28 May 2009
By Gwynne Dyer
“(The war) is not going to end soon,” said Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the Sri Lankan army’s spokesman, last month. “It will take some time to completely eradicate terrorism from the country — we think about two years.”
In the euphoria over the recent military victory that ended the conventional war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”) and wiped out most of their leadership, most people in Sri Lanka have forgotten that prediction, but it remains likely. In fact, the brigadier may even have been optimistic in saying that two years would “completely eradicate terrorism” in Sri Lanka.
In the last weeks of fighting, foreigners called for a ceasefire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped within the diminishing perimeter held by the Tigers, solemnly warning that a crushing military victory by the government would embitter the Tamils and cause just such a terrorist war afterwards. But that was just foreigners being naive: after 26 years of war, the bitterness among Tamils is already quite enough to fuel a post-war guerilla war.
However, whether that war actually occurs depends on what happens next, not on how Tamils feel about the way the war ended. The ordeal of the 300,00 Tamils who were trapped with the Tigers’ army in its last stand was extreme, but it was not just due to government shell-fire.
The survivors of that ordeal, who are now being held in government-run “displacement camps”, were forced to accompany the Tigers in their retreat to serve as shields. They were killed by the Tigers if they tried to leave, so they are not in the least romantic about that last stand. Whereas the very large number of Tamils in the diaspora overseas are.
Diaspora Tamils are in shock about recent events, for most of them saw the founder and leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakan, as an invincible defender of the Tamil cause. They can scarcely believe that he and almost all the other senior leaders of the Tigers are dead. Moreover, the Tiger support network in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom that provided 80 percent of the organisation’s military budget is still intact.
There are plenty of young radicals in those communities who are ready to continue the war in Sri Lanka, if only by guerilla and terrorist attacks for the time being. This is strikingly different from the situation in Sri Lanka itself, where it is clear that most Tamils in the areas formerly under the Tigers’ control are ready to stop fighting. They have personal experience of the Tigers’s ruthless rule, they have lived through 26 years of constant insecurity and recurrent violence, and they have had enough.
That would normally be the deciding factor in the equation, for if the Tamils at home in Sri Lanka really want to end the war, who could make it continue? There are, unfortunately, two possible answers to that question. One is: the dogmatists in the Tamil diaspora, for whom the goal of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka is sacred. The other is: the victorious and deeply intolerant government of Sri Lanka, which may well throw its victory away.
Many Tamils living abroad just want to integrate into their new countries and leave all that unhappy history behind them, but family ties back home and the pervasive presence of Tiger radicals in the overseas communities make it hard for them to do so. There is a risk that the Tamil diaspora, like the millions of Irish who emigrated to the United States in the famine of the 1840s, will become the base for a permanent war against the oppressor back home.
That is what the Fenians became in 19th-century America, even launching unsuccessful “invasions” of British North America (i.e. Canada) in pursuit of their goal of liberating Ireland. If the Sri Lankan government cannot create an acceptable future for its Tamil population at home, the same thing will happen in the Tamil diaspora.
There is no good reason why Sri Lanka’s Tamils should not live peacefully as the country’s largest minority, but history is against it. The ethnic nationalism of the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority has poisoned Sri Lankan politics, beginning with the laws that made Sinhala the sole official language and imposed restrictions on Tamil access to universities and the professions in the 1950s and 1960s.
Those laws were mainly the work of the Bandaranaike political dynasty, which deliberately cultivated a resentful Sinhalese nationalism for electoral reasons. The laws aimed to redress the grievances of the Sinhalese majority, who believed that the Tamil minority had prospered at their expense by collaborating too closely with the British colonial power, but they went too far and they have lasted too long.
What the country needs now is a clean slate where everybody’s language has equal status and every ethnic group has equal opportunities. At the end of these terrible months, and despite all the killings and the “displacement camps” crammed with dazed Tamil civilians, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has enough political credit in the eyes of the Sinhalese majority to make that revolution happen.
Unfortunately, his government probably lacks the imagination for that, in which case the terrorism will probably start up again soon.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“However…are”)