31 March 2009
As the Sri Lankan military continues to massacre Tamil civilians at will in Vanni, there have been increased murmurs of disquiet from the international community. The United States, for example, has, with a few words, surpassed India in its criticism of Sri Lanka's cold-blooded slaughter. The mass agitation in Tamil Nadu has not stirred the Central government to act. Instead, overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks expected of any aspiring great Power - ending a regional crisis - Delhi is paralyzed. Bewildered by the responsibility thrust upon it, the South Asian hegemon is simply hoping the problem will go away. The eruption of Tamil outrage and the ensuing nationalist mobilisation - in Tamil Nadu and the Diaspora - will, along with untrammeled Sinhala chauvinism, ensure this crisis will not disappear, but expand to become an important part of the international agenda.
Diaspora anger is directed not just at the Sinhala state, but at the (West-led) international community. With good reason. For many years, especially during the 2002-2006 peace process, Western liberal states have not only lectured the Tamils on human rights, pluralism, democracy, etc, but justified their calculated attempts to thwart the Tamil freedom struggle on these bases. The proscriptions of the LTTE in 2006 by the European Union and the Canada, for example, were rationalized on the movement's 'violence'. The supposed primacy of liberal values were put forward as justification for denying the Tamils self-determination - the quintessentially liberal right of a people to govern themselves.
Yet, today, as the Sinhala state deliberately and openly tosses these values aside, as it uses mechanized violence to kill upwards of 60 Tamil civilians each day, as it incarcerates those who flee the warzone, as it silences the press, not through censorship, but spectacle killings and arbitrary arrest, these same Western states are silent. Their logic is the same as the Sinhala state: if the LTTE can be wiped out, the Tamils can be easily pacified; hence, whatever serves the destruction of the LTTE is permissible, including the wholesale slaughter of Tamil civilians.
Even now, as over two hundred thousand starving, traumatized Tamils cower amid Sri Lanka's ceaseless barrages, these self-styled paragons of liberalism remain silent. No threats now of sanctions, withholding aid, war crimes charges, travel bans and such. Instead, there are mumblings of independent accounts not being available, questionings of the number affected and, of course, blaming of the LTTE: the problem, according to them, is the LTTE's blocking of the people's movement, not the hundreds of shells being fired at them by 'their' state. There is also no talk now of 'responsibility to protect', or 'sovereignty as responsibility'.
These are important lessons for the Tamil community. Firstly, international commitment to human rights is a fiction. Rather, human rights have been merely a rhetorical tool to justify the self-serving bias of the Western states (non-Western states, whilst equally self-serving, do not attempt to dignify their interests with claims about human values). In other words, the Tamils need no longer take seriously these hypocritical sermons. Secondly, it is clear that if the Tamil people are to survive the genocide being conducted by the internationally-backed Sri Lankan state, they have to act. It is not simply a matter of waiting for the West to be stirred into action by the scale and horror of killings: the West did not act when Bosnians, Kosovars, and Tutsis, amongst others, were being slaughtered, there is no reason to think it will do so for us. These peoples stood up for themselves first.
However, Tamils must test Western rhetoric to the utmost, bringing as much pressure as possible to bear on Western governments, agencies and institutions. Some actors are rethinking their long-standing logic that the Sri Lankan state, no matter what its flaws, must be defended against the LTTE and Tamil demands for Eelam. HRW, for example, is now insisting that the world do something, warning the IMF, which has been approached by Colombo for an emergency loan, that the money will not further peace. These changes have nothing to do with the Tamils, but with the realization that the Sinhala state cannot be cajoled, stroked and seduced into behaving like a good liberal world citizen: it needs to be disciplined. Tamils realized this thirty years ago; state terror cannot be stopped by strengthening the state, but by confronting and coercing it. Our struggle is based on this self-evident fact, one deliberately ignored by Western states or, more charitably, masked by liberal optimism. The question for Tamils is: when the realization dawns in Western capitals, will they act or will they watch?