Posted by: Jordan | May 23, 2009

Tamil Protests and Sri Lanka’s Political Future

The Tamil protestors that gathered in the thousands outside of the American embassy and the Ontario legislature in Toronto over the past few weeks never really stood a chance. Despite the apparently brutal campaign carried out by the Sri Lankan military against the last remaining Tamil rebels, the chances that the U.S., Canada, or the international community would intervene in any meaningful way were virtually nil right from the get go.

On a practical level, there is no chance that the Sri Lankan military could have been convinced by the international community to end or tone down their campaign as it was entering the final stages after more than 30 years of civil war – their determination to end the war was far too strong. On a principled level, most nations, including the U.S. and Canada, had no interest in encouraging restraint on the part of Colombo when their opponent is considered by many to be a terrorist organization.

Unsurprisingly, the final days of this protracted war were forceful and bloody.

While the massive protests in downtown Toronto may have done little to prevent such a conclusion to the war, it is my opinion that the real time to start pressing our politicians for action here in Canada is now. Even though the Sri Lankan forces were able to effectively crush the armed Tamil opposition, the fact remains that Sri Lanka is a multinational state that is the homeland for both the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples. The lasting legacy of this war will be whether the resulting political arrangement between the majority population and the minority Tamils is able to prevent future conflict – whether the Tamil people will continue to feel marginalized, or whether the next generation of Tamils will be able to participate in directing the future of a unified Sri Lanka. (And if not, whether the political framework will exist for a renewed peaceful movement towards an independent Tamil state.)

If history is to be any guide, left to its own devices, Sri Lanka will likely not on its own adopt an equitable political arrangement vis a vis its defeated opponent. There is already some evidence emerging that Colombo is undertaking a heavy-handed campaign to purge the greater Sri Lankan population of anyone with ties to the Tamil Tigers. This is where the international community has a strong obligation to forcefully push for media and humanitarian access, and most importantly, to advocate for an equitable political arrangement between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations. Support and guidance for such an arrangement is readily accessible both from the U.N., international organizations, and some countries with experience in peacekeeping operations.

The degree to which Sri Lanka is open to multinational accommodations will remain to be seen, and certainly resistance will be strong after the past decades of bitter civil war. However, a lasting peace in Sri Lanka will depend not on how effectively the country is able to suppress remaining Tamil nationalism, but rather it will depend on whether these sentiments have a peaceful outlet in political society. Along with much needed humanitarian assistance, this is likely where Canada, the U.S. and the U.N. will be able to make the greatest impact. The real political action should only be just beginning.

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Photo courtesy of Wayne Che

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