As human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan security forces continue unabated, the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has come under severe international criticism - but nothing more painful. Indeed, the collective reaction of the international community to the soaring brutality of the state has been to do nothing - except for the obligatory hand wringing. Since last year it has been an open secret that the United States, which has been actively supporting the Sinhala armed forces since the mid-nineties, gave the Rajapakse regime a clear green light to militarily weaken, if not destroy, the LTTE. The rest of the international community has been content to watch or assist in other ways. It is with this international support behind it that the Sinhala state planned and unleashed a new war in the east last year, displacing 300,000 Tamils, blockading and starving large areas for months, and indiscriminately killing hundreds of civilians. The confidence with which the Sri Lankan military on two separate occasions shelled the chief of the Nordic ceasefire monitors, the SLMM, underscores the impunity Colombo enjoys today.
The point is that international criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses is just that – mere words. This week the EU again dumped its’ much talked about resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Councils– just as has in the two other sessions in the past year. However, even if the EU resolution had been passed (and there was no real expectation that, even if tabled, it would) it would have had no real impact in restraining the Rajapakse regime. This is primarily because the critics are the same international community which is ensuring Sri Lanka has the financial, political and, especially, military assistance to prosecute the war against the LTTE. International dismay over the abuses is genuine – if only Colombo would fight a clean war, their moral dilemmas would end. But the priority for the US and other like-minded states, as President Rajapakse reminded the United Nations this week, is ‘fighting terrorism.’
Whilst pledging its continuing ‘friendship’ the United States this week urged the Rajapakse regime to come up with a political solution to the conflict. Any solution, apparently, would do - the word ‘federalism’ could even be left out, the US helpfully said, tacitly endorsing Rajapakse’s declaration last month that this much hailed compromise on ‘separation’ had now become a ‘dirty word.’ The irony is that whilst the LTTE is vilified for seeking independence (‘extremism’), the Sri Lankan state is encouraged to offer even less than the international community was advocating it had to in 2002. The only reason for this abandonment of federalism is misguided confidence that (i) the LTTE can be militarily marginalized and (ii) without the LTTE, the Tamils would (have to) accept anything going. Whilst the US et al continue the mantra that ‘there is no military solution,’ this is precisely the option they are encouraging and supporting the Rajapakse government to pursue.
This approach turns on a belief, as we have argued before, that the Tamils have no sense of shared political community and would be satisfied with ‘more development’ of the Northeast. Furthermore, the Sinhala leadership and, now, the international community explicitly link the viability of the Tamil liberation struggle with the LTTE’s military standing. The LTTE, it is argued, has ‘lost’ the east and is under military pressure. Ergo, the Tamil struggle is weakened and the Tamils will accept a much lower extent of power-sharing. As ever, we will not join the burgeoning ranks of military analysts on Sri Lanka, but simply point out that the LTTE has been written off (and written out) many times in its 30 year history.
The irony is that amid this sanguine belief in (even anticipation of) a military victory, there is no consideration of what is rapidly happening to Sri Lanka’s socio-political fabric - or what this means for the future of war and peace in the island. The Sinhala chauvinism that successive southern leaders have concealed to varying degrees is now naked. From the abandon with which the all-Sinhala military blasts Tamil villages at will to the arrogance with which Tamils and Muslims areas in the east are being systematically colonized by state-backed Sinhalese, the racism endemic to the Sri Lankan state is now uninhibited. At no stage in Sri Lanka’s past has the polarization of Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities been more acute; the Sinhalese versus the minorities (all of whom speak Tamil).
From the outset, the Tamils have been arguing that their grievance is (Sinhala) state oppression. The demand for a greater say in running the post-colonial state was not to get better access to resources, but to halt the Sinhala chauvinism that was rapidly permeating it. The 1956 Sinhala Only ‘revolution’, as President Rajapakse proudly refers to it, was not about a problem of economics, but of identity – who is a legitimate inheritor of the island and who is not. The Sinhalese have collectively failed to acknowledge the Tamils as founding race of the island and, more importantly, the post-colonial state. The initial Tamil demand for power-sharing at the centre was an effort to secure their birthright. The escalation to a demand for federalism was an effort to prevent the dismemberment and colonization of their homeland. The demand for outright independence (and that was made long before the militants took charge) was a final bid to escape the total institutionalization of Sinhala supremacy in the 1972 constitution.
However, some members of the international community have opted to see Sri Lanka’s conflict simply as one of two abstract extreme demands – the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ insistence on a unitary state and a ‘Tamil nationalist’ demand for independence. Based on this abstraction they have urge both sides to ‘compromise’ and have proposed all manner of solutions based on a different points in a perceived continuum between these two extremes. But, to reiterate, the Tamils began demanding independence as a means to escape (Sinhala) state oppression, not as an arbitrary political ambition in itself.
In a misguided belief the LTTE can be forced to negotiate (and there is curiously no consideration of the sustainability of a ‘solution’ induced thus) for something short of independence, the international community has allowed the full blown emergence of the very state racism that triggered the Tamil freedom struggle in the first place. The past two years have been critical ones; Sri Lanka’s state, polities and communities are being slowly but steadily transformed. As the ethnic polarization escalates, the limited communal linkages that survived through the three decades armed conflict are snapping. Ethnic hierarchy is being writ large – from the ceremonies of state to interaction on the street, what else explains when ‘the army’ becomes, for ordinary Sinhalese, ‘our army’?
To reiterate, the Tamil struggle emerged as a reaction to (Sinhala) state oppression. Amid the frustrations at the impotence of democratic processes in stemming the racism, the armed struggle emerged (primarily post 1983) as a reaction to state terror. Now both Sinhala racism and state terror are rampant, unrestrained by either international norms or international action. The consequences on Sri Lanka’s sociopolitical fabric will be powerful and long-lasting. Amid these dynamics does the argument the LTTE is weakened still make strategic sense?