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Complicit silence and moral censure

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Like that of many of his predecessors, the government of Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse has made fresh representations to the international community that his government seeks a negotiated solution to the island’s ethnic conflict whilst, simultaneously, branding its potential partners in peace, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as ‘ruthless terrorists’ whose activities in should be banned in foreign countries. Despite the obvious contradiction in Colombo’s stances toward the LTTE, the publicly adopted positions of foreign actors suggest that they accept Sri Lanka’s case at face value.

The position adopted by Sri Lanka’s foreign minister this week echoes assertions by former holders of his post (during both times of peace and war) to their counterparts in the international community. Although not all leading states involved in Sri Lanka have readily adopted the anti-LTTE measures demanded by Sri Lanka, their policies have clearly been moulded within Colombo’s framework. The argument goes thus: Sri Lanka is a ‘vibrant’ democracy - perhaps with a few flaws, but those can be addressed in a more peaceful context - but the ‘fanatical’ LTTE is a violent group that places its own interests above those of the people it claims to represent and, as a result, has to be deterred, using any tools available, from plunging the island (back) into war.

Limiting the discussion to this simplistic dichotomy seems the only way for various foreign actors to understand the island’s conflict and draw up their policies with regards to Sri Lanka. The international tools deployed include providing substantial aid to the state’s civil and military structures, proscribing the LTTE and blunting the organization’s political project. The objective has been to deter the LTTE (the hardline protoganist), from challenging the state and, simultaneously, to bolster the latter against the former. Tamil criticism of such international attitudes has largely turned on the fact that such policies have failed to successfully encourage the Sri Lankan state to offer a reasonable political solution for the ethnic question and, more regrettably, to roll back the persecution and marginalisation the Tamils suffer under the Sinhala-dominated state.

The bona fides of the new Sri Lankan administration leave a lot to be desired. Having come to power on a Sinhala nationalist wave, the ruling coalition is led by a President whose strong Sinhala Buddhist credentials earned him the support of stridently hard line southern parties. The government’s contradictory signals - calling its future negotiating counterparts ruthless terrorists whilst simultaneously urging peace talks - could be attributed to political naivety or a need to balance different constituencies.

However, Colombo’s unleashing of military violence against Jaffna’s resients is less forgivable and more revealing of the state’s mindset. Within two months of Rajapakse’s election, the Sri Lankan military, lead by hard-line commanders he has newly installed, have revived a regime of extra-judicial killings, rape, and arbitrary arrests. The state of fear that Sri Lanka was notorious for prior to the ceasefire of 2002 has returned in just weeks.

Last week the military placed restrictions on the movement of journalists (and the week before that before that on NGO workers) in and out of the Northeast, an ominous step that revives memories of blackouts by past governments of the wholesale atrocities. Perhaps the most appalling signal of the new government’s mindset came, however, from comments by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweewa to US Secreteray os State Condoleeza Rice. He told her that his government ‘would be unable to prevent’ communal violence against Tamils should the international community fail to intervene to force the LTTE to talks. The thinly veiled threat referred, as Tamils know full well, to the 1983 state-sponsored pogrom against them.

The justification for the increase in state violence and persecution is the need to confront increasing attacks on Sri Lankan military personnel by Tamil armed groups - which Colombo insists are fronts for the LTTE. The international community has duly commended the Sri Lankan state for its restraint in the face of attacks by these groups. Unfortunately, the international community has also refused to criticize Colombo’s escalating repression against the Tamil civilian population, seeming to endorse it. (Notably, when it comes to restraint, there was little encouragement for LTTE when the organization faced similar and in some cases far more serious provocations by the Sri Lankan military, including the sinking of two ships and the assassinations of prominent regional leaders.)

Even the assassination of elected Tamil politicians sympathetic to the LTTE by Army-backed paramilitaries – the most recent murder was of Joseph Pararajasingham shot dead whilst attending Christmas Mass – has not drawn a murmur of international protest. The failure by the international community – especially the European Union, which reacted so vehemently to the killing of Foreign Lakshman Kadirgamar - to condemn the murder of a Tamil MP has seriously undermined the moral basis on which international demands are routinely asserted. The international silence accompanying the Sri Lankan armed forces’ ongoing efforts to put down Tamil discontent with ruthless violence - including disappearances and summary executions - is a disturbing sign of things to come: the silence that accompanied Sri Lanka’s blockade on food and medicine into Tamil areas during the earlier round of conflict is by no means forgotten.

