"The deliberate displacement of over 160,000 Tamils by
Sri Lankan military offensives and attacks this year combined with the
purposeful blocking of food, medicine and relief supplies amounts to a 'slow
pogrom' of the Tamils... Whilst trotting out the tired counter-insurgency
rhetoric of 'hearts and minds' and a glib insistence that Tigers, not
Tamils, are the target, Sri Lanka's military has always been ready to punish
the Tamils for the LTTE's violence"
August has been the bloodiest month in Sri Lanka for five years.
Hundreds of combatants have been killed and many more wounded in heavy fighting
on the Jaffna peninsula. As was the case during President Chandrika
Kumaratunga's infamous 'war for peace' the details are obscured, but what is
clear is that the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers have clashed
substantially. War reporting is a difficult matter, particularly when the
battlefield is inaccessible and both sides are revealing little. But
nonetheless, the fighting has dominated the headlines. The unfortunate
consequence of that is the fascination with casualty figures and maps has
obscured another grim consequence of Sri Lanka's armed forces going to war: at
least 160,000 civilians have been displaced, hundreds have been killed and many
more are wounded.
trotting out the tired counter-insurgency rhetoric of 'hearts and minds' and a
glib insistence that Tigers, not Tamils, are the target, Sri Lanka's military
has always been ready to punish the Tamils for the LTTE's violence. There are
several reasons for this. Some argue that the state is fuelled by a 'just war'
mentality - 'in defence of the Dharma', as one respected academic put it. This
goes back to the
Mahavamsa and posits the Tamils as brazen interlopers on Sinhala soil. Of
late, many international voices have been muttering about language rights and
anti-discrimination measures as a step - in their misguided view, a big one -
towards getting Tamils and the Sinhala-dominated state to accept each other. But
the Tamils know it runs much deeper than that. The post-independence history of
ethnic relations in the island is one framed by a paranoid, bitter majoritarian
loathing of the non-Sinhala minority. It began with the
1956 Sinhala Only and is today enshrined in a majoritarian constitution, a
racist bureaucracy and chauvinistic military.
This is why, despite its Buddhist pretensions, the Sinhala state invariably and
swiftly resorts to a strategy of collective punishment when faced with what- in
moments of forgetful sincerity - it calls 'Tamil terrorism.' Embargos on entire
districts, bombardments of whole villages and towns, massacres of entire
neighborhoods, pogroms. These are the tools Sri Lanka's state intuitively
deploys against the Tamils. The racism is manifest even in peace, though the
starry-eyed peaceniks refuse to acknowledge the signs: the police statements in
Sinhala the Tamils have to sign, the ready demand Tamil households - not all Sri
Lankans, just the interlopers - must register at the local station. Even the Sri
Lankan military's websites publish in English and Sinhala only.
The massive forced displacements of the past month, and the earlier waves that
began in April, have all been directed to punish the upstart Tamils for defying
Sinhala rule. Some Tamil writers have again raised the charge of genocide. How
else to describe a strategy of driving 160,000 Tamils from their homes and then
denying them access to food and clean water? How else to describe the readiness
with which heavy artillery and air strikes are unleashed against Tamil villages,
places of worship and children's homes? And what other logic can underpin the
blocking of aid convoys to the displaced Tamils or the massacre of aid workers
seeking to help?
Amidst the international hand wringing over the slide back to war and natural
prejudice against the LTTE that has underpinned so much patently useless
analysis over the past few years, the reasons for the present escalation have
been forgotten. Sri Lanka's military started this war. It did so most openly on
July 21 with a major ground offensive under the pretext of a closed water
sluice, of all things. But that clash is the culmination of a three year cycle
of shadow violence that has steadily grown in intensity.
The simple fact is that Sri Lanka's government doesn't give a damn for
international opinion. For a very good reason: the state will always be backed,
irrespective of its infractions. Peace conditionality collapsed because the
international community gave itself too many excuses. Unfortunately that has
left the Tamil community as exposed (as it always was) to Sri Lanka's racist
ambitions. The violence will now soar. Sri Lanka, unfettered by notions of
'legitimacy' will prosecute the war. The LTTE will strike back. It is no good
lamenting the slide to the war or calling for both sides to ceasefire. The
international community must restrain the state.
Above all, it is the policy of collective punishment that must be stopped. Else
Sri Lanka will establish its own norms and develop its own local dynamics.
International humanitarian law and other international norms will dissolve in a
mutually intelligible cycle of atrocity amongst the island's communities.