Sri Lanka is not many things to many people. It does not have a possibly jeopardized nuclear weapons cache; it is not a majority Muslim nation addled by a lingering Bush-era war nor is it the stage for a celebrity scandal of any sort. What Sri Lanka is to those who care, is a humanitarian disaster and a human rights catastrophe on a grand scale. How grand a scale you ask? As of yet we cannot know, due to the Sri Lankan government's policy of barring independent journalism from the war-fighting area and there is little public objection outside of Tamil expatriate communities in the West and among Indian Tamils to the north. Sri Lanka is a different kind of war than Americans are conditioned to hearing about in the last decade but it is an equally vile and draconian one nonetheless.
After the shelling of hospitals inside the war zone, this week President Obama finally spoke out on a situation that is considered by most in the internationalist community to have no impact on American foreign policy. Sri Lanka's conflict does contain a wide international dimension, particularly in the Commonwealth states, but without either ethnic side lobbying in Washington and lacking significant domestic diaspora here in the United States, the cries of its people fall on deaf ears. In a rare bit of humanitarian-speak on a war with no pipeline project on the horizon, the President stated: "Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe." Obama is behind the curve on Sri Lanka. Though he did not forecast any kind of serious political solution in his remarks, the president should be commended for raising the issue at all amidst the current clutter of crises in a situation of such wretched desperation. Obama asked the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms while failing to provide any possible incentive to do so. "Now is the time to put aside some of the political issues that are involved" Obama went on to say. However, in a war driven by such bitter ethnic politics, it is highly unlikely the Sri Lankan government will stop short of its long sought prize of destroying the Tigers as a formal fighting force on the island. Tamil fighters, who famously wear cyanide capsules around their necks in the event of capture, will fight to the last man (or child soldier). Velupillai Prabhakaran, the demagogue of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is a brilliant and ruthless military tactician but is not thought to be a particularly rational actor who can be easily dealt with the arena of international humanitarian law. The fact that President Obama did not address the political and military leaders in the war directly by name alludes to the notion that the White House does have the political will or expertise to intervene to stem the azure tide of the Indian Ocean from turning blood red.
According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, "It is a disgrace that this war is being waged without independent journalists present. With a major humanitarian crisis and war crimes clearly taking place, the government must heed the international community's calls for a ceasefire and for better access for humanitarian workers and journalists."
Unlike the broken states of Afghanistan and Iraq, Sri Lanka has a very active tourism industry and aggressively courts well-to-do vacationers. No matter how bad the violence in the remote north and eastern parts of the island has been since the war began in 1983, Western visitors have not only failed to abandoned the place, rather they have invested quite heavily in its less restive west and south coasts. Go to a bar around the capital and you will meet plenty of people from Northern and Central Europe, many of whom proudly own businesses in the country that run the gamut from garment factories to bars to hotels catering to other Europeans.
Though those immersed in the expat scene generally spend their time very far from the frontline, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have, through the implementation of suicide terrorism, often brought the war to the streets of Colombo. In this silent war, Westerners are relatively safe since the war contains no inherent anti-Western dimension. Attacking or injuring outsiders has no tactical utility for either side in this conflict. The government has needed to keep attracting those with hard currency that help keep it afloat while the LTTE is adept at manipulating Western public opinion and using the West in its fundraising efforts to perpetuate their well-organized war. Several developed nations have taken the lead in trying to mediate the Sri Lankan civil war in recent years, particularly the Norwegians, who are often agitated by their domestic Tamil communities to intervene.
A defining element in the war is not of one religion in Huntingtonian terms but of the emphasis of religious difference between the two communities. Islam, which has been vilified by many pundits and politicians in the U.S. and in the E.U., is not a convenient scapegoat in this war. The belligerents in this case are a Buddhist-led government and secular Hindu rebels while the island's minority Muslims and Christians are caught in the middle. The LTTE's goal has been to formally secede from the Sri Lankan state by creating a homeland called "Tamil Eelam," a de facto independent entity that, until very recently, maintained the characteristics of a functioning bureaucracy. The notion of a Tamil refuge received ideological succor from their ethnic brethren in South India's Tamil Nadu state. Separated by the narrow Palk Strait, Sri Lankan Tamils are closely knit by both familial and cultural ties to their Indian counterparts. Delhi dances awkwardly around this war to its south. Indian elites have not forgotten that eighteen years ago the LTTE killed the grandson of Jawarharlal Nehru, India's political founder; while at the same time the central government does not want to stir the ire of a crucial vote bloc of 60 million Tamils in one of the country's largest states during an election cycle.
As a cohesive group, the LTTE is the world's most proficient employer of suicide terrorism. The Tigers clichéd terrorist superlative is that they are alleged to have killed not one but two world leaders, Indian Prime minister Rajiv Gadhi in 1991 and Ranasinghe Premadasa, President of Sri Lanka in 1993, and are the only non-state organization to do so. American readers may likely think al-Qaeda would hold such a position rather than a fiercely organized group of quasi-Marxist Hindus hiding in the jungle in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But Marxism and Hinduism have given way over the decades to pure Tamil linguistic and ethnic nationalism. Both the LTTE and those legitimate members of Tamil civil society accuse the Colombo government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of being Sinhala or Buddhist "Chauvinists". Perhaps the single greatest motivational factor in the instigation of the northern and eastern Tamil rebellion has been language. The government sparked the uprising by trying to insist Sinhalese be the only official language for its citizens as well as enshrining Buddhism in the constitution in a crude attempt at revitalizing the island's pre-colonial past. Though the government claims the Sri Lankan army is fighting for the reunification of the country, I saw propaganda posters pasted up around downtown Colombo depicting Buddhist monks blessing ethnic Sinhala soldiers as they prepare to head off to the battlefront.
The Rajapaksas are not wasting their time with any hearts-and-minds style rhetoric. Additionally, the acquiescence of the Buddhist clergy plays into the LTTE's cultish leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's I-told-you-so doctrine of Colombo as a racist, uncompromising regime that has it in for his people. Alongside the elimination of his Tamil competitors, the tone of discourse from the central government and the actions within the framework of its domestic military policy serve only to reinforce Prabhakaran's insistence that the Tamil Tigers are the sole protector of the Sri Lanka's Hindus. Now as Prabhakaran makes his last formal stand in a now miniscule, truncated version of the zone over which he had ruled, the future of the island's Tamil population remains in question. Meanwhile President Rajapaksa remains crassly unapologetic as Colombo's goal is finally within reach.
While the Sri Lankan government appears to be close to consolidating its territorial hold on the country's turbulent northeast, a massive humanitarian drama, largely unseen by the international media, is unfolding. Earlier this year, Dr. Palitha Kohona told PBS's Tavis Smiley that his government was not allowing journalists into the war zone because it was "not safe" and that it is imperative that Colombo's "guests in the country do not come to any harm." But it is precisely the job of journalists to put themselves in harm's way in order to get the story out. Though the international community and the UN have been far from totally complacent on the issue, there does not seem to be enough of an outcry from the larger global public to gain traction with the ruling Rajapaksa brothers. Tamil pop star M.I.A. has claimed there is an ordered genocide being conducted against the island's large Tamil minority. While there is not yet any supporting empirical evidence for such a genocide claim, Sunday's mass casualty attack taking some 380 civilian lives demonstrates both the ferocity of the war and the dearth of diplomatic leverage to stop it. As an impotent Security Council looks on, this "Bloodbath" continues to bleed. Aid workers and journalists must be let into, or make their way into, Sri Lanka's killing fields so that we have been deprived of the right to say we did not know.