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Three Messages from the Western Establishment to the Diaspora

by S. Maheswaran, March 1, 2010

The ICG is part of the Western Establishment. The ICG defines one boundary – perhaps the liberal boundary – of acceptable Establishment opinion. The Report can therefore be thought of as a briefing document for Western Foreign Ministries.. Also, the Report can be considered as a set of rules that the Diaspora in the West ‘must’ abide by...

Post May 2009 the Western Establishment has not changed its views on Tamil Eelam. Not only is there no support for its creation but, importantly, even a discussion of its merits continues to be ideologically forbidden...

The LTTE-as-terrorists device is no longer available to the Western (and Eastern) Establishment to suppress discussion of the merits of Tamil Eelam or obscure the failure of democracy in Sri Lanka. If the Diaspora continues to press for Tamil Eelam or highlight the structural flaw in Sri Lankan democracy, a new device is needed to replace the LTTE-as-terrorists device...

Thus the third message of the Report: you [the Diaspora] will play by our [Western Establishment’s] rules and drop the call for Tamil Eelam and accept ‘democracy’ in Sri Lanka, or else we will construct a Diaspora-as-degenerates device to marginalize you in the same way that we previously constructed the LTTE-as-terrorists device.

The Purpose of This Paper

On 23rd February 2010 International Crisis Group (hereafter: ICG) issued a report (hereafter: the Report) titled “The Sri Lanka Tamil Diaspora After The LTTE”.

The obvious message of the Report is that the Diaspora must give up on Tamil Eelam. In addition, just beneath the Report’s polished exterior, there are two other rather ugly messages for the Diaspora: ‘democracy’ is all that Tamils in Sri Lanka will be allowed; and: if you don’t agree to the first two messages, you will be demonized. This last message might be more accurately called a threat.

Some of these messages are familiar and some are new. They are all serious and should not be dismissed lightly. The purpose of this short paper is to analyze the sources of these messages, rather than to suggest responses to them.

What is the International Crisis Group?

Over the past two years, the ICG have issued a number of reports on the conflict within Sri Lanka (these may all be found on the ICG’s website). These reports have strongly spoken out on the need to protect Tamil civilians, have been critical of the Sri Lankan government and have been extremely critical of the LTTE. The latest report, in contrast to earlier ones, specifically regards the Tamil Diaspora “after the LTTE”.

The ICG defines itself as “an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation, with some 130 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.” This self-definition notwithstanding, Appendix B of the Report lists a large number of (principally Western) Foreign Ministries who provide funding for ICG. (Incidentally, this perhaps explains the Report’s inaccurate and dismissive comments regarding the People’s Permanent Tribunal finding that the Sri Lankan government committed war crimes – the same tribunal found the West guilty of destroying the peace process.)

The ICG is part of the Western Establishment. The ICG defines one boundary – perhaps the liberal boundary – of acceptable Establishment opinion. The Report can therefore be thought of as a briefing document for Western Foreign Ministries, answering from a liberal perspective questions such as: what do the Diaspora want; what are the Diaspora networks; is there infighting within the Diaspora; and how can the Diaspora be marginalized? Also, the Report can be considered as a set of rules that the Diaspora in the West ‘must’ abide by.

The First Message of the Report: Drop Tamil Eelam

To begin, it should be noted (or admitted!) that, if the public record is any guide, neither the Western Establishment nor the Global Establishment has ever countenanced the creation of Tamil Eelam. A full analysis of why this is so is beyond this author.

Perhaps it is because the modern world order is built upon the political concept of ‘states’ and a forceful breakup of one would destabilize the whole (“the threat of a good example”, to borrow a phrase from elsewhere). Or perhaps a division would greatly accelerate the move of the Sri Lankan state towards China et al. One thing is for sure, the true answer is far more complex than can be imagined here.

