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July 4, 2000
The global consequences of creating an Eelam
Now that Sam, in true avuncular fashion, has declared that it will not support the partition of Sri Lanka and has moved a fleet close to the coast in an ostensible show of support for the government, it is time for the Tamil Tigers to pause for a moment. They need to conjure up a definite means with which to achieve their ends.
In the current global pressure cooker, the only realistic way for them to achieve secession from the Sinhalese government is, well, with the wholehearted blessing of that party. From all the political propaganda emanating from the Emerald Isle, such a concession seems improbable.
The next logical option seems to be through international intervention, as happened in East Timor last year.
However, the LTTE must realise that such an intervention is unlikely to happen. The West is exerting pressure on India to intervene, as it can't allow a prolonged conflict so close to home. A number of factors such as the failure of the previous intervention, the influence of India's Tamils and, most of all, the fact that India herself is plagued by secessionist movements in the north and north-east, all make India extremely reluctant to get involved again; and especially averse to dividing up the country.
Thus, it is hard to see how Sri Lanka could go the way of East Timor without dragging in that presently very shaky entity -- the United Nations. For its part, however, the UN is probably keen to treat Sri Lanka like the proverbial hot potato.
The last decade witnessed three terrible UN failures -- in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda -- that severely damaged its credibility as an agent of peace. It is believed that the failure of the current peace ops would mean that the UN's role in complex emergencies would, in future, be solely limited to humanitarian aid. How tragic that would be! Of the four current missions, Kosovo and Congo look doomed for several reasons -- and these two missions are very similar to what a UN undertaking in Sri Lanka would be like.
East Timor provides hope and until recently, so did Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the recent implosion in the West African nation once again exposed how easily committed, well-armed guerrilla fighters can overcome weak UN forces, especially with the militarily powerful Western nations refusing to commit troops. Thus, not only does the UN have its hands full but it also cannot afford another failure.
In all of these missions, the UN's goal has been the achievement of a politically stable, multi-ethnic, one-state. Secession is not encouraged. Unfortunately, in several areas, it is increasingly looking like the only solution. For example, keeping Kosovo multi-ethnic has been one of the principle aims of the UN mission there. Unfortunately, one of the UN's own arms, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently proclaimed that it could not advise ethnic Serbs to return to Kosovo since it was "too dangerous." This was a severe setback to the Kosovo mission.
The UN is reluctant to encourage secession for fear of creating a Ripple Effect. East Timor brought us to the precipice of such a calamity. It instilled in several separatist movements, perhaps even the Tigers, the hope that they too could achieve something similar. To use a nuclear metaphor, dividing Sri Lanka could provide the critical mass necessary for a chain reaction that would rapidly spread throughout the world.
After its East Timor debacle, Indonesia faces secession from Aceh and Irian Jaya. Islamic separatist movements in the Philippines are gaining both in momentum and level of violence. Besides Kosovo and India, even wealthy Canada possesses discontent in Quebec. However, most worrying for the UN is the potential spread of such ideology to that most volatile of all regions -- sub-Saharan Africa. If Africa, already poverty-stricken, politically unstable and devastated by AIDS, were to further break up, the world would face a crisis of unimaginable magnitude.
It is also not proven that secession brings about peace. Time will tell about East Timor but a border dispute has just driven Ethiopia to war with Eritrea -- a former province that gained independence in the early '90s.
For all these reasons, the member states of the UN have a real stake in preserving the one-ness of Sri Lanka. Thus, it will neither encourage nor assist the LTTE in its secessionist endeavours.
The major political barrier for the LTTE is its location. The area it wants to control is not of any significant global strategic value like Aceh is. No pipelines flow through it as they do through Chechnya. It possesses no valuable natural resources and is not likely to drag several other nations into a war, both applicable to Congo. Thus, despite the extreme brutality of the conflict, it has been unable to attract much attention from Western media.
As a result, to procure international attention, it has had to resort to violent actions such as suicide bombers and targeting visiting cricket teams and foreign embassies. Such actions only bring international condemnation rather than understanding and unlike the Albanians of Kosovo or the East Timorese, there is virtually no international sympathy for their cause.
This is not to say that their grievances are not legitimate. The Tamils in Sri Lanka have borne the brunt of severe discriminatory policies ever since the British left. However, the present international climate is one in which violent extremism and separatism are anathema. They will not be tolerated. The LTTE need to re-assess their strategy and show that they desire peace.
Only then will the rest of the world take notice of their claims and only then will they be able to achieve some of their goals.
Roshan Paul is a third year undergraduate student at Davidson College, NC, majoring in International Political Economy
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