Every slander against Arab protestors was true of the LTTE. They were violent, sectarian, and foreign influenced. (Photo: Govt. Exhibition)
How is/was Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka different from the Arab Spring? I don’t mean federalism (good idea, people deserve to be troubled by a government that at least speaks their language). I mean separatism, the idea of a separate state for the Tamil race in the North and East of the island.
1. Tamil Separatism Was Violent
After the peaceful satygraha by Tamil parliamentarians was crushed on the Galle Face Green (1956), non-violent Tamil resistance went into growing disrepute. Indeed, it was hard to justify in the face of fairly regular riots, culminating in 1983. I was one year old, but that historical inheritance still shames and horrifies me.
It could be that the media and social environment wasn’t there for non-violence. It could also be that the demographics were wrong (a lot of unemployed youth, leading to an almost equally bloody southern rebellion). Either way, it didn’t happen. The LTTE killed off moderate and militant Tamils and took violence to its extreme extreme.
For a while they were actually winning, occupying the North and East. However, as they transitioned from terrorists to a terrorist military they lost asymmetrical advantage, demographics changed, media changed, and they eventually lost it all.
This is actually what happens to most movements that turn violent. They get crushed with violence. That’s why – with incredible discipline – revolutionaries in the Arab Spring have avoided violence. That’s also why Arab dictators try to tar them as violent, because that gives them the justification to move in and crush.
2. Tamil Separatism Was Sectarian
In the Arab Spring, protestors have been very, very careful not to be identified as Sunni or Shia or Christian or Muslim or anything sectarian. They maintain a national, non-racial, non-religious profile. A) because it’s the moral high ground and B) because they won’t get drowned. Arab dictators also try to tar them as sectarian, because that immediately creates a divide that can be used to isolate and crush.
Under the LTTE and, honestly, under most past and current activists, the Tamil movement has been inherently sectarian. It’s literally a Tamil movement, something hard to imagine another race joining. The LTTE ethnically cleansed Muslims and Sinhalese from the North and East and periodically machetied border villages to show that other races were not welcome. That’s the bloody end of the deal.
On the less bloody end, even modern activists are very keen on Tamil victimhood as being distinct from other groups. Tamil suffering, Tamil plight, etc. There’s some validity there (if not efficacy), I’ll return to separatists. Separatists are keen on the North and East as an ethnically based homeland. This is obviously a divisive issue, especially since it divides the Tamil population (around half live in the south, and Colombo is minority Sinhalese, majority Tamil/Muslim).
By being a racial movement, Tamil separatism was inherently sectarian, and in that way different from the national movements of the Arab Spring. They tried very hard to remain above race and religion. Tamil separatism was immersed in it.
3. Tamil Separatism Became Foreign
Another killer to Arab movements was any association with foreign forces. Dictators tried hard to tar protestors as foreign or foreign influenced. That’s something they tried scrupulously to avoid.
Perhaps because it played out in slow-mo, the Tamil separatist movement did the exact opposite. Near the end, foreigners were funding suicide bombs in the country and any protests were actually held abroad. These were formerly Sri Lanka refugees, but they were effectively foreign. This would be a deskpalm situation for any Arab movement. It’s basically everything that could go wrong in terms of both legitimacy and survival.
Hence, that Tamil Diaspora became a huge liability because they made the movement seem foreign. Indeed, the LTTE had become a weird sort of corporation, funded from abroad, using poor captives in a literally suicidal HR policy. The rump of the LTTE and well-meaning diasporals have continued the policy of beseeching foreign organizations and media to punish the Sri Lankan government, but this is not effective unless you can actually get them to bomb the country, as per Libya. Otherwise, foreign involvement isolates any local movement and, in the end, perpetuates nothing but itself.
Those are the main difference I see between the Arab Spring and Tamil Separatism, as it was, and a bit is. Tamil separatism embraced violence and sectarianism, things which the Arab Spring has consciously avoided because A) they’re weak moral sauce and B) they lead to destruction. And that was the fate of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka. It became increasingly immoral and it was crushed. Which I think was a good thing. It was violent and sectarian.
Federalism, on the other hand, is another hand. It’s not necessarily violent or sectarian at all.
Every Sri Lankan deserves more control over their lives, and that can start with independent provincial governments. This is especially important in the North and East where the language is different. Tamil speaking police and administration is necessary there to serve Tamil speaking Tamil and Muslim residents. Federalism is also something you can sell in the south, because everybody wants more control of their hood.
Federalism, unlike separatism is an issue which can be non-violent (it’s in our current Constitution) and non-sectarian (everybody gets more power over their province, not just a certain race). Hence, OK.