Classic counter-insurgency urges states adopt a twin-track strategy: violence against the guerillas and incentives for civilians not to support them. When serious political dissatisfaction is fueling support for the militants, the incentives must necessarily include a ‘political solution.’
This is the strategy the international community has encouraged successive Sri Lankan governments fighting the Tamil Tigers to take.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga attempted it in her disastrous ‘war for peace’; offering a devolution package whilst fighting a high intensity war against the LTTE.
The strategy failed because, firstly, the package was not credible, having been emasculated by Sinhala nationalists, and secondly, the unbridled brutality of her military campaign sent support for the LTTE soaring.
But President Mahinda Rajapakse is following a different track these days.
As his recently unveiled ‘power-sharing’ proposals show, Rajapakse is not interested in wooing the Tamils. Rather he intends (in the style of President J. R. Jayawardene)– to teach the Tamils a punishing lesson for defying the state.
In short, he is not going to persuade the Tamils to abandon the Tigers, he’s going to cow them into submission.
This is why, despite publicly toying with the notion, he has not put serious effort into forging a southern consensus on what to put before the LTTE at the table.
It is also why he is unabashedly following a single-minded and ruthless war strategy, marked by mass displacements of Tamils and widespread human rights abuses against them.
The international community has in recent times come to the realization Rajapakse is simply not interested in their advised approach.
So, whilst they are still committed to backing Sri Lanka against the LTTE, there is considerable nervousness that Rajapakse is unnecessarily stoking Tamil resentment with his tactics.
Which is why you sometimes get murmurs of disapproval, along with token measures, from the US, UK and others.
But in principle the international community is committed to supporting the Sri Lankan state against the LTTE.
And they know full well that the Tamil Diaspora, located primarily in North America, Europe and Australia, is a crucial well of support for the Tigers.
The array of bans on the LTTE in US, (first UK, then) EU and Canada, as well as the finance restrictions in Australia are intended to block the financial and material support that Diaspora Tamils are providing the Tigers with.
Just as Rajapakse has given up trying to win over the Tamils, so has the international community.
And just as Rajapakse is using a campaign of terror to browbeat the Tamils in Sri Lanka, several Western governments have launched an aggressive campaign against the Diaspora Tamils.
In the past two months Tamils have been arrested in France, US, and Australia on charges of providing support to the Tigers, of extorting money for the LTTE, and so on. The media is taken along for all the arrests, with massive coverage following.
A Tamil television station, TTN, which has viewers across Europe, was shut down last month by French authorities. The charge was of not registering the channel properly (though employees allege the authorities simply ignore their applications).
In Britain, the state-owned BBC and establishment newspapers are conducting a smear campaign alleging that Tamils funding the Tigers are the prime suspects credit card fraud.
Many of those arrested are openly sympathetic to the LTTE. But most are not simply canvassing for the LTTE. They were exposing the atrocities being inflicted on the Tamils by the Sri Lankan state. This violence and deprivation is not not reported by the main media organizations, which are barred from parts of the Northeast or are not equipped and staffed to report continuously from the other areas.
The ongoing international campaign of ‘shock and awe’ against the Diaspora has two objectives; firstly to pressure the LTTE and, secondly, to demoralize and frighten the Tamil expatriate public.
The international community appears to have calculated that through such arrests and other harassments of Tamils in foreign countries, it will able to exert sufficient pressure on the LTTE to give up its armed struggle and go to the negotiation table.
Thus the international campaign against the Diaspora Tamils is an extension of the Sri Lankan state’s campaign of terror against the Tamils there.
For many states waging the self-styled ‘war on terror,’ Diaspora communities appear threatening and problematic. The logic of ‘legitimate state versus illegitimate terrorists’ is applied without nuance to all states which are prepared to sign up to the ‘global’ war.
Of course, international politics remains state-centric and states will generally support each other (indeed, with the state as the most powerful political organization around today, that is why the Tamils are seeking their own state).
The international norms that gained such force at the end of the Cold War, such as those around human rights and protection of civilians, have proved remarkably fragile this century.
