Sri Lanka’s violent conflict raged on this week despite repeated calls by different international actors for an end to war and a return to the search for a political solution. However, although heavy casualties and flooding have produced a lull in the Sri Lankan military’s efforts to capture the Vanni from the Liberation Tigers, Colombo’s determination to achieve a military solution is undiminished. It is against this foil of militarism that numerous international efforts to bring about a solution, even forcibly, are being contemplated.
Although the international community has failed to grasp this, the rationale underlying the Sinhala leadership’s commitment to a military solution turns on deep seated ideological conceptions of itself, the Sinhala people, and the island’s minorities, especially the Tamils. We have repeatedly argued that the crisis in Sri Lanka is not of two irreconcilable demands – a unitary state and Tamil independence – but of majoritarian state repression of the Tamils. However, the notion that political compromise is the key to resolving these two political, albeit ‘extreme’, demands has long underpinned international misunderstandings of Sri Lanka’s impasse.
To begin with, the Tamil question emerged well before Colonial Britain, quitting South Asia, left Tamils and Sinhalese divided yet locked within a single administration. That was sixty years ago. Majoritariniasm emerged almost instantly and ethnic tensions erupted within a few years. The Tamils suffered marginalisation and communal violence sanctioned, if not backed, by the state for at least three decades before the Tamil militants emerged. The demand for political independence, Tamil Eelam, become an overwhelming demand and was endorsed by the Tamil United Liberation Front’s sweeping success in the 1977 elections, several years before today’s armed conflict erupted. The permissive conditions for 1983’s anti-Tamil pogrom emerged through three decades of untrammeled Sinhala power over the minorities.
The point here is that permanently ending Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict is not about disciplining the LTTE and/or rewriting the majoritarian constitution, but about creating an unshakable political arrangement on the island that will, once and for all, ensure an end to majoritarian persecution of the Tamils. We, along with many Tamils since the mid-seventies, have consistently argued that the only solution that will ensure lasting peace is a two-state one. For as long as there is state repression, there will be resistance and counter-violence, a truism underlined by both recurrent and persistent conflict in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and other parts of the world on the one hand and, on the other, the creation of new and stable states in other parts. Peace does indeed come from security.
No matter how much international actors (and some West-backed local actors) may wish – or adamantly insist – that the ‘majority’ of Tamils and Sinhalese want to live together, Sri Lanka’s ground reality, should they care to look, says otherwise: the Sinhalese will not be dissuaded from the notion the Tamils are interlopers in ‘their’ island. Especially since the Rajapakse regime assumed power, the underlying majoritarian drivers of state repression have become unabashedly open. To be sure, the forceful reemergence of geopolitics has arguably unfettered the Sinhala state’s hegemonic project, but it was never in abeyance - that is why Sinhala leaders have never reached any substantive agreement with their Tamil counterparts and why even minor agreements have all been abrogated by the state at a moment more convenient. In short, the goodwill of the Sinhala majority is a brittle basis for lasting peace.
The consequent point is, whether there is an LTTE or not, majoritarian state repression will not end. Nor, therefore, will violent Tamil resistance. The utopian vision of a united, multi-cultural Sri Lanka is an impossibility amid the deep-seated majoritarianism that underpins governance in Sri Lanka. Entrenched within the constitution, state structures and political system, Sinhala nationalism is incessantly recycled by powerful processes and actors that no amount of international cajoling or threatening can shift; this is because Sinhala nationalism is not the preserve of an extreme minority in the south, but a powerful, mainstream force.
Meanwhile, the liberal-speak of Sinhala governments since the mid-nineties has engendered a sanguine belief amongst (particular Western) international actors that it is Tamil extremism – i.e. the LTTE - which is standing in the way of liberal peace. However, the blatant lurch towards the Sinhala right by the southern polity that has followed the Rajapakse regime’s coming to power has cracked the veneer of liberalism that has cloaked Sinhala majoritarianism since the nineties. Moreover, the undisguised chauvinism that has engulfed Sri Lanka in recent years has undoubtedly stemmed from a confidence the LTTE can be destroyed and hegemony – i.e. a solution within a united Sri Lanka – can be violently imposed on the Tamils. Although Sri Lanka’s military has run into serious difficulties in the north, Southern confidence, bolstered by fantastical battlefield claims and media discipline, is undiminished.
If the liberal interventionists are right, the apparent weakening of the LTTE heralded by the state’s internationally-backed capture of the East between mid-2006 and mid-2007 should have produced a rush to pluralist accommodation between Tamils and Sinhalese. It has produced exactly the opposite. The international community, particularly the West, is unable to reconcile the ‘victories’ against the LTTE and the absence of a spontaneous eruption of liberalism. Which is why the increasingly vocal international criticism of the Sri Lankan state is absurdly interspaced with forceful demands of the same state that it must voluntarily share power with the Tamils and thus ‘solve’ the problem.
Amid these contradictions, the global liberal order is breaking with its habits of recent years and attempting to strong arm the state into being, ironically, more liberal. But these laughably tentative efforts – marked by symbolic cutting of aid and lectures on human rights – has done nothing to tame the Lion. Powerful states are inevitably imbued with a conviction they can forcefully fashion arrangements that suit their demands. However, if it takes powerful intervention to create peace, it will take powerful intervention to make it last, a point underscored by countless international projects since the end of the Cold War.
The alternative, as many of these projects have themselves demonstrated, is to ensure a stable distribution of power among the peoples in conflict. The demand for Tamil Eelam is not a consequence of notions of Tamil cultural superiority, but an understanding that only a state can check a hostile state. Since the Peace of Westphalia, sovereignty has formed the basis for international order. It underpins the United Nations today. However, Sri Lanka is not a stable polity and given the resilience of Sinhala majoritarianism, it does not have the makings of one. The dynamics within the island today forcefully underline the Tamils’ assertion, first articulated so clearly in 1977, that independence for the Tamils and lasting peace in the island are one and the same.