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Sinhala hawks have nothing to lose

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Sri Lanka’s Tamil, both in the island and the Diaspora, are now all too familiar with the laissez-faire approach the international community adopts in responding to humanitarian abuses against Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka. Hence, there was no particular surprise to the muted reaction from the international community when state-organized mobs, in some cases with the support of the security forces, embarked on a series of attacks on Tamils in the Trincomalee district.

Almost since independence and throughout the decades long ethnic question there have been several episodes of state-sponsored violence against its ethnic minorities. The most notorious was the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. President J.R. Jayawerdene, in the aftermath of violence that killed over 3,000 Tamils, asserted with satisfaction, that the minorities had been ‘taught a lesson’. His international allies murmured some discontent before carrying on as usual.

A decade later, the Sri Lankan military embarked on the ethnic cleansing of Tamils from large swathes of the island’s east, instigating a series of massacres which resulted in the mass movement of Tamils out of the area as Sinhala colonists moved into their homes. The violence and this strategy only ended when the LTTE began to retaliate in a similar manner.

Even before last month’s anti-Tamil rioting, the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse and its allies had indicated that violence against the wider Tamil population is tolerable, at the least, and at worst, a legitimate means of subduing Tamil political ambitions. Mangala Samaweera, the Rajapakse administration’s foreign minister, floated a veiled threat during a recent visit to the United States, saying that should LTTE violence against state forces increase, the Sri Lankan government ‘may not be able to restrain’ Sinhala mobs from attacking Tamils. Champika Ranawake, the policy guru of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the hardline Buddhist party allied to Rajapakse, was far more lucid, stating: “in the event of a war, if the 40,000 government troops stationed in Jaffna are killed, then 400,000 Tamil civilians living in Colombo will be sent to Jaffna in coffins.”

To date, the international community have chosen to allow President Rajapkase, despite his ultra-nationalist electioneering, the benefit of the doubt. The Colombo diplomatic community chose to embrace a comforting fiction that the President has been misjudged and is, in fact, a moderate attempting to placate his rightwing allies on which he is dependent. The policies now being implemented by Colombo vis-à-vis the Tamils must therefore have come as a rude shock. Repeated actions by Colombo that might have escalated the violence to an all out war have only been interrupted as the Indian government has not been averse to stepping in and telling Rajapakse to knock it off.

India, through its extensive experience in the region, has long been familiar with the duplicitous and chauvinistic politics of the Sinhala leadership, even if it has supported the latter to specific ends. Furthermore, with elections looming in Tamil Nadu and sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil plight growing there, India would come under severe pressure to act should Colombo’s actions result in large numbers of civilian casualties. Meanwhile, India has undoubtedly also been irritated by the Sri Lankan government’s decision to pursue Pakistan as a partner, after they failed to elicit support for their hard line policies from New Delhi. Historically an unreliable partner, there is no reason for New Delhi to give the current Colombo administration substantial backing.

The rest of the international community are however not burdened with the same concerns. The Tamils are well aware that the international community in the past has been happy to allow the Sri Lankan state to inflict collective punishment on its minority population to achieve its military objectives and thereby, their (international) interests.

The embargo that accompanied President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace’ inflicted enormous suffering on the Tamils outside Colombo’s control. Yet the international community backed Kumaratunga’s strategy with billions of dollars of financing. International non-governmental organisations concentrated on campaigns against recruitment of under-18s by the LTTE, even as hundreds of thousands of Tamil children where denied food and medical assistance by the state. This deliberate collective abuse by the state against Tamils was accepted as a natural component of the conflict and was rarely challenged, except for a few critical observations in periodic human rights reports.

It is clear that the present Sri Lankan government is preparing the same strategy. Just as during the ‘war for peace,’ the military has begun preventing international humanitarian workers and press from reaching the Northeast as part of a wider process of controlling information that comes out of the region.

The unfortunate decision by the Canadian government to list the LTTE as a terrorist organisation a week before the state unleashed its violence against Tamil civilians is indicative of the misguided policies applied by international actors to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. It is particularly ironic that it was the LTTE which was censured last week considering it has largely limited its attacks to military targets in contrast to the Sri Lankan military’s consistent retaliation against Tamil civilians.

The ban by the Canadian government is whilst of limited impact, given the longstanding bans by the US, UK and India, is nevertheless a reminder of the uneven approach the international community has taken to resolving Sri Lanka’s conflict. Canada’s limited understanding of Sri Lankan dynamics is manifest when contrasted with that of India, arguably the most significant geopolitical player in Sri Lanka. Delhi, it is clear, is – at least for now - adopting a more even handed approach to controlling the violence.

