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Unavoidable Paradox

It has been an uncomfortable couple of weeks for Sri Lanka's militarist government. The United States has linked the sale of (some) weapons to an improvement in the human rights situation in the island. The US government agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has taken Sri Lanka off its eligible list, pending the same. Britain has made thinly veiled threats about action against President Mahinda Rajapakse's regime. In the meantime the international chorus calling for a UN human rights monitoring mechanism continues. The international panel overseeing President Rajapakse's Commission inquiring into a selection of atrocities has, on cue, declared this exercise in self-regulation a sham. But while these international steps, especially the US and UK, are welcome, they will, almost certainly, have no effect save, possibly, raising optimism that the Sri Lankan state is going to be restrained.

Let there be no mistake. President Rajapakse is not going to be dissuaded by international handwringing from his completion of the Sinhala hegemonic project which began soon after independence under his father's watch. To begin with, he enjoys the enthusiastic support in this regard of the vast majority of Sinhalese. Even the main opposition UNP is not unsympathetic to this project, having also furthered it whilst it was in power (which, incidentally, is why the 'liberal' UNP has never come out in strong opposition to the Sinhala-isation of the state or the rampant jingoism and anti-Tamil xenophobia that has emerged since President Rajapakse took power). Most importantly, the Sri Lankan government is confident that, for all its grimacing, the international community, operating in the logic of the 'global war on terror', will not seriously impede the Sinhala nationalist project which rests primarily on destroying the LTTE. Even the accompanying projects of Sinhala colonization and demographic redrawing are drawing international support (under the guise of advancing 'development').

In the past two years, the Sri Lankan state has launched a full scale war in the Tamil homeland. Military operations have killed hundreds of Tamil civilians and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes. Thousands of Tamils have been abducted and 'disappeared' or extra-judicially killed. Brutalized bodies have been routinely dumped on roadsides for two years now. Yet is only now that the US et al are taking tiny steps to punish the state. And these are not credible sanctions: Sri Lanka can easily acquire the weapons denied by the West from other sources, including China, Pakistan, India and Russia. Even the symbolism of sanctions has not had the appropriate effect: Colombo's reaction was reportedly to call the envoys of the offending countries in and give them a lecture on sovereignty.

Thus the international community arrives at a curious paradox: the only way to 'reform' the Sri Lankan state is to breach its sovereignty. Indeed, while arguing that there must be a political solution to the Tamil question, the international community has no credible way to ensure such a solution emerges. In an effort to convince, even cajole, the Sinhalese to share power with the Tamils, the international community has concentrated on cracking down not on the state, but on the only reason the state has ever had to share power - the armed struggle of the LTTE. But it has not worked. The more likely it looks the LTTE will be defeated, the less interested the Sinhalese are in sharing power (indeed, it was the military ascendancy of the LTTE that precipitated that, now distant, excitement of federalism in 2002).

Having failed over three decades to reform the Sri Lankan state, the Tamils resolved first to form their own state in their homeland and later, amid unbridled state violence, to do so by arms. We, the Tamils who have to live in a united Sri Lanka, were unable to solicit from the Sinhalese a sense of equitable amity, let alone a common brotherhood. We know the international community will not be able to do it - not without intervention bordering on trusteeship. The Sinhala leadership knows this. Which is why none of them (not even the UNP, the darlings of the international community) will even countenance the involvement of the UN in the 'internal affairs' of the Sri Lankan state. This is why any negative comment by any UN official or agency draws a hysterical reaction from the government and, pointedly, absolute silence from the other Sinhala parties. A liberal polity cannot be wished into existence if the dynamics that oppose it (especially a self-renewing nationalism charged with racial supremacy firmly in charge of the state to be reformed) are not aggressively disrupted. The international community will not surmount this paradox.