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Improving the Tamils

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Unreported by the international and local media, Sri Lanka's conflict has intensified in the past few weeks. Amid renewed pitched battles between the Sinhala military and the Tamil Tigers on different frontlines around the Vanni, the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils in the area - as well as hundreds of thousands more in government-controlled areas - are being deliberately ignored by the (West-led) international community. The occasional expressions of 'concern' and the demands that international aid be allowed in are token moves. The simple fact is that, just as it did from 1995 to 2000, the international community has prioritized the stability of the Sinhala state over the welfare of the Tamils. After all, the latter are held to have brought their suffering on themselves by challenging the state, especially by violent means.


This is why there are two parallel 'worlds' in Sri Lanka. For the Tamils, the present situation is one of crisis, one marked by intense repression and violent attack by the state, displacement and humanitarian suffering on a staggering scale, near total blockade on food and medicine, and so on. This has been the norm for three decades. For the Sinhalese and the international community, on the other hand, this is a period of great optimism and satisfaction: the Tamil rebellion, they believe, is being put down once and for all, whereupon the Tamils' foolish defiance and their ideas above their station would dissipate. It is in this regard that 2008 is no different to 1998. Now, as then, the international community poured money, weapons and expertise into the Sinhala state, precisely so that the LTTE can be crushed and 'peace' secured. In 1998, for example, the World Bank declared, of the Sinhala military's advances against the LTTE: "the government has restored peace in [these] districts"; this week the World Bank pledged US$ 900m in new aid. The assumption now, as then, was that with the LTTE gone, all that is needed to keep the Tamils content is some development.


What is important here is the two different visions of who and what the Tamils of Sri Lanka are. We see ourselves as a nation, one with a distinct and valuable culture, tradition, language and heritage stretching back thousands of years. Our culture includes fine arts of various forms as well as dynamic popular forms. We see our traditional heritage as one comparable to others with millennia-long histories. However, the international community - especially the Western states - see us as a largely under-developed minority, one simply not capable of engaging with the intricacies of modern government or governance or, as a former US ambassador put it in 2001, coping with the complexities of globalization. We are held to be under-developed not only in economic terms, but also social, cultural and political senses. Thus, our political demands, our rationales for challenging the Sinhala state, our conceptions of what independent statehood entails and so on are simply the articulations of an unsophisticated, unmodern society and thus need not be taken seriously. Thus what is required is that first we are disciplined and rendered docile and then, given the appropriate training and education to be 21st century world citizens (separately, the Sinhalese will be imparted with the tolerance to accommodate our wishes to use our own language).


What is important here is how Sinhala and international conceptions of who or what the Tamils are have much more in common than appears at a first glance. The mytho-historic narratives of the Sinhalese, including the Mahavamsa, see the Tamils as the remnants of past invaders of a Sinhala island. This is the logic underlying Army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka's assertion last week that the Tamils may remain but should not make undue demands on the Sinhalese. Separately, it is worth noting, as many international scholars have, how Sinhala mytho-historic narratives posit the non-Sinhalese on the islands as somehow sub-human. These logics are inherent to how the Sinhala military fights the Tamils: indiscriminate bombing and shelling, starvation by blockade, wholesale destruction of towns and cities, etc. Recall, for example, how General Janaka Perera who was assassinated last week, readily razed the Tamil town of Chavacachcheri to the ground in 2000 and in the years before oversaw the abductions, torture and murder of many Tamils - beyond the hundreds that Amnesty International recorded in 1996 alone.


Our demand for an independent Tamil Eelam is based on two distinct aspects: firstly that the Tamils are being violently oppressed by a chauvinistic Sinhala state and have been since 1948 and, secondly, that we are a people versed in the philosophical, conceptual and practical dimensions of modern governance and are thus inferior to none. The basis for the international community's rejection of our demand (whilst often couched in terms of international law, international norms and so on), is ultimately based on a contemptuous view of the Tamils as an unsophisticated, undeveloped minority that is demanding things that it is simply not capable of coming to grips with. In that sense, we are not distinct: the former colonial powers - which includes the United States, as Filipinos know well - and likeminded states are still of the opinion that they know better than the masses of the non-West as to what's in their best interests.

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