23 January 2009
The territorial advances of the Sri Lanka military this month has produced what is said to be an existential moment in the island’s sixty-year-old ethnic crisis. The end of the LTTE is confidently predicted by the Sinhala government, as ever, and various pundits who have begun to speculate on the various futures to follow. As always, we will desist from tactical military predictions. Instead, we will confidently state, once again, that Sri Lanka will not see the end of Tamil militancy until and unless Sinhala oppression is permanently checked. By this we do not mean a political solution, but the concrete impossibility of further Sinhala tyranny. The two are, as is often conveniently forgotten, not the same.
To begin with, the LTTE is a product of Sinhala oppression and Tamil defiance. Just as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was a product of Israeli oppression and Palestinian resolve. Although the Sinhalese and the West have preferred to see the LTTE as a project unto itself, i.e. an externality to the imperfect ‘normalcy’ of Sri Lanka, basic political analysis begs the question: what dynamics, exactly, has ensured the LTTE a steady and widening stream of committed fighters, funding and political support from the Tamils for over three decades? And what can be expected of those dynamics in the hereafter?
The Sinhala (and Western) fixation today with eliminating the LTTE and its leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan as a solution to the Tamil question mirrors that of Israeli (and Western) obsession of yore with eliminating the PLO and Yasser Arafat as a solution to the Palestinian question. Observers of the Middle East will recall how the end of the Palestinian struggle was confidently predicted in 1982 after the massive Israeli onslaught into Lebanon ‘boxed’ the PLO into Beirut. However, Palestinian militancy did not end because Israeli oppression did not end. Instead, the latter escalated and the former kept violent pace (it is worth reflecting, at this juncture, on why the PLO and Arafat later became dubbed ‘moderates’).
Tamils have never rioted against Sinhalese. But, even before the armed conflict began, our people had been subjected - in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 - to what Professor Sankaran Krishna has aptly called “annihilatory violence”. As he also argues, “these periodic explosions of violence against Tamils represent efforts to put them back in their places on grounds they have become too assertive and need to be taught a lesson.” The Sinhala military has taken over from the Sinhala mobs, but the Tamils, it seems, still refuse to learn their lesson, to accept their rightful place under the Sinhalese, that the island belongs to the people of the lion and we – and other non-Sinhalese – are invading interlopers.
The Rajapske government, the other Sinhala parties and the majority of the Sinhala people (save a shrinking handful of progressives) are united in violently teaching the Tamils the lesson begun sixty years ago. Notice how not one Sinhala voice protests the daily slaughter of Tamil civilians in the north. It is not an accident that Sinhala chauvinism is undisguised today: the belief that the LTTE is (finally) being destroyed drives a misplaced confidence that the Tamils can (finally) be subordinated.
The point here is that Sinhala chauvinism is the ‘tectonic plate’ underlying the island’s crisis. The mentality that resulted in ‘Sinhala Only’ in1956 is even more entrenched in the fabric of the state and polity today. The reason a federal answer was impossible then is the same reason it is impossible now, a point those preoccupied with ‘solutions’ ought to bear in mind.
Yet, for the most part, the fixation has been on the LTTE and “its” demand for Tamil Eelam. Many – including even some Tamils– have suggested, especially during the reverie induced by the Norwegian-led peace process, that a federal solution is “enough”. But this logic of ‘extreme’ and ‘reasonable’ demands suggests that the Tamils are being indulgent while choosing from some kind of constitutional menu. But is that the problem in Sri Lanka, our demand for independence? What came before that to precipitate such a radical demand by our people?
As for a ‘political solution’, would the Sinhala people - today baying hoarsely for more blood as scores of Tamil civilians are killed and maimed - have ever agreed to a federal solution? Even if it had been signed with one of the Sinhala parties, would it have lasted – what happened to the much-vaunted PTOMS after the tsunami? Even the anemic provisions of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord were discarded by the Sinhalese when they thought the moment opportune. Why would things have been any different re: federalism?
It is worth noting that Tamils’ faith in an ‘internal’ solution – whatever it may be – was based entirely on the international community’s integrity as its underwriters. Indeed, in 2003 US Ambassador Ashley Wills even confidently assured the Tamils in a media interview that “now that the international community is watching” they no longer have any need of the LTTE. Well, the West is certainly watching today - just as they did in Sebrenica, in Rwanda or, if the point needs need underlining, in Gaza.
The history of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict has been marked regularly by Colombo’s confident predictions of ‘the end’ of Tamil militancy. Even when much detail of the battlefront was available, escaping the censors best efforts, as in President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time of ‘War for Peace’, for example, those analysts daring or foolish enough to predict the course of history have been consistently wrong. Yet today, despite an extraordinary blackout, confident predictions abound.
These flow, moreover, primarily from a ‘self-evident reality’ marked out by the Sri Lankan military-supplied binary colored map. The LTTE, SLA commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka asserts, has been ‘boxed’ into Mullaitivu. Perhaps. But the LTTE has been so cornered before, in Jaffna and in Mullaitivu. It is precisely in this situation that the true colours of the Sinhala have come out, on the one hand, and the Tamils have stood closer together, on the other. In other words, this is when the Tamil project of nation-building and liberation has moved forward.
There are those who ask what the Tamils have achieved after sixty years of conflict. That is self-evident. Lest it be forgotten, this is not a war not of our choosing, but one forced upon us by the murderous ethnocracy the British left behind. Yet we have not been subdued. We have not accepted a place as second-class citizens in our own homeland or surrendered our dignity as a people. No matter what deprivations the Sinhalese and their international allies have visited on our people, no matter how they have sought to erase our national identity we have resisted. We have made defiance our hallmark.
The Tamil struggle for self-determination is at a crucial moment today. This is not about the armed struggle - the will to resist embedded in the LTTE will ensure that Sinhala hegemony remains an impossibility. Rather, it is about how to the Tamil nation moves beyond the myth we have been laboring under, that of peaceful co-existence as equal with the Sinhala nation being possible. The Sinhala nation is today making its greatest effort yet to annihilate the Tamil nation, politically and physically. Having made this possible, the international community is watching and waiting. The moment has come for us to unite as a people and stand fast - until we can never be put in this situation again.