Some of the liberals in Western policy establishments and the Sinhala chauvinists running
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
It thereby mistakes the LTTE, a symptom of
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
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
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
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
This is also why the possibilities for a meaningful and sustained political process in
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
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
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.