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Great Expectations - Still

What is striking about Sri Lanka today is not the Sinhala-dominated state's long-standing, brutal and multi-faceted persecution of the Tamil people, but the paralysis of the international community as this now unfolds in plain sight. This week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was quoted as telling Sri Lanka that Colombo's 'failure' to rapidly resettle the nearly 300,000 Tamils incarcerated in militarized camps result in growing 'bitterness'. The Sinhala state, he incredulously suggested, should "win the trust and confidence" of the Tamils. However, it is the international community's bewildered inaction - or, in some cases, continued support for Sinhala oppression - that is foremost in Tamil minds.

 

To begin with, the deprivations being endured today by the Tamils are not new. Whilst the sheer scale of the recent incarceration - almost 300,000 people - and the attendant suffering is striking, even by 2002, when the Norwegian-led peace initiative began, over 800,000 Tamils had been already displaced by Sri Lankan offensives. And even by then Sri Lanka's relationship with the Tamils was characterized by mass graves, 'disappearances', torture and rape. The Sinhala military's cold-blooded mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians between January and May 2009 had its genesis in the frequent mass-killings it has carried out throughout the three decades of war.

 

With the conventional defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil people have turned decisively to the international community to ensure their security and wellbeing in the face of state-led Sinhala repression. Their expectations are based on the norms of global liberal governance that have emerged since 1990, norms that prioritize human rights over state sovereignty and redefine the latter as a responsibility, not a right.

 

In that way, the present Tamil 'turn' to non-violent agitation is not new: well before the Tamil liberation struggle took up arms, the entire range of peaceable efforts had been exhausted without any result: mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, backing parties articulating Tamil grievances, etc. It was amid the utter failure of such efforts - a failure encapsulated in the Sinhala imposition of the 1972 constitution - that the militants emerged.

 

And here is the rub: it was only after the Black July pogrom that armed militancy truly became the vanguard of Tamil resistance. Even though the LTTE had been formed in 1976, it was only in 1983 that a fully fledged Tamil insurgency erupted. The tipping point was undoubtedly the popular sense of despair that gripped the Tamils - and the recognition that no alternative remained. The brief optimism heralded by India’s intervention collapsed as Tamil bodies began to pile up again, this time before Indian guns.

 

Today's global terrain is very different to that of the eighties. Powerful states and an associated international network of NGOs, social movements and multi-lateral institutions have shaped an ever-advancing 'zone of peace' based on liberal democracy and free markets. But this emergent global order has also raised high expectations amongst oppressed people's the world over; expectations not of the repressive states, but of those custodians of international liberal values.

 

The unequivocal statements by some Western states - for example, on accountability for war crimes, provision of security and a just political solution - (belatedly taken up by Mr. Ban Ki-Moon and others) have served to reinforce expectations amongst the Tamil people. Consequently, there has been an explosion in engagement between Tamil Diaspora groups and the international community.

 

It is clear that the latter is no monolith. Tamil groups and international actors appalled and shocked by the brazen cruelty of the Sinhala-dominated state are seeking international action to uphold the norms and laws that have come to define a global liberal order. At the same time, some states and international voices are advocating continued support for the Sinhala state. Their arguments are based on liberal enlightenment emerging eventually at some point to displace the Sinhala racism that swept President Mahinda Rajapakse to power.

 

The point here is that Tamil rage has been checked by very real expectations that international commitment to human rights, the 'responsibility to protect' and ending state repression everywhere will translate into concrete action. Since the defeat of the LTTE, numerous international actors have been warning that Sri Lanka 'risks losing the peace' or that Colombo's failure to address Tamil grievances will result in the reemergence of militancy ('terrorism'). However, the tipping point will come - again - when Tamil hopelessness replaces expectations.