The missed opportunities for positive international action in Sri Lanka have been numerous. In the past couple of year, these include the failure to force the Sri Lankan government to implement PTOMS (the mechanism to share tsunami aid with the LTTE), to re-open the A9 and other humanitarian corridors, to observe international humanitarian law (laws of war), to desist from using food embargoes against Tamil population centers, and so on.
Even the recent campaign for human rights protection by Amnesty International has not led to reduction in international military and economic support for the Rajapakse government.
This unwavering support stems from a belief that whatever its flaws, the Sri Lankan state will ultimately reform, drop its Sinhala chauvunism and become a ‘liberal democracy’ in the model of the Western donors backing it.
This belief underpinned the attachment of conditionality to aid disbursed by donors during the Norwegian peace process. The conditions were meant to ensure aid flowed to reward ‘good’ behavour and was blocked by ‘bad’ behaviour.
Indeed, more often than not, the state was given the benefit of the doubt and conditionality was often dropped.
Most of the $4.5bn pledged in Tokyo in June 2003 was made conditional on ‘progress in the peace process.’ Despite the country sliding steadily into the present all out war, most of that aid had been disbursed by 2006.
The international community approach is mainly carrot for the Sri Lankan state and stick for the Tamils. The ‘shock and awe’ strategy unleashed against expatriate Tamils in the past few weeks has at least four objectives.
First, to terrorize Tamil expatriates into not extending their financial, material and political support to the LTTE for fear of arrest or harassment.
Secondly, to frighten Tamil activists into not engaging in political activity in their host countries against the Sri Lankan government.
Thirdly, to force expatriate Tamils to pressure the Tigers into giving up the armed struggle and negotiating instead with the Sri Lankan government.
And lastly, perhaps most desirably, for the Tamil Diaspora to pursue their political aspirations, not by backing the LTTE, but other actors. These could be other Tamil actors – so called ‘moderates’ – such as the paramilitary groups that are allied with Colombo against the LTTE.
But, ideally, the international community would like expatriate Tamils to go running after the host states themselves. Rather than the LTTE being the representatives of the Tamils, the host states, citing its ‘own citizens,’ could instead take up this mantle instead.
International calculations figure expatriates’ money and expertise could be channeled through ‘official channels’ to the Tamils of the Northeast. Then not only would the LTTE be denied the Diaspora’s support, the oppressive Sri Lankan state could perversely harness the expatriates’ efforts to better their brethren’s plight towards defeating the Tamil struggle.
This is why Western states are knowingly assisting Sri Lanka’s efforts to terrify and intimidate the Tamils by targeting Tamil media, community organizations and political activists in their own territories.
Whilst the international community makes much of the lack of press freedom in Sri Lanka, France shuts down the TTN television on a registration technicality.
While media promoting the LTTE or Tamil perspective are thus blocked, Sri Lankan government’s claims against the Tigers – such as the credit card allegations – are propagated through mainstream Western media.
While the Sri Lankan government is chided for not allowing NGOs to operate, Tamil expatriate organizations seeking to highlight Colombo’s human rights abuses are harassed and investigated on charges of ‘supporting LTTE terrorism.’
Whilst Sri Lanka is gently urged to allow humanitarian access and provision of shelter for hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils, Tamil expatriates are aggressively prevented from supporting Diaspora charities and trusts that are known to be working effectively in the Northeast.
The Tamil Diaspora must not be shocked and awed by the ongoing international hostility. Rather than retreat from participating in politics, we should do exactly the reverse and participate more actively.
The international community’s actions are based on perceptions of self-interest. We should engage with key states and INGOs as part of our efforts to promote the Tamil cause.
Ultimately, what is crucial is that the Diaspora continues to support the Tamils’ sixty year struggle for political rights.
This month sees the 31st anniversary of the passing of the Vaddokoddai Resolution, unanimously adopted by the first convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the year before the party won a sweeping mandate in the 1977 elections.
The Resolution, concludes with a plea to us, the Tamil people.
It calls “upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully in the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam is reached.”