Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Symptom, not the Problem

It has now become widely accepted internationally that human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan security forces and allied paramilitaries are widespread and routine. Sri Lanka has come under intense criticism by international human rights groups as well as some leading Western states. The Tamil Diaspora, which has for the past quarter century been protesting and lobbying international capitals, has understandably gained some comfort from the strongly worded criticism from some host states. However, firstly, this should not be taken as a reduction in support for the Sinhala-dominated state. Secondly, and more importantly, we should not equate ending Colombo's rights abuses with ending Sri Lanka's oppression of the Tamil people. Abuses are only an element of oppression and only a symptom of state racism.

 

For sixty years, the Sinhala-dominated state has discriminated against and violently repressed the Tamils. In 1972 the Constitution was changed to set up a permanent racial hierarchy that posits the Sinhala-Buddhist majority as having a 'first and foremost' place in the island with the other minorities as subordinate. In short, Sri Lanka is deemed a Sinhala country in which the minorities - Tamils, Upcountry Tamils and Muslims - are allowed to stay, provided they understand their place in this hierarchy.

 

Since independence from Britain, Tamil protests against the deepening Constitutional and legislative privileging of the Sinhalese have been met with increasingly violent state repression. This led inexorably - from Tamil demands for equal treatment, to demands for federal autonomy - to insistence on outright independence. That was in 1977. It was when state repression intensified thereafter that militancy emerged. It was following the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom - the worst of five or more such mob attacks - that the Tamil armed struggle turned into a fully fledged war of national liberation.

 

There are several dimensions to state repression of the Tamils. There are the human rights abuses - murder, 'disappearance', torture and rape by the security forces and allied paramilitaries. There is the violent and militarized Sinhala colonization of the Tamils' homeland. For example, whilst the Eastern province had less than 9% Sinhalese in 1948, by 1981 (i.e. before the 1983 pogrom and the mass displacement and killings of Tamils throughout the war) state-backed colonization had ensured Sinhalese comprised 30%. Then there is the way in which the Sinhala military - assisted by the West-led international community - has waged war: massacres of Tamils, mass displacement of Tamils (often followed by settling of Sinhalese in abandoned lands), indiscriminate bombardments of Tamil population concentrations and embargos on food and medicine. Sinhala racism manifests in almost every state decision. For example, after the tsunami, almost all foreign aid was diverted to the Sinhala south, rather than the Tamil and Muslim dominated Northeast.

 

None of all this is new to the international community; it has been integral to the Tamil-Sinhala relationship for decades. Quite apart from the incessant lobbying by Tamil expatriates (most of whom arrived in the West as fleeing refugees), the regular reports from Western embassies, research by countless academics, reports from international human rights groups and media reports, have chronicled the Tamils' persecution in detail. Yet, prioritizing its geopolitical and economic interests, the West-led international community has aided and abetted this Sinhala repression - whilst sometimes making much noise about rights abuses (and usually when the Sinhala leaders resist external interests).

 

There are specific consequences to focusing on human rights as opposed to state oppression. To begin with, reducing the Tamils' suffering to human rights is tantamount to rejecting the Tamils' demand for self-determination; this is because the way to address human rights, in international eyes, is to reform the Sri Lankan state and not 'divide' the country. Secondly, the massive military and economic assistance being extended to the Sri Lankan state is justified under this logic of reform. Supplying further training to the Sri Lankan military means it will be 'more disciplined' and 'less likely to commit abuses', the argument goes. Strengthening the economic base of the Sri Lankan state means 'reducing ethnic tensions'. The state should not be weakened by sanctions, but 'encouraged', by giving it even more aid, to 'improve' its 'governance', its 'accountability' and so on. In short, the logic of 'human rights abuses' thus makes strengthening the Sri Lankan state the solution to Tamils' 'grievances'.

 

This is why when Tamils protest using the language of 'oppression', racism' and 'genocide', the international community responds in the language of 'stopping human rights abuses'. Which is why the Tamils are told to forget about self-determination or Eelam and to focus on making the state 'more accountable'. This is also why, when we speak of 'state repression', the international community instead blames the 'government' - the problem, we are told, is the Rajapaksa regime, not the state per se. Thus, it is to justify and facilitate the ongoing international support for the Sri Lankan state that Tamils are being encouraged to agitate in Western capitals - again, provided they use the language of 'human rights', and not that of 'national self-determination'. In short, our role is to plead with the international community to take up our 'grievances' and to become our 'representatives' vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan state.

 

Which leads to the question of Tamils' support for the Liberation Tigers. When the crisis in Sri Lanka is reduced to 'human rights abuses' and the solution is deemed to 'strengthening and reforming the state', there is no room for armed struggle against the state (i.e. 'terrorism') irrespective of the form of the oppression. Which is why the Europ-ean Union, when banning the LTTE in 2006, insisted the move 'was against the LTTE and not the Tamil people.' This is why the 'War on Terror' and 'a solution acceptable to all Sri Lankans' are deemed to be one and the same.

 

'Human rights abuses' therefore have starkly different meanings for the Tamils and the international community. For the Tamils, the atrocities inflicted on them by the Sri Lankan security forces are a symptom, an indicator of the racist logic of the Sinhala-dominated state; for the international community, they are the problem itself i.e. end the abuses and thus solve the crisis.

 

The demand for Tamil Eelam emerged out of the impossibility of reforming the Sri Lankan state; i.e. the failure over decades of Tamil efforts to bring about change within a united state dominated by a numerical ethnic majority. The Tamil armed struggle emerged out of the violent, militarized repression of this Tamil demand. In the 21st century, the Tamils have been promised international action- most recently under the logic of 'responsibility to protect' - to ensure the Sri Lankan state ends its oppression. But nothing like this has happened. Instead, the Sri Lankan state continues to receive increasing international assistance - military, financial and political.

 

The point here, as we have stated before, is not that human rights are not of value - as a community that has suffered abuses for decades, few appreciate these more. Rather, it is to say human rights cannot be separated from the central political issue - in our case self-determination and liberation from state oppression. To do so is to obscure and - given the dynamics of international action in Sri Lanka - in fact to propagate Sri Lanka's oppression.