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Coming Contradiction

When Sri Lanka's military finally defeated the Liberation Tigers in May 2009, having also slaughtered tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, President Mahinda Rajapakse and the rest of the Sinhala establishment were confident that not only would the Tamils now meekly acquiesce to Sinhala rule, but so would the international community. They were wrong on both counts. Not only have the Tamils endured the ravages inflicted on them during and after the war, they still stubbornly insist on their demand for self-rule. On the other hand, rather than embrace the Sinhala ethnocracy, the international community is doggedly pursuing its transformation into a liberal market democracy.

Throughout its war against the Liberation Tigers, the Sinhala establishment confused international support for its military efforts - and for Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity - with endorsement of its Sinhala-first governance. To be sure, now as then, there are those, both in the West and elsewhere, who stand with the Sinhala nationalists, rationalizing their policies. However, the broader international community wants change.

Which is why eighteen months after celebrating victory, the Sinhala establishment is caught in a growing nexus of international pressure. On the one hand, international interventions, led by the IMF, are underway to radically transform the economy, long structured to benefit the Sinhalese at the expense of the Tamils. On the other hand, even as he attempts to distract the Sinhalese from the pain of liberalisation with lavish celebrations and ever more promises of good times to come, President Rajapakse is readying for confrontation on another front: international demands for a political settlement with the Tamils.

This week India's External Affairs Minister S M Krishna will make another visit to the island. As an aside, his timing, as some of Sri Lanka's press have noted, is peculiar: avoiding the extravagant celebrations last Friday that accompanied President Rajapakse's swearing in for his second term - an event The Economist rightly likened to a coronation - Mr. Krishna will arrive Thursday and visit the Tamil heartland at an important time in the Tamil political calendar: Heroes Week.

What is more important than what the timing of his visit signifies, however, is what Mr. Krishna raises with Colombo. What India seeks in Sri Lanka, as Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon recently put it, is: "creating an order within  which all the communities feel that they can determine their own futures - that they have a say in the choices that affect their lives." It will not  come easy. If Mr. Krishna is intending to take up the issue of powersharing during his visit, President Rajapakse has already made his response clear in an interview with The Hindu newspaper this week: there will be no such thing.

It is in this way that a long-standing contradiction between the Sinhala establishment and the international community, which had been masked by Indian and Western hostility to the Tamil armed struggle, is now coming clearly to the fore. In that sense, just as the West and India were agreed that the LTTE must be defeated, as Mr. Menon put it during his October visit to Washington, a permanent political solution in Sri Lanka "is a common Indo-US interest."

It is often forgotten by the international community that Tamil political demands grew in the sixties and seventies - from powersharing in the centre, through autonomy and federalism, to outright independence - not only because of increasing Sinhalisation of the state, but also because of Sinhala leaders’ blanket refusal to heed their protests. The three decade-long history of the Federal Party and its Gandhian campaign of civil disobedience was marked not only by outright Sinhala rejection of any Tamil demand, but also punitive violence. The same contempt is today manifest in the Sinhala state's responses to international demands for a political settlement. Any such suggestion Mr. Krishna brings, for a start, will get short shrift in Colombo. But then, we doubt he will be surprised.

President Rajapakse's vehement opposition to sharing power with the Tamils is not merely victor's hubris. Rather, it is an ideological, even theological, commitment to turning the island into a Sinhala-Buddhist bastion. In that sense, his platform is a well-worn one which every Sinhala leader has trod before - as a cursory reading of key state policies and election manifestos since 1948 shows. Of course, this argument has often been summarily dismissed as Tamil nationalist exaggeration. But we are confident it won't be long before it is thoroughly vindicated.