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The writing on the wall

The Sri Lankan president's public rejection of Tamil autonomy or devolution of powers during his Independence Day address this week, should come as no surprise. Despite the international community's periodic calls on Sri Lanka not to squander its military victory, but use it to negotiate a lasting political settlement, the Sri Lankan state has stubbornly continued to do quite the reverse. Although some international observers remain bewildered by Sri Lanka's stance, in truth key political figures of successive Sri Lankan governments have never shied away from making their fundamental rejection of Tamil political power abundantly clear. The writing was always on the wall; it is time that those who truly want to see stability and peace, read it.

When the international community chose to support Sri Lanka's military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2008, it was not ignorant of the destruction that was to come. However, adamant that it was the LTTE that was the true barrier to peace and stability on the island, heavy civilian casualties were said to be a price worth paying in order to defeat 'terrorism'. Even as the fighting progressed and irrefutable evidence of intentional targeting of civilians came to light, the pursuit of the end goal was still considered to justify turning a blind eye to Sri Lanka's means. For it was argued that following a military victory, the government would reach out to the Tamils and work towards a political settlement that acknowledged their legitimate aspirations. This analysis of the conflict was mistaken.

Almost four years on, despite the military defeat of the LTTE, the absence of armed conflict, the abundance of international economic and developmental aid, a government that enjoys overwhelming support, and a major Tamil party that has proved itself only too willing to engage in dead-end dialogue, the elusive political solution to the conflict is no closer.  American and Indian calls on the Sri Lankan government to engage in talks with the TNA and work towards a lasting political solution, have proved futile, and international pressure has only served to further unmask the Sri Lankan state's unwillingness to share power in any meaningful way with the Tamils.

Routinely making a mockery of several international figures, the Sri Lankan government has spun its rhetoric of reconciliation and negotiations to visiting diplomats, whilst simultaneously, publicly asserting that it has no intention to devolve power or see the implementation of the paltry 13th Amendment. No sooner had the Indian External Affairs Secretary Salman Khurshid left than Sri Lanka's Minister of Agriculture Udaya Gammanpila rejected devolution and the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa embarked on his campaign to abolish the 13th Amendment. The support his campaign enjoyed was widespread, from Buddhist clergy to a body of professionals. Whilst the failure of the opposition UNP, civic society institutions or the Sinhala media to meaningfully challenge it, is particularly poignant. Similarly, Rajapaksa's remarks this week remain unchallenged by the Sinhala masses. This silence or apathy cannot be attributed to fear. As recent large-scale Sinhala condemnation of the impeachment of the Chief Justice has proven, an authoritarian and repressive Rajapaksa regime does not prevent a Sinhala outcry when the sentiment is present. In short the government is able to defiantly pursue its restructuring of the North-East and its defiance of international calls to negotiate, because its rejection of Tamil political power and autonomy enjoys tangible support from the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala nation.

A victory bought at an unthinkable and catastrophic human cost has, far from yielding the desired result, been exploited by the Sri Lankan state to consolidate its vision of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony – and it shows no signs of relenting. What was long purported to bring equality, peace and security, has exposed the Tamil nation and its traditional homeland to unchecked Sinhalisation, militarisation and the forcible suppression of Tamil political aspirations. Through the subjugation of the Tamil identity and the forced dilution of the cultural and ethnic make-up of the North-East, the Sri Lankan state is working systematically to construct a North-East that would undermine the Tamil nation's right to self-determination and claim the area as its homeland. In this context, continuing to “encourage the TNA and [the Sri Lankan] government to make serious progress” as the British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt did this week, is hollow and absurd. These are not the deeds of a government serious about equal rights, let alone devolution or autonomy. It is high time that tacit encouragement and closed door diplomacy be replaced with decisive action and tangible repercussions.