09 October 2007
“…And the message should go out to anyone facing persecution anywhere from Burma to Zimbabwe: human rights are universal and no injustice can last forever.”
When the new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, made this declaration to the assembled ranks of the ruling Labour party last month, it sounded almost like a return to the ‘ethical foreign policy’ that his predecessor, Tony Blair called for in his first term.
But listening to Mr. Brown, the country’s Tamil citizens would have though of the daily human rights abuses being committed against their brethren in Sri Lanka. Some would have wondered if this meant Britain would act to end the state terror and despotism that has become the hallmark of the corrupt, clientilist Rajapakse regime.
Even if there isn’t the ‘humanitarian intervention’ conducted on behalf of – presumably more deserving – peoples elsewhere, will we see sanctions imposed on the Colombo government? Perhaps an arms embargo, or travel restrictions on regime leaders?
At the very least, would we see a stop to the deportations of terrified Tamils seeking sanctuary in Britain from the state and paramilitary death squads that roam their homeland?
However, a moment’s reflection tells us none of this is likely, much as we may hope – or, as citizens with belief in our adopted country, expect.
Having said that a change in British policy towards Sri Lanka is unlikely, it can be seen that London remains committed to what is called the ‘Liberal Peace’ agenda.
This places institutional reform of the problem state as the key priority for resolving conflicts within it while maintaining the international status quo. This is the international community’s approach to Sri Lanka.
It is sustained by a belief that the wrongs being committed against our people are temporary and that in time Sri Lanka will come to accord the Tamils a place within its society and politics.
This is where Sri Lanka differs from Burma.
Since independence Sri Lanka has been able to pass itself off as a democracy, despite its marginalisation of the Tamils (through electoral power distribution over the regions - out of the 225 seat Parliament, just over two dozen seats are for the Northeast).
This veneer of democracy, whilst demonstrably a ‘tyranny of the majority’, allows the pro-democracy West to harbour hopes for state reforms that will turn what is essentially a majoritarian chauvinist state into a Western-style liberal democracy.
This belief is being cynically exploited by the Sinhala elite to maintain their positions in power and, especially, to prosecute a punitive war against the rebellious Tamils.
Initially the recent Burmese protests were led by a Buddhist Sangha of equal reverence amongst the various ethnic groupings making up the country. The protests were thus seen as a pro-democracy protest; a repeat of the 1988 Burmese student uprisings. In fact, they were triggered by the ruling Junta raising fuel prices, raising cost of living to intolerable levels.
But what is interesting is that, apart from howls of outrage, the response of the international community was sluggish at best.
Indeed, the world powers have for decades stood by whilst the Burmese military unleashed genocidal waves of violence and ethnic cleansing against non-Burmese peoples, including the Karen.
In many respects the Tamils and the Karen are in a similar position, suffering ethnic persecution by a majoritarian state and fighting for independence from it.
The tardy response of the international community to the recent Burmese crisis mirrors its actions in the face of Sri Lanka’s past eighteen months of brutality.
The lack of concern towards the plights of our people and theirs underlines how ‘R2P’ is merely a buzzword bandied about to elevate its proponents’ moral standing and, by placing the onus on the Sinhala state, to justify international inaction.
Most importantly, international reaction to Burma’s crisis also shows that freedom has to be something we earn ourselves. There is no international ‘salvation’ coming.
The British Prime Minister’s revulsion at the attacks by Burmese soldiers on unarmed civilians, especially Buddhist monks, was notable, as was his subsequent approval and attendance of pro-democracy campaigns.
However, there was no acknowledgement of the racism against minorities endemic to Burmese rule.
The international community would like to take control of the opposition campaign in Burma so as to increase their influence with a future regime there. That inevitably means maintaining the integrity of Burma’s borders, and thus denying peoples like the Karen the right to self-determination.
Western criticism of the Burmese Junta’s national consensus for failing to involve all parties and ethnic groups and is similar to the ‘rewriting’ of the Tamil problem as a ‘democracy deficit’ rather than ‘racist oppression.’
Having said that, we have yet to see this type of condemnation being levelled against Sri Lanka, which as carried out similar attacks for the same period of time.
In comparison; attempts to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka are usually precipitated by calls for the LTTE to lay down its arms and renounce violence as if it, and not the Sinhala state, is the cause for the Tamils’ misery. It does not matter that the state was discriminating against and killing Tamils with impunity long before it occurred to the latter that taking up arms might be their only way out.
