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Tamils and Tigers

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Recently, some sections of the international community have begun to demonstrate an understanding that addressing the root causes of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict will go a long way toward its resolution.

A number of states, human rights groups and media organisations have begun acknowledging that Tamil grievances do exist. Many have asserted a need to recognise Tamils’ fundamental rights - to live free from discrimination and language rights amongst others.

The most prominent recent convert to this ‘Tamil grievance’ position has been the United States, which in a promising step forward, acknowledged the legitimate political aspirations of the Tamil people and their claim to a homeland.

Yet some of the most powerful new proponents of this position still offer impractical routes as to how the Tamil people should go about achieving these basic rights.

Whilst finally acknowledging Tamil grievances, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, also rejected their backing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a means of securing redress. The LTTE, he said, has to eschew violence and join Sri Lanka’s democratic process. In other words, surrender.

Boucher’s statement on Tamil rights marks a welcome shift in the right direction by Washington. It was only five years ago, that US Ambassador Ashley Wills, speaking in Jaffna told the Tamils that they were not a people, that there was no Tamil homeland and the Tamil struggle was a form of racism. It was uncompromising statements such as these which convinced many Tamils that the International Community would always prioritise ties with Colombo over the rights of downtrodden minorities.

The recent US move to distinguish between the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people and the LTTE as a vehicle for achieving them has been mirrored by other international actors peers. In several meetings between European governments’ and Tamil representatives, such as parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the donor community has been keen to emphasize that they would be much more supportive of the Tamil cause, were it not for the existence of the LTTE.

Another example of this newfound international empathy for the Tamil plight are the recent comments by the British Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. Mr. Dominic John Chilcott admitted that the British system of governance passed on to Sri Lanka had been flawed in its inability to protect minorities from abuse.

In light of the various unconstitutional measures enforced by subsequent Sinhala governments this seemed unnecessarily self-critical. Nonetheless it demonstrated that the international community has a keen understanding of the insurmountable constitutional challenges to reforming the Sri Lankan state.

Unsurprisingly, associated media and non-governmental organisations have also begun to endorse this new paradigm; that Tamil aspirations can only be met after the LTTE has been disarmed.

Another new believer in legitimate Tamil aspirations seems to be Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose Asia Director, Brad Adams, also recently acknowledged Tamils may have grievances, but also insisted the Tamil Diaspora pressure the LTTE to relinquish violence as step towards addressing them.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, this is a peculiar position, given HRW’s last report on Sri Lanka claimed the Tamil community did not support the LTTE and any assistance was due to widespread intimidation. The implicit reversal of HRW’s position is welcome, but does result in scepticism amongst the appeal’s target audience, the Tamil Diaspora.

The Times newspaper in London echoed the same demand that the Tamils dump the Tigers in a violently anti-LTTE editorial on August 15. The paper accused the LTTE of spurning “every gesture” of President Mahinda Rajapakse - who it also admitted was aligned to hardline Sinhala nationalists.

The paper simply overlooked the refusal of the Rajapakse government to implement the agreements reached in the last round of talks with the Tigers in February. The talks, termed Geneva I, had called for the dismantling of state-backed paramilitaries, but nothing has happened, except the violence has deepened. The paper also omitted mention of the numerous paramilitary attacks on LTTE cadres and supporters and, most importantly, the offensive launched by the Army since July 21.

The Times made a glancing mention of legitimate Tamil grievances before concluding that the LTTE’s armed struggle is an unacceptable vehicle for resolving such issues and demanding that the Tamil Diaspora disown the organisation. The Tamils, it added darkly, “will have no peace” until they do so.

Perhaps when compared to CNN’s coverage of the Sencholai massacre last week, The Times might seem balanced: the US media organisation simply reported Sri Lankan government’s version of the incident, saying an LTTE base was bombed - and that moreover, despite the statements from the site of the massacre by UNICEF and the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, that the victims were in fact school children at a first aid course.

Tamils have come to expect various international media organisations to be biased towards the state when reporting this island’s decades long conflict. However, the critical aspect of recent statements, press articles and NGO releases, is the overall effort to get the Tamil Diaspora to give up their backing of the LTTE in return for - as yet to materialise - international support for their recently acknowledged legitimate grievances. In other words, to split the Tigers and the Tamils.

