Sri Lanka's war might be an 'internal' conflict, but it has long had plenty of international participants, with the state enjoying the active of support of both regional and international allies in its efforts to destroy the Tamil rebellion against Sinhala hegemony. In the past thirty years, the Sri Lankan armed forces have been able to inflict unspeakable atrocities on the Tamil people with little more, in effect, than occasional murmurs of discomfort from the international community. The anti-Tamil pogroms of the first three decades since independence gave way, once the Tamil militants emerged in the early eighties, to massacres,
extrajudicial killings, torture and rape of Tamils by the Sinhala military. Once the militants established liberated zones where the Sinhala government's bloody writ no longer ran, blockades and indiscriminate bombardment became a norm. The relationship between Tamils and the state, long defined by inexorably deepening Sinhala racism and exclusion, thus became one of violence: oppression by the state and resistance by the Tamils.
Whilst this is the lived experience of the island's Tamils - a third of whom have been driven from their homes, either internally displaced or refugees abroad, by the state military - the international community insists on a different interpretation of the dynamics. It is not oppression, but merely poor governance, they say. Ethnic tensions stem not from state-institutionalized racism, but underdevelopment and competition for resources. So whilst the international community accepts the Tamils have 'grievances', there is a different view of what these are. In other words, there is, crucially, a different take on what the root causes of this conflict are. This difference will have profound implications for Sri Lanka. As it has done for the past so many years, it will continue to perpetuate and intensify the conflict. This is because international policy prescriptions and actions will, instead of attenuating tensions and creating the conditions for ethnic equality and thus peace, instead continue to support Sinhala dominance and oppression which will, in turn, fuel Tamil resistance. Sri Lanka is far from the cataclysmic violence of Iraq. But there is no reason to assume the present cyclical dynamics, boosted by international action, will not eventually take the island there.
Amid a view that sees underdevelopment, rather than state racism as fuelling ethnic tensions, the international solution is inevitably more development and, therefore support for the Sri Lankan state. This approach automatically defines the Liberation Tigers simply as a security problem, an obstacle to development and thus to peace. This thinking - the security-development nexus - has emerged in the past few years as an operating principle of Western intervention in third world conflict zones. The Sinhala state has exploited this theory to enlist the international community's support in crushing the Tamil rebellion and consolidating its hegemonic project - for example in colonizing the Tamil homeland (in the guise of 'development') and greater repression of the Tamil community (in the cause of establishing 'security').
Moreover, today, the conflict in Sri Lanka has been misrepresented as simply one of extreme and unbridgeable demands - the Sinhala ultra-nationalists insisting on a unitary state on the one hand and the LTTE demanding an independent state on the other. But the cry for Eelam came well before the LTTE's armed struggle. It emerged in the mid-seventies under the electoral banner of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which swept the Northeast in the 1977 elections on a vow to pursue Tamil independence. Crucially, the demand for Eelam emerged (by way of an initial demand for federal self-rule) in response to the very reasons it, and support for the armed struggle, have intensified since: deepening Sinhala oppression and escalating state violence.
Earlier this week the outgoing British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Dominick Chilcott, explicitly set out the international community's present stance on Sri Lanka. The Sinhala state is not racist, but simply needs to do more to protect human rights, he said. Britain will "help the Sri Lankan government find the way forward to peace and development." Crucially, he stated, there is no need for the Sri Lankan state to negotiate with the LTTE. Instead, it must work with Tamil 'moderates'. By moderates he means the paramilitaries who have been collaborating with the Sinhala state's oppression and the politicians who, after the LTTE is destroyed, will be compelled to accept whatever the Sinhala state tosses their way.
Mr. Chilcott suggested Britain's experience in Northern Ireland had bearing on Sri Lanka's conflict. But it should be recalled that the IRA's struggle was against British rule, (not the Loyalist community). In other words, what is today called the Northern Ireland 'peace process' is actually negotiations within the region which began after the core issue - the end of British rule - had been agreed in principle. Those familiar with Northern Ireland also know full well the role of the British state in pressuring the recalcitrant Loyalists into going along with this decision. Lessons for the Tamils, certainly, but not those Mr. Chilcott intends.
Last month twenty five thousand British Tamils joined the rest of their community around the world in remembering those who have fallen in the Tamil liberation struggle. They did so despite widespread fear and terror (characteristics, incidentally, which Mr. Chilcott attributed to the LTTE's rule) stemming from the British state's banning of expressions of support for the LTTE. Their protest underlines the groundswell of Tamil support for self-rule, for independence. This insistence for Eelam is not some romantic whim, but a longstanding expression of rejection of Sinhala rule. Moreover, the LTTE is not the architect of this demand, but has, perhaps inevitably, become the vehicle for its delivery.
The Sri Lankan state will draw encouragement from the reiterated British support and intensify its war against the LTTE. Like Mr. Chilcott, we will not speculate on military matters, but note that there will either be a just peace or none at all.We can safely predict the intensification of Sinhala domineering and racism in the coming years. Confident the Tamil rebellion can be crushed, the Sri Lankan state will destroy the vestiges of communal amity and polarize the island's communities, ironically laying the ground for furtherance of the LTTE's project. Indeed, the greater the state's efforts to secure a military project, the further away from communal harmony the island will slide. As for the violence, it will not simply end. As Mr. Chilcott himself pointed out, "even if the LTTE are badly beaten, the conflict will continue in a different guise." A glance around the world's present hotspots indicates Sri Lanka's future.
In the meantime, it is a pity that Mr. Chilcott had nothing charitable to say last week about the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who have settled in UK and count themselves British citizens. Their High Commissioner spoke only of law and order problems, of asylum problems, of overstayed visas. He could have talked about the massive contribution British Tamils make to the UK's National Health Service, about the community's economic successes and its unique contribution to multicultural Britain. It is possibly a reflection of the amity between the Sinhala state and Britain that such matters were not worthy of his mention.