Up until May 2009 the West (and East) was able undermine the Tamil Eelam idea by conflating it with the LTTE. The LTTE were in turn designated as a terrorist organization. Particularly in a post-9/11 world, this designation is so ideologically powerful that no matter what obscenities were visited upon Tamils in Sri Lanka by the state machinery, any discussion of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka would need to be ‘balanced’ by extremely strong criticisms of the LTTE. Furthermore, as Diaspora activists are well aware, any discussion with the Western Establishment regarding the need for Tamil Eelam was still-born, as it would be purposefully interpreted as a defense of the LTTE (who have been deemed by the Western Establishment as un-defendable).

Post May 2009 the Western Establishment has not changed its views on Tamil Eelam. Not only is there no support for its creation but, importantly, even a discussion of its merits continues to be ideologically forbidden. Hence the Diaspora must not raise Tamil Eelam in discussions. This is the first message of the Report.

The Second Message: ‘Democracy’ Is All That’s Allowed

The executive summary of the Report contains the following: “the Sri Lankan government must address the legitimate grievances at the root of the conflict: the political marginalisation and physical insecurity of most Tamils in Sri Lanka.” This sentiment has been expressed over and over by the Western Establishment, despite the fact that the Sinhalese polity will never allow it to happen – as the past 60 years have conclusively shown. Perhaps the ICG will provide the Diaspora with a hypothetical scenario where it could reasonably be expected to happen? Not likely!

ICG itself has issued a report in November 2007 “Sri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus.” Crucially, however, from the executive summary of that report: “The search for a political solution to nearly 25 years of war has repeatedly foundered as a result of competition between mostly Sinhala parties in the south as well as excessive Tamil demands [emphasis added].” This ‘excessive Tamil demands’ qualifier is included to avoid the true source of the conflict from being isolated: the Sinhalese polity.

The idea that after all the horrors visited upon Tamils in Sri Lanka, that their demands are “excessive” would be comical, if it weren’t so obscene. However, if the Sinhalese polity were named as the true source of the conflict then, necessarily, no solution can come from democracy. (Incidentally, see Neil DeVotta's papers for a more honest analysis of Sinhalese nationalism.)

The ICG are not being stupid. Instead they are sending a message: “We understand that in Sri Lanka ‘democracy’ is just a euphemism for Sinhalese majoritarianism but that is all that the Tamils in Sri Lanka are allowed.” The rationale behind this is related to the first message that Tami Eelam is forbidden to even be discussed. Tamil Eelam, or some variant of it, would be the only solution if democracy in Sri Lanka were acknowledged to be a failure. Furthermore, there is a general ideological resistance to acknowledging that democracy can produce terrible outcomes. Indeed, according to the Western Establishment, ‘democracy’ is the solution for all political ills.

The LTTE-as-terrorists device is no longer available to the Western (and Eastern) Establishment to suppress discussion of the merits of Tamil Eelam or obscure the failure of democracy in Sri Lanka. If the Diaspora continues to press for Tamil Eelam or highlight the structural flaw in Sri Lankan democracy, a new device is needed to replace the LTTE-as-terrorists device. This brings us to the third, and significantly new, message of the report.

The Third Message of the Report: Play By the Rules… or Else

The executive summary of the Report includes “But until [the diaspora] moves on from its separatist, pro-LTTE ideology, the diaspora is unlikely to play a useful role supporting a just and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.” While the first message of the Report is obvious here (the Diaspora must drop Tamil Eelam), it also contains the third message – or more accurately, a threat.

The sentence quoted above conflates ‘diaspora’, ‘separatist’ and ‘pro-LTTE’. Within the Report the LTTE is conflated with ‘terrorist’ - meaning bad to the point where any discussion to the contrary is forbidden. This is all contrasted in the quote with ‘just’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘peace’.

Thus the third message of the Report: you [the Diaspora] will play by our [Western Establishment’s] rules and drop the call for Tamil Eelam and accept ‘democracy’ in Sri Lanka, or else we will construct a Diaspora-as-degenerates device to marginalize you in the same way that we previously constructed the LTTE-as-terrorists device.

