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Now What?

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The collapse of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) earlier this month was an inevitability. The best that this sham at 'reaching a consensus on the ethnic question' could have ever done was to drift along indefinitely. That, in any case, was its real purpose. President Mahinda Rajapakse set up the APRC in early 2006, a few months before he resumed the war against the Liberation Tigers. Ideologically committed to Sinhala-hegemony, President Rajapakse and the southern majority that swept him to power are opposed to any sharing of power with the Tamils. Reviving the notion of an all party conclave was to forestall pressure for him to come up with a credible power-sharing proposal.

Such a proposal is, after all, only necessary if there is strong LTTE - without the Tigers' military pressure, no Sinhala government would need to take Tamil political demands seriously. Even Sri Lanka's international allies are urging state to share power with the Tamils to end the conflict, not because they see the long-oppressed community as having a right to it. The APRC was thus a very thinly disguised delaying tactic, intended to buy Rajapakse enough time to smash the LTTE. And even though the leading international actors knew this, they have continued to back the APRC as some sort of panacea for Sri Lanka's now glaringly apparent ills. Meanwhile, they backed Rakapakse's war to the hilt.

Things have not gone according to plan. For well over a year the Sri Lankan military has thrown itself into an all-out effort against the LTTE, but the movement remains a potent and latent challenge to Sinhala hegemonic ambitions. Rakapakse crowed about capturing the 'entire east' from the LTTE. The LTTE has certainly withdrawn the bulk of its forces - and redeployed them in the north where, if Sri Lanka wants to destroy the Tigers, the crucial battles will have to be fought. The east has meanwhile become a militarized wasteland where hundreds of thousands of people are engulfed in a humanitarian crisis as army-backed paramilitaries predate at will. As Sri Lanka struggles to find the extra troops it suddenly need to both hold the east and attack the north, there are efforts to raise Sinhala militia. All manner of officially-sanctioned gunmen prowl the 'liberated' east. Meanwhile, a massive effort is underway to eradicate Tamil and, to their consternation, even Muslim identity from the east. Tamil and Muslim places are being given Sinhala names. Tamil and Muslim areas are either being appropriated by the state - as 'High Security Zones' and 'Free Trade areas' - or are being colonized by Sinhala settlers.

The international community is well informed on all these developments -as they have been from the time Rajapakse began his war. But instead of restraining him, they have encouraged and supported him. The EU and Canada banned the LTTE. Japan and multi-lateral donors like the ADB and World Bank continued to provide funds. The US and UK sold more weapons, while traditional arms suppliers Pakistan and China kept up their flow. They helped Colombo prepare the misery that has been visited on our people while telling us that they were for peace, for a negotiated solution 'acceptable to all', for Tamil grievances being redressed.

The APRC was the fig leaf. Knowing full well the main Sinhala parties are united only on minimizing accommodation with the Tamils, international actors sustained Rajapakse's charade. Despite the pleas and protestations of the Tamils - articulated by the parliamentarians, civil society and other 'non-terrorist' folk - and even the Sinhala liberals terrified by the rabid chauvinism that has become the mainstream of southern politics, the international community has cynically continued to tell us to wait for the magic pill Rajapakse's APRC, they assured us, was bringing forth.

The show is over. The main opposition UNP has seized an ideal opportunity and quit. The ultra-nationalist JVP left long ago - apparently it doesn't want to be part of anything that weakens the unitary state. International actors have been insisting for years that 'the majority of people in Sri Lanka want peace.' This is true - but they also want a very specific peace. The majority of Sinhalese want a unitary Sri Lanka with a Lion flag where Buddhism is the 'first and foremost' religion. None of the Tamils, despite the best will of the international community, want that.

So the question is, now what? Is the international community going to act decisively to restrain the Sri Lankan state and ensure a just solution or is it, as it has been for a long time, going to continue to assist the Sinhala chauvinists in their efforts to retain power over the Tamils? We think we know.

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