For several recent years, the international community’s approach to ‘Sri Lanka’ has been shaped, to a great extent, by the opinions and prescriptions of a select group of – largely British - analysts and policy makers. In their rarely self-questioned conviction, the reasons for war in Sri Lanka - and what consequently needed to be done for ‘peace’ - were blindingly simple: the root cause of war was the demand for Tamil Eelam and the ‘fanatical’ LTTE’s armed struggle for this goal. Ergo, all that was need for ‘peace’ was Sri Lanka’s ‘democratic’ government to militarily ‘weaken’ the LTTE thus bringing it to the negotiating table and making it give up Eelam. In short, the island’s problem was ‘violent conflict’ (i.e. the LTTE) and not the character of the Sri Lankan state (and certainly not ‘genocide’ as the Tamils outlandishly claim).
This analysis has been utterly discredited by the conduct of the Sri Lankan state (as well as the most of the Sinhala polity) in both the murderous closing stages of the war and, especially, thereafter. But whilst the deliberate massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians and the squalid incarceration of hundreds of thousands has compelled several international actors to look anew – and askance – at the Indian Ocean ethnocracy, the London-based policy nexus which theorised, argued for, and solicited international consensus around Sri Lanka’s military onslaught is still insisting the strategy was essentially right, that ‘peace’ can yet emerge. These handmaidens of Sri Lanka’s bloodbath will be proven disastrously wrong again. But not before the Tamils endure much more suffering and further bloodletting.
To begin with, the ‘Sinhala first’ logic that has informed state policy and the limits of politics since independence has been manifest in both the Colombo regime’s conduct and the general support for these policies amongst most of the Sinhala polity and population. It is underlined not only in sustained state brutality towards the Tamils, but, equally, in Colombo’s interactions with the international community. The historical persistence of state chauvinism is underlined in Human Rights Watch’s observation this week that, of the commissions set by numerous Sri Lankan governments to investigate abuses, “none have produced significant results, either in providing new information or leading to prosecutions.” . Several international actors are thus coming to realise that the problem in Sri Lanka is, as the Tamils have long been arguing, rooted in the character of the Sinhala-dominated state. Consequently, what is required for lasting ‘peace’ is that the state be compelled to adhere – well beyond mere rhetoric and lipservice as in the past – to the norms of liberal governance.
But, in contrast, the policy nexus that helped implicate the international community in Sri Lanka’s mass slaughter is still blundering on in ‘conflict resolution’ mode. In their logic, their grand strategy is actually working: the LTTE is destroyed, ergo peace is at hand; what is required now is some governance reform and a little poverty alleviation. (The overlap between this logic and that of Sinhala militarism and ultra-nationalism is not inconsequential.) The hunt is thus now on to find ‘moderates’ of various ethnic hues. What is required, foremost, is to find Tamils who will unconditionally reject ‘genocide’ and ‘Tamil Eelam’ and engage in dialogue with the Sinhala regime (these are the prerequistes for Tamils to be deemed ‘moderates). What is less important here is Colombo actually treats Tamils as equal to Sinhalese.
At the root of this analysis is another form of chauvinism, one that has a colonial legacy and serves to both infantilize Third World peoples and trivialise their politics. Or put it another way, Tamil demands for ‘self-determination’ are deemed laughable, because as a people we are simply not considered capable of grasping the gravity or complexity of such concepts. The Tamils’ demand for self-rule is thus seen qualitatively different from, say, that of the Quebecois’. Such condescension is not new – indeed it is exemplified in British colonial conduct in the run up to the island’s independence and thereafter.
What is important, however, is that the horrors of contemporary Sri Lanka are not only laying bare the real drivers of protracted ethnic conflict there, but also revealing the dubious analytical and moral foundations of international backing for the Sinhala state. Meanwhile, though it has not yet been noticed, but for all of its bloodletting and cold-blooded cruelty, Colombo has still not been able to compel the Tamils to abide by Sinhala supremacy. The coming period will thus be one of rising Sinhala triumphalism, intransigence and oppression, on the one hand, and deepening Tamil suffering and defiance, on the other. No international strategy is thus more disconnected from reality now than one of seeking dialogue amongst ‘moderates’.