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The duplicity in admitting Tamil ‘grievances’

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One of the common threads of policy articulated by the United States and the European Union is to distinguish the Tamil people fr-om the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when it comes to resolving Sri Lanka''s conflict. International statements recognising the ''genuine grievances'' of the Tamils often accompany harsh denouncements of the LTTE''s use of armed violence. This separation has been prominent in EU comments accompanying its proscription of the LTTE and in recent comments by US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher.

The message from these key members of the international community to the Tamils is they should reconsider who should front their efforts to seek redress for their grievances. To help them decide, the international community has systematically criminalized the LTTE. This is even though it is only because of the Tigers that a peace process in which these grievances can be taken up has been precipitated (there have, after all, been three decades of Tamil pleading before the war started in 1983).


The international community''s position that the Tamils and the LTTE are different entities with separate interests, however, appea-rs fragile under close scrutiny. Not only is there a case that the LTTE is pursuing Tamil interests, the international community, particularly when imposing or encouraging sanctions on the Tamils, seem to accept, in fact, that it does.

To begin with, in any democratic forum the Tamils have consistently backed policies that are synonymous with LTTE policy. The most recent example is the overwhelming victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the parliamentary polls of 2001 and 2004. The coalition of Tamil parties had run on an election manifesto nominated the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people.

Other demands included the creation of the LTTE''s Interim Self-Governing Administration (ISGA). In 1977, prior to the ascendancy of the LTTE, the Tamils voted for the notion of an independent state, backing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) to pursue it. The demands of the Tamils have not deviated over the past three decades, despite the ravages of war. If anything, they''ve become more resolved.

The assertion by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), an internationally funded Colombo based think-tank, citing evidence that over 90% of Tamils in the Northeast support the LTTE and at least 50% of Muslims in the Northeast would live under an LTTE administration should give the doubters pause for thought.


Aside from their political support within any available democratic space, the Tamil people have also backed the organisation financially. The refugees of the 1983 pogrom have succeeded in rebuilding their lives across the globe. Ironically the Sri Lankan state''s violent methods of suppressing Tamil protests directly resulted in a global Diaspora with adequate financial muscle back a robust challenge the dominance of the Sri Lankan state.

Some international voices, most notably Human Rights Watch (HRW), have explained away the financial backing the LTTE enjoys from its Diaspora as a function of coercion - a theory that the Sri Lankan state also attempts to perpetuate, whilst simultaneously grumbling that not enough is being done by host countries to curb Tamil Diaspora support for the Tigers. The backlash from the Tamil community to the HRW report resulted in a retreat by the organisation to the position that they recognised that a large number of Tamils give support willingly, and that ''some'' do so against their will. The recent angry demonstrations by thousands of Tamils in Europe and Canada against the proscriptions of the LTTE is another challenge to the claim.

Questioning support

The extent of Tamil support for the LTTE have been debated since the inception of the organisation. It has suited the Sri Lankan state to propagate the idea that while it is a vibrant multi-ethnic democracy, the LTTE are a terrorist organisation which does not have the support of the Tamil people and, ther-efore, successfully destroying it will resolve the problems plaguing the island. Sections of the international community echo this claim.

However, the actual conduct of the Sri Lankan state and that of the international community are clearly not formulated on this basis. Quite the reverse. The Tamils and the LTTE are treated as one and the same in a number of unstated, but visible ways. The most glaring sign of this contradiction are the draconian methods used by the Sri Lankan armed forces to terrorise Tamil civilians in the Northeast during times of war to deny the LTTE their support. More recently, the racial riots against Tamils in Trincomalee and the Air Force bombardment of civilian areas in Muttur carried out in retaliation for attacks on security forces by the LTTE are also based on the logic of collective punishment.

One and the same

Even in its own actions and de-spite its rhetoric, the international community also treats the LTTE and the Tamil people as one and the same. The decision to conditi-onally tie rehabilitation and reconstruction aid for the North-east to progress in the peace talks betw-een the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government is a clear example of this. In short, the Tamils get relief if the Tigers make concessions.

The international community appears to sanction Sri Lanka''s collective punishment - backing Colombo during the ''war for pea-ce'' and by consistently commending Colombo for its ''restraint'' in the face of LTTE provocations. The international community supported President Chandrika Kum-aratunga''s draconian embargo on food and medical aid during the last round of fighting. It agreed with President Kumaratunga''s logic that essentials could be blocked from hundreds of thousands of people ''lest it get into the hands of the LTTE fighters'' - who numbered just thousands.

More recently, President Mahinda Rajapakse, then Premier, argued in favour of blocking international tsunami-relief aid from the Northeast for the same reason. Later, after the joint mechanism for tsunami relief was signed by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state, the international community stood by as the deal was smashed in the courts.


International aid, however, flowed to Sri Lanka anyway. Just not to the Tamils. To intervene and save the deal would be to undermine the constitution of a democratic state, the argument went. That the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the entire peace process itself are contraventions of the Sri Lankan constitution do not seem to matter however.

Were the Tamils to follow the advice of the international community and indeed seek alternative means of redress for their ''legitimate grievances'' other than backing the LTTE, there appear to be few viable avenues. Democrati-cally elected Tamil politicians who effectively promote the demands of the Tamils have been assassinated by the state''s armed forces or associated paramilitary organisations. Journalists and civil society activists sympathetic to the Tamil case have also been targeted by the Sri Lankan military. All this with international impunity.

At odds

The failure by the international community to take tangible measures to deter the Sri Lankan state from crushing Tamils'' efforts to peacefully seek a solution to the ethnic question is at odds with the oft stated position that the international community is sympathetic to Tamil grievances but objects only to the LTTE''s violence.

