23 December 2008
The past few weeks have seen some of the bloodiest fighting in Sri Lanka since President Mahinda Rajapakse began his war to crush the Tamil rebellion. The Sri Lanka Army's massive multi-pronged offensive against the Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass area last week resulted in the third and largest debacle in as many weeks there. Over a thousand dead and wounded Sinhala soldiers were removed from the battlefield in four days. Heavy fighting is continuing. In the meantime, the Sinhala government has stepped up its bombardment of population centers in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Houses and refugee camps are being destroyed and livestock slaughtered by cluster munitions and high explosive shells.
Yet the international community remains unmoved, hoping for and awaiting Rajapakse's military triumph. Some international voices are, meanwhile, blaming the LTTE for the Tamils' plight. Human Rights Watch, for example, declared last week the LTTE is "responsible for much of the suffering of civilians in Vanni". Less intemperate commentary holds the Tamils "to be caught between" the LTTE and the Sri Lankan forces.
This is not merely a matter of international actors being ill informed or unaware as to the ground situation. Rather, it is a question of ideological blinkers, of a specific interpretation of the situation. Whilst the Tamils see a racist Sinhala-dominated state seeking to impose its military dominance and wipe out their identity and scatter their people, actors like HRW see a 'war against terrorism' being waged amid 'poor governance'. In other words, rather than attributing a strategic intent to the state's many actions of violence and discrimination, they see a 'lack of capacity' or 'need for reform'.
Thus whilst Tamil people see the impossibility in of securing equality between themselves and the Sinhalese people in a single country - just like between the Kosovars and the Serbs, HRW et al, assume this is accepted amongst the island's population. All that is required is to establish a system of governance to reflect this. Western actors thus see any solution as beginning with the shoring up of the Sri Lankan state - first - and then 'reforming' it. Which is why, over the past decades, they continued to pump money, weapons and political support into the Sri Lankan state, despite the continued suffering of the Tamils.
Even when the Sinhala leadership openly declare their contempt for the Tamils, and the Sinhala people repeatedly declare their support for its policies, Western policy makers and practitioners, unflinchingly convinced of their 'single united and democratic Sri Lanka' vision, refuse to pay attention. They argue that many Tamils live amongst the Sinhalese - though they can't explain why so many are desperately trying to flee the island nor why there are no Tamils amongst those who declare Sri Lanka safe for Tamils. The millions of dollars poured since 2002 (at least) into 'peacebuilding', 'democratization', 'state reform', 'ethnic reconciliation', and so on have come to absolutely nought, as reflected by the wave of euphoria and racism that has erupted amongst the Sinhala since President Rajapakse began his war. The Tamils have tried, in myriad ways, to explain that the various deprivations they endure in Sri Lanka stems from a racial hierarchy institutionalized in the state. But HRW et al are not listening.
For the West, it is the LTTE that is the problem in Sri Lanka. Trapped in a racism of their own, which blinds them to any politics that doesn't accord with their view of how peoples of the South ought to conduct themselves, Western actors will never take Sinhala nationalism seriously, not even when it manifests itself as openly as in present-day Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Sinhalese leadership knows this well enough and has exploited this ideological blindness, adopting the rhetoric of 'human rights', 'democracy', the need for state and market 'reform' and so on. HRW et al have never taken up the notion of racist oppression in Sri Lanka. Limiting their concern to 'impunity' and 'rule of law' arguments, they see the Sinhala state as a flawed, but viable democracy.
In short, they are never going to support the Tamils, but will always back the Sinhala state. Which is why, even today, it is the LTTE that obsesses them. Tamils have repeatedly sought to make the argument that this is genocide, but not once has any Western actor stood up for us against the Sinhala state. Which is why it has come down to the battlefield. Only when the Sinhala state despairs of overcoming Tamils' resistance to Sinhala hegemony will we have our freedom. Amidst ongoing genocide, criticism of the LTTE and support for our Sinhala oppressors are one and the same.