Evidence for the Third Message

Some readers of this paper may find the idea that the West is threatening to construct a Diaspora-as-degenerates device to be somewhat of a stretch, or even implausible. Nothing can be proven of course, but in this section we attempt to substantiate our claim regarding this third message.

All the quotes below are taken from the executive summary of the Report. All provide a roadmap for Western Foreign Ministries to create the Diaspora-as-degenerates device if the Diaspora continues to press for Tamil Eelam or highlight the impossibility of true democracy in Sri Lanka.

On Diaspora support for violence: “While the million-strong diaspora cannot regenerate an insurgency in Sri Lanka on its own, its money and organization could turn up the volume on any violence that might eventually re-emerge.”

On Diaspora’s negative influence: “For the past quarter-century the Tamil diaspora has shaped the Sri Lankan political landscape through its financial and ideological support to the military struggle for an independent Tamil state.” (Within the report the military struggle is portrayed to be very negative for the Tamil population.)

On the Diaspora’s political disconnection to the Tamils in Sri Lanka: “Nonetheless, most Tamils abroad remain profoundly committed to Tamil Eelam, the existence of a separate state in Sri Lanka. This has widened the gap between the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka.” (Within the report there are numerous other references to the alleged disconnect between the Diaspora and the Tamils living in Sri Lanka.)

On the Diaspora being dangerous within the West: “In the last months of the war and months immediately following, there were self-immolations by Tamil protestors, vandalism against Sri Lankan embassies, and increased communal tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese abroad. While such events have grown less frequent, risks of radicalism in the diaspora cannot be dismissed entirely.” (Within the Report there are even suggestions the Diaspora may start bombing passenger aircraft to advance their goals – a none too subtle reference to 9/11-sourced fears.)

Finally, and well into the realm of the ridiculous, the Diaspora as a cause of oppression in Sri Lanka: “With the Sri Lankan government assuming Tamils abroad remain committed to violent means, the diaspora’s continued calls for a separate state feed the fears of the Rajapaksa administration and provide excuses for maintaining destructive antiterrorism and emergency laws.”

All the quotes listed above contain an element of truth. However, these elements of truth have been willfully construed in such a way as to provide avenues to construct the Diaspora-as-degenerates device.

For example, as per the quote above, the ICG alleges a disconnect between the Diaspora and Tamils within Sri Lanka regarding the need for Tamil Eelam. Some level of disconnect is likely between geographically separated communities, particularly when the lives of the Tamils in Sri Lanka have been so shattered. Overcoming this will be an ever-present challenge for the Diaspora. However, it is rather rich to imply that the Diaspora would callously pursue a Tamil Eelam agenda that is at odds with the wishes of the suffering Tamils in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the ICG could substantiate its claim by calling for a UN monitored referendum for Tamils in Sri Lanka on the Vaddukkoaddai Resolution? Not likely!

Concluding Remarks

The Report is filled with half-truths (as opposed to complete lies) which are cobbled together via some rather tenuous reasoning in order to reach the desired conclusions (desired by the Western Establishment, that is). While it may prove entertaining for some to pick apart the report, such an exercise would be pointless. The three messages of the Report are real and must be taken seriously.

The three messages highlighted in this paper collectively boil down to: accept the unacceptable, or be demonized (via the Diaspora-as-degenerates device). On one hand the Tamils in Sri Lanka need all the help they can get to rebuild their shattered lives. And on the other hand, as sure as night follows day, the Sinhalese polity will continue to inflict horrors upon those same Tamils. A conundrum indeed – for which this paper has no answers. How best to navigate this conundrum is, of course, an active and ongoing discussion within the Diaspora and a source of some disagreement.

Perhaps at this juncture it is worth remembering that there is no clearer evidence for the strength of Tamil society than the fact that it hasn’t completely fallen apart in the face of the decades-long Singhalese onslaught that has employed all the resources of the state. If the Diaspora has even a fraction of that strength, then the Diaspora will continue to do what it has always done – and that is to be a part of the struggle towards justice.