India in Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa’s regional ally or aspirant global power?

As India’s External Affairs Minister arrived for the CHOGM summit today, he sought to underplay the significance of the Indian Prime Minister’s absence. Manmohan Singh was forced to withdraw in response to concerted political pressure from Tamil Nadu where the State Assembly has unanimously passed two resolutions demanding an Indian boycott. Whilst Tamil Nadu insists that India must make justice for the Tamils central to its policy in Sri Lanka, Delhi thinks otherwise. Wedded to an out of date Cold War framework in which great power interests are calibrated by spheres of influence, and subsequently driven by paranoia about Chinese investments in the region, it desperately seeks influence in Sri Lanka and is willing to collude with Colombo’s crimes to that end. But this conciliatory approach is bound to fail. The central obstacle to Indian interests on the island is the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian order that produced the Rajapaksa presidency. Until India works to undermine and contain this, it will not be able to realise any of its commercial, political or diplomatic objectives on the island.

Engagement legitimises repression

Writing in the Tamil Guardian on Thursday , British Premier David Cameron set out his government’s rationale for rejecting the growing calls, both at home and abroad, for him to boycott the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka next week. Whilst noting the Sri Lankan government’s “ poor record on human rights and cruel treatment of the Tamils ” – an understatement given the steadily mounting evidence – and the grave “ allegations ” of war crimes and sexual violence, Mr Cameron’s argument, in sum, is that to secure the “ change ” he wants to see, “ the right thing to do is to engage ” with Colombo. We disagree. In fact, it is precisely Britain’s policy of essentially unconditional engagement that has enabled, and emboldened, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime to thumb its nose at international demands for accountability and justice, and to intensify its repression of the Tamil people.

Britain and Sri Lanka: best friends forever?

Amidst mounting criticism from an array of voices, the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary continue to insist that they will be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo next month, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office going to extensive lengths to defend this decision. Calls for a boycott are gathering momentum, including an explicit promise of support from Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary. Meanwhile the Indian Prime Minister is said to be reconsidering his attendance as protest grows in Tamil Nadu, including protests against...

Vote for liberation

The landslide victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election was an act of sheer defiance by the Tamil people. Their emphatic endorsement of the TNA at the ballot box - whose campaign highlighted the core Tamil political demands and the Tamil armed resistance for independence - was a resolute affirmation (through the only means available to them) that the political aspirations outlined in the Thimphu declaration of 1985, continue to be the basis of the Tamil struggle. This was not a vote for the TNA. It was a vote for resistance. It was a refusal to accept the government's mantra of 'development, rehabilitation and reconciliation' and an unequivocal assertion to the international community of the absolute minimum political demands of the Tamil people. Ironically, through the process of voting in the election, the Tamil people categorically rejected the NPC as any basis to a political solution. Four years after the government celebrated the military defeat of the LTTE, as the quashing of the Tamil nation's call for freedom, this could not be further from the truth. The people have spoken and their message is clear – they have not surrendered. The Tamil people demand the right to self-determination.

Engaging in militarisation

Recent weeks have once again seen the Sri Lankan military enjoying cordial ties with several members of the international community, including states that have led the call for accountability and justice, as well as been at the forefront of criticising the present militarisation that pervades the North-East and the island as a whole. The US military continues to provide training and hold joint military exercises, as well as engage in ‘development’ projects in the North-East with their Sri Lankan counterparts. Meanwhile, it recently emerged that the UK has approved over £8mn worth of arms sales to the country, including small arms and assault rifles. Current engagement by the West, far from yielding any progress, is only serving to legitimise, embolden and endorse Sri Lanka’s military. Four years of ‘engagement’ has not resulted in progress. The call for justice and accountability has not produced any meaningful results, militarisation is only becoming more pervasive and the military continue to act with impunity.

Unequal in death

The shooting of unarmed protesters by a state’s military, as took place in Weliweriya this week , is horrific. The profound perversity of a state turning its military apparatus on the people it purports to protect is universally felt. The Tiananmen Square massacre, Bloody Sunday and even Egypt today, are cases in point. The insurmountable inequity of force and the ensuing bloodshed of the unarmed protesters form a chilling reminder of a state’s simmering potential to abuse its monopoly on violence. The outrage and shock that has reverberated through Sri Lanka’s south following the Weliweriya incident is thus well placed. Yet as with the killings of other dissenting individuals, this tragedy highlights the intractable fallacy of an equal or inclusive ‘Sri Lankan identity’. In Sri Lanka, even death is no equaliser. The killing of a dissenter is defined by ethno-political identity, both that of the individual and their demands.

Thirty years backwards

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the anti-Tamil pogrom on the island of Sri Lanka, remembered as 'Black July'. The attacks saw Sinhala mobs roaming streets across the country, killing, burning, looting and raping their way through Tamil neighbourhoods. Tamils were singled out for attack purely on their ethnic identity - their facial appearance, their fledgling Sinhalese, their cultural symbols, and their names on electoral rolls. The pogrom was brutal - an inevitable outcome of decades of rising Sinhala nationalism and anti-Tamil sentiment. Black July was not a reactionary act of rioting. It was the persecution of one ethnicity by another, with the full endorsement of the state - an act of genocide.

Reporting resistance

Sri Lanka’s attempts to restrict media accreditation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year and bar international journalists who have exposed the atrocities committed against the Tamil people at the end of the armed conflict, have led to widespread condemnation of the state’s abysmal record on press freedom. Whilst the condemnation is welcome, the current furore negates the very crux of the conflict – the Tamil question. The Sri Lankan state’s clampdown on press freedom is not universal in its intention or impact. Instead, Sri Lanka has a long-standing policy of targeting the Tamil press (and by extension, non-Tamil journalists probing Tamil injustices) in an attempt to silence the Eelam Tamil nation. To Tamil journalists working in the North-East, the granting of media accreditation to their international counterparts is of little consequence. The juxtaposition, so close to home, only serves to highlight the lack of press freedom available to them.

Defining response

The attack on Tamil ‘Boycott Sri Lankan Cricket’ campaigners by Sri Lankan cricket fans at the Oval on June 17th was truly shocking. What began as Sri Lankan fans shouting and spitting at activists, swelled into anti-Tamil taunting followed by physical assaults, where Tamil activists were punched and kicked by a mob. This attack was not alcohol fuelled sporting hooliganism; nor was it pro-government Sri Lankans attacking anti-government activists - as the attackers’ taunting made clear, the activists were targeted solely because of their Eelam Tamil identity, not for their campaigning. The attack was racially motivated violence by ordinary Sri Lankans against Eelam Tamils on the streets of London.

Facing the inconsequential

President Rajapaksa’s begrudging announcement of a Northern Provincial Council election in September has sparked an utterly predictable melee of impassioned responses to the 13th Amendment. The government is presenting an urgent bill to parliament, a minister is demanding a referendum to guarantee abolition, the TNA is aghast, a party of Buddhist monks is on the warpath, and an alarmed New Delhi is summoning the TNA for talks. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s main opposition, the UNP, is attempting to position itself as defender of ‘minority’ rights. This circus is a farce. Neither the 13th Amendment, nor the provincial council election, is of any consequence to the Tamil question. The 13th Amendment cannot address the immediate needs of the Tamil people in the North-East, or the political aspirations of the nation. Its presence, absence and anything in between is of absolute insignificance and irrelevance. That Tamils are compelled to reiterate this 26 years on, is testament to the dismaying lack of progress on resolving the conflict.

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