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A Time of Change

The pointedly symbolic visit to Sri Lanka, in between those to Pakistan and India, by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has inevitably sparked considerable analysis as to the implications for politics, broadly defined, in the island, the region and indeed, internationally. In the recent past Iran, long in the background of Sri Lanka's dynamics, has come into the limelight as forcibly as has China. Conversely, under President Mahinda Rajapakse, the Sinhala state is making a deliberate shift to the East and away from the West. Such realignments are, of course, never absolute. Contemporary international relations are characterized by schizophrenia whereby the modern state engages in both competition and cooperation with both ally and enemy. Nonetheless, there are specific logics inherent to the Sri Lankan state's ongoing transition. In short, the long-term interests of the Sinhala-nationalist project at the heart of the post-independence Sri Lankan state are incompatible with Western ambitions of global liberalism and are better served in the company of states committed to non-interference in each others' 'internal affairs'.
 
The Tamil struggle against state oppression became an armed conflict during the Cold War and was promptly caught up in it. Sri Lanka's swing to the West under President Junius Jayawardene earned the Tamil militants both Western condemnation as 'terrorists' and India's active support against the Sinhala state. The armed struggle continued after the Cold War ended and global liberalism - i.e. the spread of liberal democracy and market economics - became a project pursued with evangelical zeal by powerful Western states. In this context, the Tamil armed struggle was never going to be anything but 'terrorism', no matter what horrors the Sri Lankan state visited on the Tamil people. Indeed, the latter was excused precisely because it was inflicted in the cause of 'fighting terrorism'.
 
The point here is that whether international actors supported or opposed the Tamil liberation struggle had less to do with what Tamils did or said than with whether their struggle and its outcome served the relevant external actor's interests or not. This is still the case. For many years, the Tamils were solemnly lectured on liberal values by leading Western actors - even as they unabashedly backed the Sinhala state's oppression. This hypocrisy has been naked in the past decade the West repeatedly went to war all over the world in the pursuit of its own geopolitical and geoeconomic interests. The legitimating rhetoric was those of human rights, freedom, even peace. But the interests being pursued were all too often clearly visible through the veil of liberalism.
 
Under President Rajapakse, the Sinhala state's ethnomajoritarian ethos has became overt and overarching. Which is why the state can abuse human rights, crush media freedoms and roll back the liberal order's hard fought gains in the island and yet retain the enthusiastic support of the majority of Sinhalese. At the same time, the emergence of new poles (with their own interests and values) has raised serious challenges to the West's interests as well as the ideological values it has promoted in the service of those interests. With Western states ideologically and institutionally committed to engineering a specific configuration of liberal democracy (consider what happens when non-Westerners use democratic means to endorse leaders and actors the West doesn't like) and free market economics, the Sinhala state knows it can never be at peace within a liberal order.
 
Irrespective of whether the state defeats the Tamil Tigers or not, Sinhala majoritarianism (and its attendant consequences of ethnic and religious marginalisation of Tamils and, of late, Muslims) will inevitably remain in tension with the liberal order. Sinhala hegemony needs external partners unconcerned by these consequences. The logics of aid conditionalities (political or economic), notions such as 'responsibility to protect', 'power-sharing', solutions 'acceptable to all communities' etc. will simply not do. Which is why we argue that Sri Lanka's turn to China, Iran and other like-minded states - in the sense of non-interference in 'internal affairs' - is decisive. There will be relations with the West but, as many of them are already lamenting, the global liberalists will have less and less leverage.
 
None of this is new to the West, its challengers, the Sinhala state or the Tamil liberation project's leadership. Realpolitik has always been the order of things. It's just more overt now. This is not to predict that things are going to be either better or worse for the Tamil liberation struggle, but to argue that both new opportunities and new challenges will come our way.