As international relations scholar Oliver Richmond pithily puts it, ‘the problem of peace is that first war must be eradicated or managed’. In Sri Lanka, however, Western states have followed exactly the reverse logic: as President Chandrika Kumaratunga put it in the late nineties, the solution was a ‘War for Peace’. This is the logic even today, several thousand lives later. The dynamics of the past three years have exposed the fundamental contradiction in Sri Lanka: ‘multi-ethnic’ means different things to the island’s communities. To the Tamils it means that we are, like the Sinhalese, one of the island’s founding races, and thus equal to them. To the Sinhalese, as Army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka has explained, the island is Sinhala land and the others may remain, provided they know their subordinate place. The two visions simply can never be reconciled.
In the past three years, the West-led international community allowed the Sinhala lion a free hand to do what it willed to the Tamils. It was not just about destroying the ‘terrorists’ but, crucially, also of smashing the very foundations of Tamil political relevance in Sri Lanka. That is why the state’s killing of Parliamentarians, journalists, aid workers, social workers, and so on has taken place without any real sanction and little criticism from the self-styled liberal states. That is also why hundreds of thousands more Tamils have been displaced, reduced to living under plastic sheeting or less in their own homeland. In short, the Western states have endorsed and assisted – sometimes tacitly, often directly – this Sinhala effort to disaggregate the Tamils as a viable political community and reduce them to a scattered, pulverised, exhausted collection of Tamil-speaking individuals.
Yet we have resisted this genocide. On the one hand the LTTE has staged its trademark ferocious armed resistance. The Sinhala Army has advanced and taken territory in the past two years. Indeed, vastly superior to the LTTE both numerically and in firepower, it has always been able to do so. But the LTTE, grounded in various ways in Tamil determination not to be humbled as a people, has always proved indomitable. It is during war that the LTTE went from a few dozen cadres to the standing army, navy and air force it presently is. It is also during this war that the Tamils have forged themselves into committed political nation. Despite the best efforts of the liberal West to ignore the LTTE and to speak for us, we’ve had no doubts about our nationhood and our rights. And now, as never before, the impossibility of a single ‘Sri Lankan’ people has been laid clear.
No armed conflict is truly local and Sri Lanka’s has been internationally connected from its outset. Thus, just as the international community has been important to the waging of war, it will be important to the creation of peace. During the Cold War, our nation’s rights and interests were sacrificed by the West for its geopolitical interests. That powerful states will prioritise their interests over those of others will always be the case. However, in the past decade and a half, we have also been subject to another Western ideal of international order: global market economics and democracy. In other words, whatever those of us struggling in the developing world may actually say, our actual problem is deemed to be simply a lack of proper democracy and economic opportunity. The solution was thus to spread democracy and free markets, often violently. Even direct military action has been undertaken in this 21st century civilising project.
However, the events of the recent past have questioned this utopian vision. The global financial meltdown, the leftwing uprisings across Latin America, Sri Lanka’s retreat into the Chinese sphere of influence, are all tremors of the same crisis. The most spectacular consequence has, of course, been the result of the US Presidential election this month. The competing economic visions set out by President-elect Barack Obama and his Republican rival are not merely an internal matter: the neoliberal model rejected by US voters has underpinned the ruthless and violent Western project to impose a specific order on the rest of the world.
Our liberation struggle has also been mired in this project. The unqualified Western backing for the Sri Lankan state, the hostility to the LTTE, the refusal to listen to our pleas, are an integral part of this project. The Sinhala-dominated state, with its Sinhala army, and its majoritarian democracy has been excused, defended and praised. The Tamils, despite our obvious suffering, casualties and deprivation, have meanwhile been branded as terrorists and racists.
Only the regional hegemon, India, has taken seriously the powerful and contradictory logics at the heart of the island’s conflict. But Delhi too subordinated the Tamils’ well being to her own perceived geo-strategic interests. However, neither the West nor India has been able to pursue their visions of order: the Sinhala state will not sit placidly within them and neither will the Tamils accept Sinhala oppression. Whilst the liberation struggle intensifies, we must not lose sight of shifting global and regional dynamics. There is much to give us confidence: a more assertive India, a more reflective US, the ‘return’ of geopolitics are all signs of, as President-elect Obama has put it, ‘change’.