With a European Union ban in the pipe, the international community has meanwhile opted to sever political relations with the only player backed by a majority of Tamils, whilst maintaining and endorsing the political position of their principal adversaries, the Sinhala elites running Sri Lanka.

To date the international community has displayed a cold-blooded pragmatism, rather than a commitment to humanitarian standards, when it comes to Sri Lanka’s conflict. During the early 1990s, when it was widely considered feasible to solve the ‘Tamil problem’ through militarily destroying the LTTE, many states were content to turn a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s brutality against the Tamils - some going further to finance and assist the project.

But by the turn of the century it was clear that this approach was not working. The LTTE had established a position as a quasi-state and had inflicted a series of telling defeats on the state. This had left the LTTE in control of substantial tracts of territory and a dominant position in the Tamil polity. With armed conflict proving ineffective, the international community them tempted both parties to the negotiating table, promising Sri Lanka further financial and military assistance and luring the LTTE with the possibility of legitimacy should it cooperate.

The international community ‘s approach to the LTTE has been mistakenly focused on the Tigers’ supposed desire for legitimacy and have lost sight of the LTTE’s greater objective: to irrevocably secure the protection of the Tamils against Sinhala aggression. In the face of a belligerent and confident Sri Lankan military, which is now publicly calling for an annulment of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement and the resumption of military hostilities, the LTTE is unlikely to be particularly responsive to any further international threats.

More generally, the international community has proved reluctant to rethink its pro-state bias which has underpinned its past policies towards Sri Lanka. With the exception of India, there appears no willingness to confront and challenge the hawkish policies of the present Colombo administration, for example.

Moreover, pressure on the LTTE at this stage is unlikely to work amid the ongoing contest for military advantage. Both sides are recruiting, training and rearming. The state is receiving international assistance and is being promised more. Should the Sri Lankan military gain the upper hand because the LTTE ignores strategic risks whilst attempting to satisfy international demands for peace talks, the LTTE’s ability to deter aggression will be weakened. In an extreme case, should the military build up an overwhelming advantage, it is entirely possible that an all out ‘war for peace,’ this time by the Rajapkse government, could again be endorsed again by the international community.

Cognisant of this threat the LTTE will understandably prioritise security interests at the expense, if necessary, of the fleeting goodwill of the international community. Conversely, should the LTTE make any substantial gains in any impending conflict, it will likely further strengthen the organisation’s position at the negotiating table.

The international community had set out to engineer a peace process which would deliver some limited devolution to the Tamils in exchange for an end to Tamil violence and the disarming of the LTTE. This outcome, given the ending of Sinhala hegemony it entails, is unacceptable to the present Colombo administration. An international project which had been engineered to contain the LTTE has thus resulted in the Sinhala leadership being corralled into an unacceptable path toward federalism or similar.

Therefore, from President Rajapakse’s point of view, should his military succeed in gaining the upper hand in a renewed military conflict, the government can abruptly end any discussion of federalism and even revert to the scenario of the late 1990s where Sri Lanka had international backing to concentrate on militarily subduing the Tamil rebellion.

On the other hand, should Colombo’s military adventure fail then it would be back to the peace process and the road to federalism, as this ‘cap’ on Tamil aspirations, has been guaranteed by the international community, as even recent statements by many states demonstrate.

For the Sinhala hawks, therefore, there is nothing lost by exploring the military option. This perspective, moreover, is based entirely upon the premise that the future policies of the international community will mirror those of the past. It will be impossible for the international community to negate this logic; given its weak track record, it has no credibility in challenging a dominant Sri Lankan state. In other words, even if foreign states now promise to punish Sri Lanka if it pushes for war, Colombo won’t be deterred: if the state wins, then the international community, regardless of its pledges, will carry on backing.

The incentives and dangers for both protagonists are thus abundantly clear.

Meanwhile, it is unrealistic for the long suffering Tamil community to expect the international community to substantially deviate from their policies of the past. There has rarely been any moral basis for the policy considerations of foreign states in Sri Lanka. The more naïve members of the Tamil community nurture hopes that the international community will recognise the administration in Colombo for the chauvinists they are and dramatically change their approach toward the Tamil problem. Regrettably, history has proven that only a change in the ground realities of the conflict have resulted in any shift in policies.

But hoping that the international community will undergo a spontaneous realisation that they are backing a morally corrupt state and curb Sri Lanka’s abuses, is unfortunately just that – wishful thinking.

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