Crucially, for the peace process, and the credibility of its international underwriters, the failure of the Sri Lankan state to adhere to key agreements already reached have also been readily forgiven. Amongst these are the Ceasefire Agreement itself, which stipulates that the state must allow the 800,000 displaced Tamils (nearly a quarter of the Tamil population) to return to their occupied homes. The joint committees set up between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE during the four years with the aim of rehabilitating the Northeast failed due to government lethargy. Yet there was no international criticism. The final cooperative venture between the state and the LTTE was, of course, the failed Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structures (P-TOMS), designed to provide much needed humanitarian assistance to the region worst hit by the natural disaster last year. The declaration by Sri Lanka’s supreme court that the P-TOMS was unconstitutional put paid to that venture. Again, hardly an international protest.

It cannot have escaped the international community that the Sri Lankan state has absolved its responsibilities for those living outside the areas it controls, as evidenced by the sabotaging of the P-TOMS structure and its earlier efforts to appropriate and divert international aid. By contrast, the LTTE has demonstrated via its civil structures, redevelopment work and humanitarian efforts – especially in the face of the tsunami (and repeated floods) - that it has adopted the role of the state large parts of the Northeast.

The conventional state/non-state logic is thus not applicable in Sri Lanka, due to the reversal of role between the two primary domestic actors. Hence, concerns that were traditionally considered when contemplating the spectrum of action against the state has to apply to the non-state actor as well. Sri Lanka has asked the United States to shut down the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) for example. Acceding to the request will immediately impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tamils who rely on the organization.

The belligerent state, whose delusional assertion of sovereignty have included unilateral efforts to dislodge Norway, the facilitator in the peace process and whose government is too dependent on extreme right-wing elements to take any constructive steps toward a substantive peace. By contrast, the LTTE has made notable concessions and reached a number of agreements aimed at returning stability and normalcy to the war-torn regions - the latest of which was the ill-fated P-TOMS. The state has chosen to ignore the plight of an entire ethnic community, whilst the non-state actor has built an infrastructure to maintain law and order and provide social services and humanitarian assistance to those living within the areas it controls.

Over the past two decades the international community has no doubt had to re-evaluate its understanding of the ethnic problem on the island, assisted by academic institutions, which have sought to fit the complex conflict to a model which could explain its observable dynamics. Over a decade ago the conventional wisdom and the line promoted by Colombo, were largely that the LTTE was a fanatical, fringe organization that did not enjoy widespread support amongst the Tamil community and the solution to a peaceful Sri Lanka was the military elimination of the entity, and certain reforms of the state that would placate Tamil grievances. More recent policies suggest that though the international community accepts that the Tamil community have genuine grievances (for which some feel federalism is the necessary solution), it still feels that the LTTE - despite its popular support - is a hardline organization whose end objectives are not aligned to a peaceful solution.

But the fundamental aspect of the Tamil community’s relationship with the LTTE that the international community has failed to appreciate is that the movement is still the only entity on the island that is still pursuing Tamil interests, both humanitarian and political. Despite four years of peace, the Sri Lankan state has failed to deliver on a single signed agreement, and a quarter of the Tamil population remain displaced from their homes. Amid the impasse on aid, the Sinhala parts of Sri Lanka grow stronger whilst the Tamil parts remain destitute. A situation in which the Northeast remains trapped in an economic stalemate whilst the South prospers economically suits the hawkish Sinhala. Wittingly or otherwise the international community has played a crucial part in this dynamic over the past four years.

It is in this abject humanitarian environment that Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry is pressuring the members of the European Union to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Should the EU buckle under the weight of Sri Lankan diplomatic pressure it would further undermine the bloc’s standing as an impartial actor in the island’s ethnic conflict.

Under these circumstances, an EU proscription – and its associated moral condemnation - will do little to improve the Europe’s strategic leverage on the island’s deteriorating situation. To date the LTTE has been banned in four major countries where there is a substantial Tamil Diaspora. The organization has continued to thrive despite the proscriptions. However, the states that banned the LTTE have been unable to fully engage in the peace process with both key protagonists. Should the EU follow suit it too will be restricted to working the hawkish new administration of President Rajapkase and third party dialogue via the Norwegian facilitators.

Most importantly, it will also reinforce Tamil perceptions that realpolitik and not moral imperatives drive policy decisions in foreign capitals and thus re-emphasize the need for self-help and self-reliance in all matters, including security.

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