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Fostering Hatred

The end to armed hostilities in Sri Lanka that followed the conventional defeat of the Liberation Tigers in May and the movement's declaration last month that it has suspended its armed struggle has led some observers to talk about a 'post-conflict' era. It is in this context that the language of 'reconciliation' has entered the discourse, for example. To begin with, Sri Lanka's conflict is anything but over; on the contrary, it has clearly entered another period of gestation. Unless the international community acts decisively to end Sinhala oppression of the Tamil people and ensures a robust political solution that guarantees the equality of the two nations, there will be neither 'reconciliation' nor peace. Instead, the violent tyranny of the state will lead inevitably to violent resistance anew.

 

Whilst overt hostilities have now ceased, the enmities long-driven by the state's racial oppression of the Tamils are only further intensifying. While Sinhala leaders, drunk with victory, deny there is a political problem to be solved, a chauvinist triumphalism has engulfed the Sinhala people. The polarization between Sinhalese and Tamils that became especially acute over the past few years is being rendered irreversible.

 

This is no 'ancient hatreds' argument, but the contrary. Whilst the Tamils and Sinhalese are long-established nations on the island, Sri Lanka's conflict and crisis is the direct outcome of politics, specifically a chauvinist nation-building project undertaken by Sinhala leaders since independence based on a supposed divinely ordered superiority of the Sinhala over the Tamils and others. This superiority is embedded in the country's constitution, its flag, the composition of its state bureaucracy and military, and above all in the annihilitory trajectory of the policies enacted and violence carried out by the Sinhala-dominated state since 1948. And that was before the Tamil armed struggle erupted in 1983.

 

For decades, Sri Lanka's crisis and conflict has been defined as the consequence of Tamil depends for independence. On the contrary, as a cursory survey of pre-1976 history demonstrates, it is the reverse: the demand for Tamil Eelam flowed directly out of state policies and violence towards the Tamils - policies and violence that are inexorably escalating.

 

The Tamil charge of genocide is no outlandish rhetoric, but a recognition of an existential threat from the Sinhala-dominated state. First there was the state-backed mob violence of the riots and pogroms between 1956 and 1983. In each year since 1983, our people have been slaughtered by the thousand by the armed forces. Throughout the war, under the logic of 'fighting terrorism', hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been starved and denied medicine en masse. Thousands of Tamils have been disappeared, summarily executed, tortured and raped by the state's forces. This is still ongoing in today's 'post-conflict' times.

 

Then there is the unabashed racism institutionalized in state policies, including distribution of health, education and welfare provision. Whilst the Tamils have been marginlised, excluded and impoverished, the state has fostered the Sinhala and Buddhism. This chauvinism was exemplified by how international aid has consistently been denied to the Tamil northeast - especially after the devastating 2004 tsunami. It is amply illustrated today in how Tamil fisherman are prevented by the military from going to sea whilst Sinhalese trawlers fish with abandon off the Tamil coast.

 

The point is this: today's Sri Lanka constitutes the perfect conditions for fostering a future armed conflict. Quite apart from the legacy of the past sixty years, the actions and policies of the Sinhala state are inflicting all manner of deprivation and humiliation on Tamils all over the island. Moreover, these actions and policies are enthusiastically backed by the Sinhala people. Especially amid a conviction Tamil defiance has been militarily crushed, the racism manifests itself in daily interactions between Tamils and Sinhalese and between Tamils and state officials across the island. In short the grievances that drive a future war are to be found especially in the present, not just the past.

 

International aspirations for a united, peaceful Sri Lanka are doomed without decisive action to make it possible. Reconciliation can only be possible from a position of parity. England and Scotland warred for centuries, yet today they are reconciled. It is hardly remarked but fundamental that the unity of the United Kingdom turns on the recognition of the equal worth of four distinct nations and their homelands, and not only on the formal equality of all individuals as citizens. Neither can be dispensed with.