Two years after Sri Lanka's genocidal onslaught against the Tamil population reached a zenith in a tiny enclave in the island's north, the horrors unleashed between January and May 2009 have come under international scrutiny. The United Nations expert panel's report on the closing stages of the armed conflict has set out in harrowing detail how Sri Lanka's 'systematic persecution' resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, through mass bombardment amid a blockade on food and medicine. The report has been welcomed by the US, UK and EU, among others, who have called for action over the war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The furor within Sri Lanka that followed the release of the UN report, however, has underlined the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the country's crisis. Whilst the Tamils have collectively welcomed the UN report and its call for an independent inquiry into the conduct of the war, the Sinhala polity, with overwhelming support from its constituents, have united in fierce opposition. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has drawn support from the other Sinhala parties, including the main opposition UNP, in resisting an independent inquiry, as well as action over the mass crimes.
To begin with, the events and issues the UN report sets out are no revelation. Sri Lanka's mass killings, its blockade on food and medicine, its refusal to allow humanitarian access, and so on were being highlighted every day from January to May 2009, and afterwards. The Tamil press reported daily, providing details, photographs, and video. International human rights groups repeatedlyprotested that hospitals were being targeted. Tens of thousands of Tamil expatriates took to the streets in Western capitals and outside the UN in Geneva.
To no avail. Even amid the visible slaughter, what was unfolding in Vanni was framed primarily as a government's legitimate war against a rebel group. Amid their conviction that the defeat of the LTTE would pave the way to a political solution, peace and stability, the US, UK and EU supported Sri Lanka's military campaign. They were wrong. The destruction of the LTTE has instead ushered in an era of institutionalized racial supremacy and simmering ethnic tension. It is amid a growing recognition of this that the closing stages of the armed conflict has come under renewed scrutiny.
In a genuine democracy, the shocking findings of the UN report ought to have produced critical questioning of the government's conduct, if not introspection about the country's armed conflict. In particular, an independent inquiry into what happened in the war’s closing stages should have drawn broad support.
Instead, however, the Sinhala press and opposition parties have rallied to the government's side. The point here is not that the Sinhala polity doesn't believe that mass killings of Tamils took place, but that it is singularly unmoved. The outrage directed at the UN report, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and the international community - primarily Western actors - stems from a conviction that in defence of Sinhala rule anything and everything is justified and necessary.
Sri Lanka is not a democracy, but an ethnocracy. Since independence, the Sinhala polity, supported the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala populace, has pursued a hierarchical ethnic ordering. Crushing Tamil opposition, manifest first in political agitation and mass protests, and later in armed struggle, is an integral part of this project.
Which is why the UN report has produced the reactions it has. Whilst the notions of sovereignty and independence are held forth - alongside charges of neocolonialism and Western domination - the underling conviction that is a Sinhala-dominated political order is right and legitimate. In that sense, the greatest threat to this racialised utopia is the international community.
In our editorial on the first anniversary of the end of the war, we argued that accounting for 2009 would become the defining principle of Tamil-Sinhala relations. The events of recent weeks underscore this. Accountability for what the UN panel catalogues as war crimes and crimes and humanity (whilst making clear the systematic nature of these that give force to Tamils' claim of genocide) is closely bound up producing with a stable political solution and a lasting peace - a point the US, UK, and EU also argue.
What the international community must recognise, however, is that the converse is also true: Sinhala resistance to accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is closely bound up with a deep-seated refusal to share power with the Tamils, let alone accepting them as a legitimate political community in the island.