The problem is one of credibility. To date there is no sign of international understanding what exactly Tamil grievances are. More importantly, even if the international community were able to appreciate Tamil aspirations, there is little evidence that it is capable of delivering them.

Revelations by Canada’s deputy foreign minister of how his country is encouraging reform in Sri Lanka are particularly disheartening for the Tamils. Donors such as Canada had shifted, he said, from providing infrastructure-focused aid toward reform-focused assistance as a way to encourage state reform.

It is obvious that such incentive systems have failed to impact successive Sri Lankan governments, largely due to the intense competition between donor nations to lend money in a bid to secure political influence in the country.

The reality is that Sri Lanka is offered substantial amounts of aid by countries ranging from the US to Korea and even China, each seeking to secure political influence in the region. With this variety of suitors courting Sri Lanka, securing political influence alone will prove a challenge, let alone demanding any sort of reform in the process.

The various institutional and constitutional challenges in Sri Lanka are also virtually unassailable. The ethnic ‘outbidding’ politics which has dominated the island makes the two-thirds majority necessary for reform of the state impossible, particularly with the rising influence of extremist Sinhala parties.

With no extra-constitutional measures being considered by external actors to overcome such hurdles, there is no tangible evidence as to how the international community intends to deliver on any political commitments it seems to be offering the Tamils sans LTTE.

Even more concerning than the inability of the International Community to effect reforms in Sri Lanka is their apparent unwillingness to do so.

The appalling international silence in the aftermath of the Sencholai massacre last week suggests that concern for Tamil grievances is merely rhetoric. The Sri Lankan military has consistently terrorised Tamil civilians as part of its efforts to defeat the LTTE. But, as during the infamous ‘war for peace,’ the International Community appears to consider Tamil civilian (and child) casualties an acceptable price of defeating the LTTE.

Tamil welfare and rights have been sacrificed in the past, long before the emergence of the LTTE. In the aftermath of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, there were few voices demanding reform of the Sri Lankan state. The three decades that preceded that landmark pogrom had witnessed state sponsored ethnic cleansing, other anti-Tamil riots and ever-deepening institutional racism.

Despite all this, Canada says that international focus at the time was aimed at developing the Sri Lanka’s infrastructures and not in reforming the transparently chauvinistic state.

So how can the international community now expect to convince the Tamils that in a future without the LTTE’s leverage over Sri Lankan affairs, international interest in Tamil welfare will remain?

The appalling international silence over the Sencholai massacre and the widespread recent displacement of Tamils doesn’t inspire confidence. This alone tells the Tamils that international interests will always determine external responses to Tamil suffering - and that the Tamils will require their own security apparatus in any final settlement to the conflict.

The most disturbing aspect of al this is that recent international policy statements reveal the substantial knowledge about the island’s conflict that the international community has.

Tamil academics and journalists have repeatedly produced papers and articles toward ‘informing’ international policymakers, based on the assumption that their policies are not malevolent but merely misinformed.

But there is clear international understanding of Sri Lanka’s flawed and irreversibly majoritarian constitution - as Mr. Chilcott underlined. Mr Boucher’s acceptance that Tamils are a people with a homeland and legitimate grievances suggests that the International Community has been well versed on of ethnic dynamics in the island. The Canadian Deputy Foreign Minister acknowledged that despite knowledge of the Sri Lanka’s oppression of the Tamils, aid has flowed unfettered to state’s coffers.

In light of this nuanced understanding of the ground situation, Tamils must reflect on the efficacy of ‘informing’ the international community. After all, when it suits their interests, it is pretty clear the international community will engage the Tamils, and most probably in a more genuine manner.

Moreover, international statements tow-ards recognising Tamil grievances, whilst welcome, are linked to the ever-changing military situation on the island.

International actors and media expect the Tamils to abandon the LTTE at the first whiff of any acknowledgement of legitimacy of their struggle.

But the Tamil community, assisted by virtually no other power than its invaluable Diaspora, have been one of the few peoples in history to halt genocide on their own, with no external assistance.

If the international community is genuinely supportive of Tamil grievances, it ought to focus on challenging the Sri Lanka state’s discrimination and violence, rather than seeking for ways to give the Tamil liberation struggle routes to legitimacy.

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