jayawardene, whose government organised the pogrom, maintained an impassive silence, so last week, President Mahinda Rajapakse didn’t say a word. Despite Tamil outrage and fear, there no apology, no assurances of protection, no commitment to prevent reoccurrences, no promises of investigations. Nothing. And it is reported that it was blunt intervention by India’s government that even prompted Rajapakse to call off the attackers.



The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has condemned the riots, as have the Lib-eration Tigers. The word genocide was immediately raised in Tamil characterisations of the event. The term is no hyperbole; it is used, not because of the scale of the violence - only a dozen people died before India intervened - but because of its specific dynamics: violence by one community, supported by the state armed forces, against another. Even the international monitors of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mis-sion, describing the town as ‘out of control,’ expressed justifiable fears of the violence spreading to the rest of the island. So much, then, for the communal reconciliation that peacniks often assert is waiting to erupt in the wake of a political solution to the conflict being reached.



The Trincomalee riots have touched a still very raw nerve amongst Tamils in the homeland and in the Diaspora. There is palpable rage at the attack and frustration over the absolute ineffectiveness of the international community to contain the Sinhala chauvinism that the Sri Lankan state is, for us, visibly shot through with - indeed, there is almost a dogmatic refusal amongst international actors to even recognise this racism. Meanwhile, this is not only a matter of the state. This paper has, at several times in the past few years, warned of a deepening chasm between the Sinhala community and the island’s minorities, particularly the Tamils. As with many other Tamil protests, these have been dismissed as inevitable utterances of ethno-nationalists. Yet there are frequent indications of the communal polarisation, from the surveys by some Colombo think tanks, to the repeated victories of the pro-autonomy TNA in parliamentary and local government elections. The series of mass demonstrations under the ‘Pongu Thamil’ banner have also been ignored.



The international community’s determi-ned refusal to recognise the all encompassing and insurmountable racism within the state, coupled with its procedural, even formulaic, approach to peacemaking has resulted in absolutely no progress in four years. Meanwhile, an insistence on repeatedly blaming the LTTE for the failures of the peace process while simultaneously absolving the Sri Lankan state has emb-oldened the Sinhala leadership to actively pursue the military option, confident as Colombo is, of international support for a punitive war against the Tigers.



This dynamic has severely undermined Tamil confidence in the international community and international norms as credible deterrents to aggression by the state (the intervention by India is, however, a welcome exception). The profound insecurity that has resulted from this statist international attitude has, for Tamils, positioned the LTTE as the only actor capable of defending their interests. In response to Tamil fears - sparked by the naked aggression exhibited by the armed forces and exacerbated by the Trincomalee riots - the Tigers have issued an unmistakable warning, one that comes amid the general degradation of security and peace in the Northeast: “If the genocidal attacks by armed forces [and] Sinhalese hoodlums continue, we would be forced to take steps to safeguard the lives and properties of innocent Tamil people. That would lead to undesirable serious consequence for the current peace process.”