Which problem are talks expected to solve in Sri Lanka?
Amid louder international calls for negotiations and a political solution to Sri Lanka’s crisis, the Sinhala leadership insisted yet again this week that the Liberation Tigers would be crushed and ‘peace’ established within a year. The Rajapakse government’s implicit call on the Sinhala people to keep the faith comes as progress on the battlefield remains painfully slow and the cost of pursuing hegemony over the northeast begins to bite harder, compounded by rising global oil and food prices. Given that the international community has hitherto done – and continues to do - what it can to support the Sinhala state’s war efforts, Tamils are justified in being cynical about this renewed international emphasis on negotiations and a solution. We have not forgotten that from 1995 to 1999 the international community stood by while Colombo visited any horrors it pleased on the Tamils (for example, one international legal scholar who studied Sri Lanka’s embargo on the Vanni said in 1997 that it classified as a war crime), and only rushed to ‘make peace’ in Sri Lanka when the LTTE struck back after 2000, bringing the Sinhala state to its knees. Similarly, it is only when the Sinhala state struggles on the battlefield that international interest in ‘conflict resolution’ has returned.
In short, abstract international calls for negotiations and a ‘political solution’ do not represent a change of heart or strategy. Last month, for example, the United States’ Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Robert O’ Blake emphatically stated that there was no ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. This is not splitting theoretical hairs. It is a wholesale rejection of Tamil grievances. Unless there is an acceptance that the Sri Lankan state is a chauvinist construct that, since independence, has systematically oppressed the Tamils, talks will achieve nothing. The Norwegian peace process was predicated on this logic: that Tamils’ grievances are essentially economic and the demand for Tamil Eelam is some sort of fragile ethnic exclusivity. These external claims were conveniently echoed by a number of self-styled liberals within Sri Lanka. Amid the cacophony about ‘constitutional reform’, ‘peace-building’, ‘conflict transformation’ and so on, the essential point was lost: Sinhala oppression must end if there is to be lasting peace. We note that, even amidst the demonstrable and strident racism in Sri Lanka today, there is little new being said in this regard.
However, much has changed now. Not only has geopolitics returned with a vengeance, two decades after the Cold War ended, the powerful liberal democracies that once sought to re-engineer Sri Lanka in their image have quietly given up on that project. It is of no surprise that defenders of the liberal space within Sri Lanka have few audiences abroad of any consequence (and none at home). The point is this: whilst there was a misguided notion amongst a great many Tamils that the international community had engaged itself in making peace in Sri Lanka because it was (finally) concerned about the suffering of the Tamils, international conduct in the recent past has shattered any basis for that claim.
It is very clear, that amid their calls for peace, the international community will not act to restrain the Sri Lankan state. This is because, eager to establish or continue long-term partnerships with Colombo, they simply will not accept Tamil claims of oppression, state-racism or slow genocide. Conversely, telling themselves – and us – that ‘there is no ethnic war’, that ‘most Tamils don’t want independence’ and so on, they will equate a political solution to their own desires of Sri Lanka – primarily economic reform with, hopefully, but not necessarily, some ‘good governance’ thrown in.
But as we have argued recently, the Sinhala state is not going to go down this route. Instead, it will strive to expand its hegemony – and primarily by violence and brutality. It is not surprising that the Rajapakse regime, which abducts, murders, tortures, terrorizes the media and other ‘traitors’ within – all whilst snarling at international criticism, is extraordinarily popular amongst the Sinhalese. Sri Lanka’s Sinhala opposition parties know full well that without wrapping themselves in the Lion flag, there is no hope of taking power away from Rajapakse or his SLFP. That is why the desperate recent efforts by some states to shore up the UNP and keep the flame alive have failed – and quite spectacularly. Sinhala nationalism is – now undeniably – mainstream. That is also why the call for Tamil Eelam is embedding itself anew across the Tamil polity. It was the false promise of the Norwegian peace process opened up the space for alternatives. Similarly it was in the false hope of a Sinhala military solution that the international community abandoned that project.