Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sri Lanka and the Tamils: The Standard Scenario

Sri Lanka's war with the Tamils seems to be entering its final stages, with much uncertainty about the future of the very long-lasting conflict. This particular secessionist war has always shaped my understanding of ethnic conflict as it seemed to be the exemplar for many of the dynamics/processes we associate with ethnic conflict.
  • Ethnic outbidding: This is when two or more factions of one ethnic group play a game of one-ups-man-ship, each promising to be a better nationalist and defend their people against another ethnic group. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at decolonization, was not seen as a likely spot for a brutal, enduring conflict. But in the 1956 election, one of the major Sinhalese parties realized that it was really just competing for Sinhalese votes since they make up 90% of the population, more or less. That party played up the big divide of language and promoted Sinhalese as the national language. It won the election, and with the British-style first-past-the-post electoral system, a sweeping majority. That started a series of elections where the two major Sinhalese parties competed by promising to marginalize the Tamils. Donald Horowitz used this case to illustrate and understand ethnic outbidding both in articles and in his classic Ethnic Groups in Conflict.
  • Group Concentration Matters More than Ethnic Heterogeneity. In academic discussions, there are largely separate debates/literatures on ethnic conflict and civil war. In the ethnic conflict literature, there is much focus on group concentration and its impact on ethnic violence and almost none on ethnic heterogeneity. In the civil war literature, almost all of the efforts to test quantitatively relationships between various factors and violence use as an indicator for ethnicity diversity and largely ignore group concentration and usually it is found to be insignificant. In this case of Sri Lanka, we find more support for the ethnic conflict consensus and less for the civil war view, as the Tamils were both concentrated in certain parts of the country but also somewhat spread out. In terms of heterogeneity, Sri Lanka would be at the low end of the spectrum since there are essentially only two major groups and one is roughly 90% of the population.
  • Separatist wars are longer-lasting. Separatist conflicts last longer than other kinds of ethnic conflicts. In the article cited, Fearon argues that these kinds of conflicts face greater challenges for governments and rebels to make credible commitments (Fearon would quibble with my focus on separatism where he focuses on sons of the soil, but that is an argument for another day).
  • Diasporas are problematic for both the conflict and for outside actors. While diasporas are the subject of my next project, I can safely assert now that they greatly complicate things. The Tamil Tigers have been extraordinarily successful in gaining funding from Tamils around the world. There are real questions to be asked about how much of this is voluntary and due to kinship (how we usually see diaspora financing) and how much is the result of protection rackets run by the Tigers in Canada, the US and elsewhere. Canada, because the Tamil population resides in some important ridings (constituencies), was slow to categorize the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization.
  • Neighbors Can Be Trouble. Adjacent countries tend to be key, as many can be bases for the rebels. For a new book that documents this quite well, see Idean Saleyhan's Rebels W/o Borders. India, particularly its state of Tamil Nadu, provided much support for the Tigers, particularly before India's ill-fated intervention.
  • Military Victories Produce Longer Lasting Periods of Peace But More Immediate Bloodshed. Studies of civil wars have shown that the ending matters--that where one side wins outright, violence is less likely to recur. In other kinds of conflicts, cease-fires and settlements tend to get violated. But the problem with letting them fight it out is that the winner is then unconstrained and can then engage in retaliation, leading to mass killings.
So, what should we expect now? Well, it really depends on the Sri Lankan government. If it tries to rebuild the destroyed areas and give some real political power and protections to the Tamil minority, then it might be the case that those aggrieved by the war's brutal ending might not find an audience. However, if the government and army do not assure the Tamils that they can live and thrive in the newly united Sri Lanka, the victory might be a pyrrhic one, as the Tigers might be pushed off of the island but become a force somewhere else in the world. Terrorism is likely to continue at some level, but the level depends largely on the Sinhalese.

To be clear, I am not a fan of either the Sri Lankan government or the Tamil Tigers. Institutions from 1956-1983 created incentives for the Sinhalese leaders to engage in ethnic outbidding, which alienated the Tamils. However, the Tigers were the one group to emerge, largely by killing Tamils with whom they disagreed. Recent and on-going events have created opportunities for a new approach. Whether the bloodshed is the last of its kind or just part of the larger conflict yet to be resolved depends on how the various actors react to the new circumstances.

No comments: