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The making of a liberal quagmire

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Some of the liberals in Western policy establishments and the Sinhala chauvinists running Sri Lanka’s state have for several years had more than a little in common. Both have long laid the blame for the island’s crisis wholly on the LTTE and the broader Tamil national movement. And both have advocated a military solution to the conflict, irrespective of the catastrophic cost to the Tamil people.


For many years, many in the liberal policy establishments of the West have argued that the LTTE and Tamil nationalists are the single biggest obstacle to realizing a fully democratic, pluralist Sri Lanka. At the same time, they indulged Sri Lanka’s many and obvious failings and chauvinism, characterized this ethnocracy as a fledgling democracy heroically struggling to cope with a multitude of problems such as poverty and unemployment amidst a Tamil terrorist problem.


These liberals had almost fanatical belief that once the LTTE had been crushed and the insolent Tamil nationalists put in their place, Sri Lanka would be well on its way to becoming an inclusive, democratic and peaceful polity.


Amid this unshakeable conviction, many liberals were eager to resume the war against the LTTE and when President Rajapakse did just that in 2006, fell enthusiastically in line. Indeed, only the Tamils and the LTTE protested the collapse of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process.


So now that the implacable liberals have finally got what they wanted, the military defeat of the LTTE, shouldn’t they be pleased? Apparently not. It seems Rajapakse’s military victory has not brought the island any close to a liberal peace. Indeed, Sri Lanka is further from a liberal peace than at any point in its bloody sixty year history.


Having “slaughtered” – in Human Rights Watch’s terms – 20,000 Tamil civilians in just five months, the Sri Lankan state has now interned the 300,000 people of the Vanni behind barded wire and machineguns. In brazen sight of the international community, Tamils are subject, at the state’s will, to murder, abduction and rape. Separated from loved ones, starved, suffering grievous wounds, they are clinging to their humanity amid the state’s deliberate and calculated violence. So much for liberal peace.


Meanwhile, in the north, Jaffna is still an open prison where paramilitaries and soldiers maraud at will. The island’s east, ‘liberated’ in 2007 to international acclaim, is a seething cauldron of ethnic tension, chronic insecurity and Sinhala colonisation. In the south, Tamils are harassed by Sinhalese on the streets and in their homes, whilst the police look on nonchalantly. So much for liberal peace.


Ironically, only the liberals are surprised. Everyone on the island – including even critics and opponents of the LTTE – have long well understood these are the dynamics that make up Sri Lanka.


So how did Western liberals, espousing peace and inclusivity, end up promoting a racist war that has wrought such destruction on the Tamils and fuelled a virulent Sinhala chauvinism?


It began with a persistent misreading and misinterpretation of the Sri Lankan conflict.


Liberals have long sought to characterize Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict as one that began when the LTTE attacked the Sri Lankan military in the early 1980’s. Until that point, liberals claim, Sri Lanka was a thriving if somewhat flawed liberal democracy. All of Sri Lanka’s subsequent ills, including below potential economic growth, societal tensions and political instability have thus been conveniently blamed on the Tigers - and Tamils for supporting it.


If only there was no LTTE, the liberals have argued (the literature is awash with this), then not only would Sri Lanka see rapid economic growth and development, but these would almost inevitably be followed by a liberal and inclusive political settlement and a thriving plural and civic culture.


This simplistic and reductive reading of Sri Lanka’s conflict is problematic, chiefly not least as it fails to take seriously at all the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism deeply embedded in the state and Sinhala polity.


It thereby mistakes the LTTE, a symptom of Sri Lanka’s problems, for the cause. At the same time, it mistakes state chauvinism, the cause, for a symptom.


Tamils, of course, recall the three decades of violence, exclusion and persecution by the Sinhala-dominated state, thirty years of deepening alienation that resulted in a resounding mandate for an independent Tamil Eelam by 1976.


The LTTE and Tamil militancy more widely (there were at least five major armed movements in the eighties) are a consequence of the state’s structural and violent oppression of the Tamils, rather than an exogenous factor that arrived from nowhere and triggered ethnic conflict in an otherwise unproblematic polity.


Tamils confronting this Western liberal misreading of the conflict have tirelessly pointed out Sri Lanka’s history of oppression and repression that predated by many years the arrival of Tamil militancy. They have pointed to the disenfranchisement of Upcountry Tamils, the violent state-backed anti-Tamil pogroms, the state sponsored ethnic cleansing and Sinhala colonisation of traditional Tamil areas, the destruction of Tamil heritage (including the torching of Jaffna library with its irreplaceable and priceless manuscripts) and the deliberate economic neglect and strangulation of Tamil speakers and the Tamil speaking areas.


However, rather than engaging with the historic and structural forces that culminated in violent conflict in the early 1980’s – i.e. with the ‘roots’ of conflict – many liberals have preferred to take comfort in simplistic frameworks whereby ‘armed groups’ – i.e. the LTTE – are the fundamental problem. Whatever the factors that led up to armed conflict, they asserted, the problem now was armed conflict itself.


Thus, the LTTE was pilloried and the state celebrated. The former was deemed unremittingly violent, incapable of reform and fanatically committed to a crude ethno nationalist ideology. (This, of course, is what the Tamils were saying about the Sri Lankan state and today’s Sri Lanka speaks for itself.)


When in 2001 the LTTE’s hard fought military stalemate with the Sri Lankan state created the conditions for a political process, the liberals seized the opportunity. Not to examine and address the structural causes of the conflict, however, but to crush once and for all the LTTE and the Tamil nationalist project.


The liberal hawks’ will to war was undisguised. Before and throughout the peace process, they repeatedly cast aspersions on the LTTE’s commitment and belittled its efforts to govern the areas under its control. Conversely, they papered over the state’s chauvinism with bureaucratic and technocratic excuses. They poured scorn on the LTTE’s attempts to reconcile international demands with its real and substantive security concerns, whilst ignoring the LTTE’s concessions at the negotiation table.


Within months of the 2002 ceasefire, the liberals had completely forgotten that it was the LTTE that had called for international mediation and, from a position of military strength, first offered a unilateral ceasefire. Instead they began to assert that the ‘reluctant’ LTTE had been ‘forced’ into a ceasefire because of the ‘war on terror’ and that it could only be kept on the straight and narrow by more or less open political and military coercion.


Despite Tamils’ pleas that a military balance was the only way to maintain stability in Sri Lanka, the hawkish liberals rushed to rearm the Sri Lankan state. Whilst actively working to militarily constrain the LTTE, they massively increased the Sri Lankan military’s conventional capability and provided the state with unqualified diplomatic support as it brazenly violated key aspects of the Ceasefire Agreement (all of Article 2 on normalisation, especially).


Having rebuilt and massively expanded the state’s economic base and conventional military capability, the liberals heaped blame on the LTTE for the failure of the peace process when it began to unravel amid the state’s new-found confidence.


Why compromise when you can fight and win?


Thus, the eventual resumption of war in 2006 should be seen as nothing but the logical consequence of the simplistic but dangerous frameworks through which liberals pursued peace in Sri Lanka.


This is also why the possibilities for a meaningful and sustained political process in Sri Lanka are the bleakest ever: Sinhala chauvinism is now untrammelled on the island.


As Tamils have long argued, without a credible military threat the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism that led to the conflict and served to escalate it to this catastrophic point will unfurl in all its supremacist glory. In particular, the Sri Lankan state will not voluntarily move an inch towards a credible political solution to the Tamil question.


Indeed, arguing that because it has vanquished the LTTE, the Sri Lankan leadership now tells the world that it wants a solution based on the philosophy of Buddhism. Nothing here about a political solution compatible with the norms of liberalism and democracy for which the West backed a murderous military campaign.


Instead, the entire Tamil population is subject to militarised domination, internment and depredation (in the Northeast) or arbitrary racial violence (in the South). The Sinhala military is to be expanded by another 100,000 - even though victory has been declared. The 300,000 military is the basis for state-society relationship. Hardly liberal peace, then.


Sri Lanka’s future is not one of “ethnic reconciliation”, “peace-building”, “development” and “unity”, but one of deepening communal antagonisms, wholesale marginalisation of Tamil speakers (not just Tamils), as well as systemic abuse and violence by the state.


What is clear is that the belligerent liberals who enthusiastically advocated this war have little by way of a coherent policy response to this unfolding crisis.


Up to now, the usual response was to blame the LTTE for any and every problem in Sri Lanka and thus prescribe further violence and coercion against the Tigers and the wider Tamil liberation movement.


This has been the only liberal policy response. The LTTE has been proscribed by several Western liberal democracies, its members subjected to travel bans and its leaders have been openly targeted for assassination with international sanction. Meanwhile the wider Tamil liberation movement, both within Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora, has been subject to sustained assault using anti terror legislation, sanction and even direct violence.


Tamil civil society – when it holds the wrong political beliefs (i.e. an independent Eelam) – has been criminalised, its leaders and representatives imprisoned or murdered (the faceless killers could never be found, but no one, not even the Western liberals, cared).


The Sri Lankan state fully expects more of the same from the liberal West. Whilst subjecting 300,000 Tamils to hellish conditions of existence, it trots out the LTTE as justification: ‘infiltrators’. Meantime, it calls on the West to attack the Diaspora.


But what should be starkly apparent now is that none of this is going to produce liberal peace on the island.


Those who thought the LTTE could be brought to a hurting stalemate and a negotiated solution thereafter pursued, seriously misjudged the uncompromising Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism that has driven Sri Lanka for the past sixty years. The fiction the Sri Lankan state wanted meaningful political engagement with the Tamils has been destroyed, along with 20,000 more Tamil bodies.


For years, LTTE leaders such as Anton Balasingham, S.P Thamilchelvan and P. Nadesan attempted to engage seriously with Western liberals. Whilst the Sinhala chauvinists ridiculed the liberal peace or mockingly adopted its rhetoric whilst spending Western aid and drawing on liberal political support, these LTTE figures attempted repeatedly to explain that Tamil liberation is not illiberal.


Whilst the Tamils will mourn them and their comrades as heroes and martyrs, the international community will come to acutely feel their absence. Sri Lanka’s crisis will not stand still and it will not improve. The international project to secure a stable and lasting solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict thus stands at a crossroads. Will the liberals support further repression of the Tamils or will they finally confront the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism that has brought the island to its present misery? Whatever course is chosen, any credible attempt to ensure a stable and lasting peace in the island will require not just a radical break from the past but also a critical rethinking of past policies. This is a liberal quagmire.

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