Monday, February 02, 2009

So What Is Different About Sri Lanka?

Harry's Place is comparing the situation in Israel with that of Sri Lanka, and wondering why the former gets so, so much more attention than the latter. The parallels do strike me (and they did before I read this post), but I will freely admit that my knowledge of the conflict there is limited (though not non-existent).

So I am curious. What do people think accounts for the difference in the relative attention?

Potential candidates, which of course may mix and match (feel free to add others):

1) Israel is more closely associated with the United States and the West, making it an easier target.

2) The Sri Lankan conflict is seen as "intra-mural", that is, between two "native" groups (Tamil and Sinhalese), whereas in Israel/Palestine one side (the Jews) are seen as foreign interlopers.

3) Anti-Semitism: People prefer to yell about Jews more than other groups.

But again -- I concede my knowledge is limited, and I am quite open to hearing why others think the disparity exists.


PG said...

I'd add 4) The Sri Lankan conflict doesn't have so much of a religious identification element to it; it's majority-Buddhist-group keeping down minority-Hindu-group, but the Tamil Tigers are just as happy to bomb Hindus if they feel Hindus are oppressing them.

2) The Sri Lankan conflict is seen as "intra-mural", that is, between two "native" groups (Tamil and Sinhalese), whereas in Israel/Palestine one side (the Jews) are seen as foreign interlopers.

This is the most important distinguishing factor. It's not as though a ton of Sinhalese were immigrating into Sri Lanka upon independence. I see it in many ways as of a piece with the other conflicts one saw within South Asia, even post-Partition, between groups that might have seemed superficially homogeneous but didn't feel that way at all. See, e.g., the East-West Pakistan war, or the various violent fights over splitting up Indian states by language. One might have thought that getting the Hindus and Muslims separated, and how horrifically bloody that was, would quell these impulses toward dividing up into even smaller units, but one would be wrong. It makes sense to the extent that in the post-colonial era and with strong Soviet influence, the best jobs in these countries were in the civil service, so the language that was the "official" language was incredibly important if you wanted to ensure that your family would be seen as fluent. One sees a more peaceful version of this in Belgium, which always seems on the verge of a language split into a French nation and a Flemish one.

Similarly, Sri Lanka had much of its impetus toward the civil war when Sinhala was made the sole official language. Gandhi said one of the good things that the British gave India was the English language, which belonged to no Indian as a native language and thus belonged to all Indians equally. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka opted to reject English as a remnant of colonial oppression.

The "large power" that is most involved with the Sri Lankan conflict, i.e. India, is geographically very close and has been MUCH more entwined in the problem than the U.S. or any other nation has been in the I/P conflict. India had to deal with the Tamils within India who were unhappy about the situation in Sri Lanka and with refugees.

This led to India's making the mistake of making an agreement with Sri Lanka where India supposedly was negotiating on behalf of the Tamils. This is the sort of thing where someone seems not to have read the labels first: They're called a liberation movement, they're fighting for autonomy -- surely it wasn't a surprise that when the Indian Army took it upon itself to disarm the Tamil Tigers that someone (unsurprisingly, someone with the last name Gandhi) was going to get shot.

It is odd though that we haven't seen more leftist identification with the Tamil Tigers, considering that they have a Marxist-ish ideology. Maybe M.I.A. will make them aware of it.

Tony Henke said...

I'd guess that we just don't care about the third world that much. Israel is rich and powerful. Sri Lanka isn't. Coverage of a similar conflict in Sweden, France, or Japan would be quite heavy - not so much in Vietnam or Ethiopia.

Matt said...

I think it's also that the way the Middle East was divided up during the cold war, with much of the world's oil supply at stake. Also, while Israel is an easier target in part because it's more-or-less Western, it's also filled with places that, to most Westerners, have familiar names. They say war is God's way of teaching Americans geography, but this is a place where the geography lessons are easy.