But let’s for a moment think through what might happen even if the LTTE was to lay down arms. Who would protect the Tamil people from the Sinhala state?
It is worth bearing in mind international responses to recent events in Burma, but also more appalling events in the Balkans and Rwanda, not so long ago.
Given the international community’s tendency to respond only when their interests are at stake, we can be certain that the Tamil people simply cannot count on external intervention to protect them from the state’s violence.
Even now, how many Tamils will Rajapakse’s regime be able to murder before the international community might do something?
Interestingly, this ‘Liberal Peace’ policy of the Western powers and others towards the protagonists in Sri Lanka’s conflict is markedly different to that in Iraq.
Ever since the ‘War on Terror’ began, the US has identified threats to the international system as coming from either rogue states, such as Iraq, Iran and Syria; states deemed to harbour ‘terrorist groups’, such as Afghanistan; or failed states i.e. states without an effective government were ‘terrorists’ can take control of the territory and make it their ‘safe-haven’.
The fear generated by these new categories of states and the potential threats after 9/11 was one of the key planks of US reasoning for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In response to these attacks it will be expected given the fear of rogue or failed states, the West would seek to staunchly support the government of Iraq, as in Sri Lanka.
However, whilst becoming increasing impatient at the snail’s pace of Iraqi government reform, the US has readily taken steps that reinforce the divisions within the country, both ethnic and sectarian.
Not for Iraq, the ‘multicultural state building’ that everyone is waiting for Sri Lanka to undertake.
In a bid to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, the US has begun arming and funding the very Sunni insurgents that it was battling furiously – in the name of protecting democracy, naturally - till recently.
The policy is being widened as it has produced quick results: the number of attacks on US troops is falling in these areas and the Shia-majority government is, for the first time, faced with a serious compulsion to speed up reforms: the possibility of a well armed Sunni opposition.
The point is the Sunnis are not being integrated into the ‘national’ army and police, but are being armed and supported outside these state institutions.
But even before this departure from the ‘Liberal Peace’, there was another, much more profound one: soon after US forces toppled Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish guerrillas battling his racist regime were quickly institutionalised as a standing army and issued with Iraqi uniforms – along with vast quantities of weapons and systemic training.
This happened soon after Iraq was occupied in 2003. Unlike in Sri Lanka, there was no talk of ‘civil, rather than ethnic politics’, no effort to have solutions ‘that have the support of all Iraqis’, no commitment to ‘one nation’
There was, after all, a war to be fought, goddamit!
Iraqi Kurdistan is thus now already governing itself as a semi-autonomous region, previously having had de-facto independence from 1991 -2003, courtesy of Western air power.
Having said that, in a token commitment to ‘Liberal Peace’, however, soon after Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed, federalism was emphatically ruled out as not necessary– the Iraqis were all going to love each other in democratic euphoria.
But still troops were needed, and the Kurds were trustworthy and tough. Ready made soldiers for the ‘new Iraqi army’.
Most importantly, there was no fear of ‘Balkanisation’, of Iraq ‘falling apart’ if this was done.
Indeed, the recent arming of the Sunnis and the long-running bolstering of Kurdish military capability are both underwritten by tacit international acceptance that the partition of Iraq along its ethnic and religious lines is not necessarily a crisis for the rest of the world.
The argument that Shias and Sunnis ‘will always fight’ has emerged recently not because it is necessarily true, but because the US can’t be asked to linger any longer trying to build a nation-state. It has other issues to attend to.
Curiously, this contrasts with US actions in Sri Lanka, where they train the military and emphatically insist on the need to maintain the country’s territorial integrity.
The point here is that nothing is absolute – not even international commitment to another state’s territorial integrity. We know that international commitment to Sri Lanka is self-interested and calculated, not heart-felt.
The Tamil struggle, as we have been patiently explaining to the world for decades now, is resistance to the Sinhala state’s genocidal violence.
But the more we resist and the more the Sinhala state strives to destroy us, the greater the political and economic cost of international commitment to its hegemonic project.
Unlike the Sinhala leadership, the world does not believe wiping us out is worth any price. Thus, despite international refusals to heed our arguments and pleas, we must continue to resist the Sinhala state’s efforts and assert our right to life.