The international political space for Tamils to argue their case for an autonomous state to resolve their problems is also being systematically closed. The draconian anti-terrorism legislation which been implemented in many Western democracies and the proscription of the LTTE in most of these jurisdictions has made promoting greater Tamil autonomy, and certainly any identification with the objectives of the LTTE, an unlawful act.


And whilst domestic and international avenues for articulating Tamil demands and sentiments are obstructed there is no suggestion from the international community as to how precisely the Tamils are meant to peacefully pursue their demands.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the counsel being offered to the Tamil people by the international community is the repeated reference to abstract ''legitimate grievances.'' There is no sense, however, that the international community actually understands what the Tamils themselves want. When pushed for a response, some international officials suggest the Tamils simply need more jobs and greater equality in Sri Lanka''s polity.

Such opinions display a shocking lack of understanding as to what drives Tamil support for the LTTE. Tamil grievances existed long before the LTTE. It is correct that these initially stemmed from obstacles to higher education and economic opportunities. However, the Tamil community largely overcame these obstructions and carried on whilst agitating for their removals.


However, widespread support for armed struggle resulted directly as a reaction to state sponsored violence against the Tamils. It is no coincidence that a smouldering Tamil militancy exploded in the wake of the infamous July 1983 pogrom.

During the conflict, the state implemented brutal ethnic cleansing programmes that sought to change the demographics of the Northeast, destroyed Tamil cultural treasures (for example the Jaffna library, numerous temples and churches), imposed the embargo and routinely used indiscriminate bombing and shelling. (It is these factors which have served to united the full spectrum of Tamils, from academics to unemployed youths, behind the concept of an independent state.)

Therefore, addressing Tamil grievances primarily means addressing their security concerns. And it is at this point that the interests of the Tamil people and those of the international community abruptly diverge.

Weak constitution

To begin with, solutions such as rewriting Sri Lanka''s constitution are not credible forms of security for the Tamils. The original British-supplied constitution offered some protections to minorities. But these were overturned with hardly any effort by the Sinhala polity. The present constitution was introduced without the approval of the Tamils. And, in any case, Sri Lankan leaders regularly violate the constitution for their personal ends with impunity. What protection can a constitution be, especially against majoritarian communalism, under these circumstances?

This, not some romantic longing, is the Tamil drive for independent statehood.


Moreover, there appears to be a direct correlation between international ''recognition'' of the need to address ''Tamil grievances'' and military strength of Tamil militancy. Throughout the conflict, the international community has offered substantial financial and military backing to every administration in Colombo with little regard for its invariably inhumane approach to the Tamil problem. It is Colombo''s military inadequacy which has led to this sudden recognition of Tamil ''grievances'' and, therefore, a peace process.

The addressing of Tamil security concerns is the point at which all pragmatic and progressive political discussions on resolving the conflict cease and the international community''s focus on coercively subduing Tamil ambitions commence. The irony of demands by the EU and the US that the LTTE ''be prepared to decommission'' and ''renounce terrorism'' respectively coming amid the widespread killings of civilians by state forces seems lost.

One constant

The one constant of the Sri Lankan conflict has been the unwavering support offered to the Sri Lankan state regardless of which party or individual is in power. From President JR Jayawerdene who unleashed the 1983 pogrom to President Mahi-nda Rajapakse, whose government has demonstrated it will use vicious violence to subdue the rebellious Tamils, the international community has sanctioned and colluded with Sinhala leaders whose actions, by the very liberal standards preached to the LTTE, morally reprehensible.

As an aside, while it is the Tigers'' past violence (terrorism) which is apparently a bar to their legitimacy, at the same time few international diplomats dare criticise the Janatha Vimukthi Peram-una (JVP), despite its proud annual celebrations of its bloody past. A disturbing but not inconceivable thought is that even the JVP would enjoy international support should it come to power in Sri Lanka, irrespective of its policies.

Throughout the conflict numerous determined international efforts have been made to curb Tamil ambitions for freedom; from the restriction of political space abroad for the LTTE and the articulation of Tamil demands to the provision of substantial weaponry to the Sri Lankan state and, of course, vast financial support. These efforts have frequently included attempting to split the Tamil militancy from its support base. Methods have ranged from the targeted disbursement of aid to areas only government controlled areas (to draw Tamils away from the LTTE areas), to proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation (and frightening the Tamil Diaspora into not funding it).

Nothing doing

By contrast, the international community has done nothing to force the Sri Lankan state to seriously address Tamil ''grievances.'' None of the pressures (including a range of sanctions easily deployed against a weak state like Sri Lanka) deployed against other errant states have been used. Economic sanctions or restrictions on the purchase of military equipment or even limited isolation have not even been threatened. Instead, some of Sri Lanka''s most vicious military commanders have been accepted as ambassadors to Western countries.

International policy makers appear to believe that defeating the LTTE, and with it any hopes of addressing Tamil security concerns, should be their primary objective in the region. Perhaps these are based upon some abstract analysis of the strategic value of the island and the greater good it serves despite the repercussions for this abused minority. The circumstances of the Tamils is one of the most glaring examples of the moral bankruptcy of the contemporary international system. Having embarked upon this path of siding with the morally reprehensible, the international community has betrayed the values they claim to uphold.

We cannot expect this situation to change. The only hope for the Tamils is that the strategic balance underpinning the peace process is restored or even titled in their favour. Only this will compel a rethink in the capitals of the states backing the peace process and make resolving ''Tamil grievances'' integral to their own

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