Yet, despite rhetorical commitment to freedom, human rights and democracy, the international continues to ignore the Tamils’ core problem. The logics of ‘conflict resolution,’ ‘peace-building’ and, especially, the ‘war on terror’ all ignore the fundamental problem in Sri Lanka: the Sinhala-dominated state, fashioned on an ethos of racial and religious pre-eminence, oppresses and marginalizes the Tamils. But as long there is Sinhala oppression, there will be Tamil resistance. The current US-led approach, which ignores this basic truth, will not bring peace to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s conflict is arguably one of the most internationalized today. The major powers, especially the Western states, are intimately involved and familiar with the dynamics at play in the island. The Sri Lankan state is integrated into the international system. Yet the Colombo government is today seemingly able to defy international humanitarian and human rights norms with impunity. Growing disquiet amongst some foreign governments is now manifest (after the killings, abductions and ‘disappearances’ of shocking number of innocent Tamils). But the continuing staunch support of a number of states, especially the United States, means Colombo is not unduly worried. The contempt with which the Sinhala government dismisses international concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation in the island is underpinned by self-confidence that sufficient international support will be forthcoming for a war against the Tamil Tigers, no matter how bloody it is.
Despite claiming commitment to peace, human rights and democracy, with the emergence of a Sinhala-hardline regime under President Mahinda Rajapakse, the overarching international approach is rationalized under the (demonstrably discredited elsewhere) slogan, ‘war on terror.’ The inclusions of the LTTE in international terrorism lists were political decisions. But now these listings are taken as ‘facts’ and used to justify the foreclosure of contact with the Tigers, engagement with the Tamil demand for self-rule and, ultimately, to back Sri Lanka’s military campaign.
From the outset of the Norwegian-led peace process, the international approach to resolving Sri Lanka’s conflict has been flawed: one of carrot for the state and stick for the Tiger. Driven by a misguided belief that the events of 9/11/01 had persuaded the LTTE to seek peace (although the LTTE had offered a ceasefire and called for talks as early as November 2000), the international community has readily resorted to punitive and coercive method to discipline the Tiger. And this is despite the LTTE’s history of resisting any move sought at the point of a gun.
Even today, the international community, led by the US, is relying on ‘pressure’ to force the LTTE to the table (even though no serious analyst thinks negotiations with the Rajapakse regime is a meaningful exercise). If the arrests of Tamil activists in various countries and other forms of pressure are intended to compel the Tigers to talk to Rajapakse on his terms, they will fail. There is a misguided belief that international action can cut the supply of funds and weapons to the LTTE. We believe that as long as the fundamental problem – i.e. the oppression of the Tamils by the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state – remains, the LTTE will last and thrive. The Rajapakse regime has done much to compact Tamil opinion behind hardline stances.
The international community’s hostility to the LTTE has been amply demonstrated in the past five years. Every act of ‘engagement’ was effectively a moralizing sermon on political violence and human rights. At the same time, the unrepentant Sri Lankan state has been gently chided and cajoled. These dynamics accelerated last year. Even though international ceasefire monitors warned of a ‘cycle of violence’, of a ‘shadow war’ between both sides, the European Union and Canada, following the US approach, singled out the LTTE for blame and banned it. The move emboldened the Sinhala hardliners. It did not tame the Tiger.
The most important consequence of the ‘war on terror’ is that it offers people who have taken up arms against a repressive state Hobson’s choice: fight or perish. From the outset of their struggle, there was a desperate effort by the Tamils to internationalize the conflict (and a reverse determination by the Sinhala state, using the rhetoric of ‘internal affairs’, to foreclose any international involvement, save that which contributed to crushing the Tamils). This dynamic has continued despite international hostility to the LTTE. This is because the Tamil appeal for self-determination is based on the logic of escaping state oppression.