....And how does all this relate to my larger interest in the
perseverance of nationalist projects? As Mr.
Dharmeratnam likes to argue, stateless actors seeking to
create states for themselves within already existing
nation-states that are hostile to the idea obviously face (among
others things) two tough challenges.
First, of course, is the threat to them posed by an already
existing state's monopoly of force. This threat has been met, in
the Sri Lankan
Tamils' case, by the excessively violent
has grown over 20 years from an unconventional "low intensity"
guerilla group using hit and run
into a conventional army capable of fighting the Sri Lankan army
on its own terms.
This is likely why the LTTE, a genuinely frightening group
with a violent intolerance for any kind of dissent, remains yet
very popular among Sri Lankan Tamils; many continue to feel its
guns are what stand between them and a potentially revengeful
Sri Lankan state. Many also feel-and not just Tamil Sri Lankans
(Uyangoda 2004:8)-that its guns are also the main reason the Sri
Lankan state is willing to negotiate: a suspicion confirmed, it
seems, in May 2004 by the willingness of the newly elected, UPFA
(United People's Freedom Alliance) minority government to
negotiate with the LTTE despite much pre-election rhetoric to
But a second challenge to
non-state actors, as important as a state's monopoly of
force, are the hegemonic and sometimes direct control states
generally exert over the media. This media control comes in two
forms: within a state's borders via the various forms of direct
control a majoritarian state can impose through legislation
censorship, state ownership newspapers, etc.) or through
sheer numerical control of the local market; and beyond its
borders by means of the indirect control (as the "official
voice") a state has over how its activities are generally
The problem, here, for non-state actors is to somehow
circumvent this media near-monopoly by creating both an
alter-native "local media" and an alternative "official voice."
Yet this is not so easy.
Simply creating an alternative "public sphere," which in one
sense is what aspiring nationalisms do, and then trying to flood
the state or the world with its contrary identity-resistance
popularity via "community" owned newspapers and radio stations
would not do.
Nationalist discourse of this sort is generally quite opaque
to outsiders, and when issuing from an "illegitimate" (i.e.,
non-state) source, will be oft times dismissed or derided. And,
of course, often a little direct oppression can suppress it, at
least for a while. So what to do? What Tamilnet.com did when
confronted by this problem is really quite interesting: it
hooked its train to a completely alternative engine-the market
popularity of global capitalism.
By doing this, Tamilnet.com's nationalists were using the
transnational power and authority of global, market-based
journalism to transcend the local media monopoly wielded by the
Sri Lankan state. They simply ascended to a quite different
level of political play. By means of this levitation,
Tamilnet.com was able to use the different rules and forces of
globalization-famously corrosive of national sovereignty in the
literature on global flows-against one nation state in order to
further their dream of creating another nation state.
Now my suspicion is that something like this kind of
strategic sleight of hand is often found in nationalist projects
that face the same kind of media near-monopoly. Indeed, a good
example of just this was provided by the skillful manipulation
of market-based journal-ism by the EZLN in Chiapas, a case that
actually preceeded and somewhat inspired the actions of
Tamilnet's creators. But, in Tamilnet.com's case, to what extent
has this tactic succeeded?
At present, in May 2004, all of Sri Lanka's national
newspapers, regardless of language (Sinhala, Tamil, and
English), as well as all of the main Western and Indian news
agencies reporting on Sri Lanka, use
reports-despite frequent editorial condemnation of the site. But
success is best signalled, I suppose, by opposition. In the
eight years that Tamilnet.com has run, both the LTTE and the Sri
Lankan government have expressed, at times, extreme displeasure
with its reporting.
But while the LTTE, recognizing the underlying nationalism of
the site, has simply grumbled, the Sri Lankan government, before
the cease-fire, twice threatened Tamilnet.com's reporters and
editors (those within reach in Sri Lanka) with arrest for
"treason," and once hinted, as I said earlier, that
"uncontrolled" Sinhalese extremists might be inspired to perform
some extra-judicial killing. Twice these government threats had
to be turned back by using Western journalists, such as Peter
Arnette, and anthropologists (such as myself) to obtain for
Tamilnet.com's people the protection of human rights NGOs and
And perhaps this strategic consumption of anthropology (and
journalism) suggests a new, "ironic," role for our tired, old,
"unpopular" discipline to play. However that turns out, one
thing is clear: nothing will remain the same for anthropology
now that communities have gone online.