Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic strife, now in its seventh decade, has entered an important phase. We refer not to the claims by the Sinhala leaders – ones we have heard time and again for thirty years - that they will soon destroy the LTTE and pacify the rebellious Tamils, but to the profound realignment of racial lines in the island. Never before has the gap between Tamils and Sinhalese been so clear and so deep. And never before has Sinhala chauvinism been so naked and rampant. We refer here not to the undisguised contempt the Mahinda Rajapakse regime exhibits for the Tamils but to the tangible racism of ordinary Sinhalese. It is in this context that the Tamil question (i.e. Sinhala persecution) has forced itself onto the agenda of the regional superpower, India.
Last week Tamils all around the world remembered those who had fallen in the cause of Tamil Freedom. In London, a staggering forty thousand people attended the Remembrance Day event. In some important Diaspora centers, the threat of poised anti-terrorism legislation had to be backed up by government intervention to disrupt this now central annual community event. It is one more indicator of the how the Tamil nation is rallying. Not since 1976, when the Vaddokoddai Resolution received its thumping endorsement through the Tamil vote, have Tamils embraced independence thus.
Just as importantly, for the first time since the eighties, the Eelam cause is reverberating in the politics of the region. Tamil Nadu has awoken once again to the oppression of the Eelam people and is also rallying to the cause. It is not simply a question of humanitarian concern, though this has prompted an outpouring of human sympathy (indeed, that Indian citizens are providing humanitarian assistance to the Tamils while the Sinhalese cheer on their government’s blockade of the North is indicative of important racial faultlines I the region. So is the vitriol heaped on Tamil Nadu’s leaders by Sri Lanka’s defence establishment.) The most important dimension of Tamil Nadu’s agitation is the political one. Tamil Nadu backs Tamil Eelam. The myth that Eelam’s independence will spark separatism is Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, is a bogus claim trotted out by opponents of the Tamil struggle: few states are as securely and happily ensconced in the Indian federation as Tamil Nadu.
It is in this context that the LTTE has made its clearest overture to India. Declaring that “our struggle does not contravene the national interest, geopolitical interest or economic interest of any outside country,” LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan, said in his Heroes’ Day address that his organization was seeking a “renewal of our relationship with the Indian super power.” Noting that “our freedom movement, as well as our people, have always wished to maintain cordiality with the international community as well as neighbouring India,” he said: “With this in view, we wish to create a viable environment and enhance friendship. We wish to express our goodwill and are looking forward to the opportunity to build a constructive relationship.”
Whilst some excitedly point out that the LTTE’s overture is a sure sign of its military weakness, those with an intimate knowledge of Sri Lanka’s conflict will be aware that this is but the latest – if the clearest – effort by the LTTE to mend fences. One notable earlier example was in 2002: long before Thailand was selected as the venue for the Norwegian-led talks, the LTTE appealed to India to provide the venue. It was Delhi’s refusal (preceded interestingly by protests by the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu) that paved the way for other countries to play host instead.
India remains the regional hegemon, unchallenged by even its nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan. The Tamils have always known that India will be an important actor in securing their freedom and thwarting Sinhala chauvunism’s ambitions. The Sinhalese also know this, which is why the once thinly disguised fear and loathing in the South, is now at the fore. Dutugemunu’s warnings may be mythical but they ring no less loudly for that.
Amid changing global power distributions – i.e. the rise of new and old regional powers, changes in leadership and in the calculations of great powers, and renewed focus on ‘old’ problems like state repression and genocide, one thing is brutally clear today: the problem in Sri Lanka is not one of non-state terrorism, but of a murderous state project of subjugation of the Tamil people and effacement of their identity. This is why Tamil Nadu has been galvanized into action. In the coming era, the voices of 70 million Tamils cannot be ignored and will impact on governmental calculations in the region and further afield.
For those Tamils who had hoped that enlightened Sinhala leaders would one day emerge to shape genuine compromise solutions, the present dynamics in the island’s south – the undisguised racism, the joy at the bloodshed the government is thought to be wreaking amongst Tamils and the open arrogance – have revealed the impossibility of that hope. Now, just as the Sinhalese have united in their determination to crush the Tamils once and for all, the Tamils must unite in unyielding resistance.