In 1956, Tamil leaders gathered on Galle Face Green in peaceful protest. They were broken up by violence and thugs. This was attributed to Sinhala chauvinism. Perhaps it was just because there was no al Jazeera.
A Thought Experiment
Mediated and socially networked people from Tunisia to Yemen have been able to mount serious challenges to oppressive governments and win. This is largely because nations are more connected globally and people are more connected to each other. This begs the question, how would non-violence have affected the Tamil struggle in the past, and how could it affect it today?
How Non-Violence Works
According to Wesleyan Professor Erica Chenoweth non-violence is successful “not because of the ‘moral high ground,’ but rather because their reliance on nonviolent resistance confounds their opponents, whose usual response to internal challenge is to use force.” Most regimes simply don’t see it coming. They also have something to lose, both in terms of internal and external support.
Most importantly, a non-violent movement is able to split the military from the regime. Any large, professional military is unlikely to fire on unarmed civilians, but they will definitely fight an armed insurgency. By not taking the military head on, non-violent movements seem able to neutralise or subvert it to their ends.
Less importantly, any globally integrated state has money and prestige to lose. If they rely on Western military aid, like Egypt did, then they will lose that. If they rely on international trade, then they will lose that to sanctions. If they try to silence the mainstream media, they will lose the narrative completely to social media. Of course, this only applies to countries that have gained something in the first place, but most modern strongmen have.
This is the modern paradigm of resistance. It exists within a media and technological ecosystem of course. Burmese generals were able to crush people power, as were the election-riggers in Iran. In Libya things have not gone as smoothly as in Egypt and Tunisia. It seems that these resistance movements succeed best in countries which are oppressive internally but still engaged with the world through trade, media and telecommunications. The tools that the regime uses to enrich itself become their undoing.
The Sri Lankan Case
So, as a thought experiment, how would non-violence work in Sri Lanka, specifically regarding Tamil grievances? Would it work in the past and would it work now?
In the 1980s, the answer is probably not well. The Sri Lankan conflict was about dividing a country, not overthrowing a regime. As such, the mostly Sinhala military was not disinclined to use force. In those days there was no satellite TV, no Facebook and no Twitter and 10,000 people could be killed without making much of a sound. D.B.S Jeyaraj has recently been writing of a 1961 Satyagraha which was crushed by force. The result would probably be the same, or worse.
After the 1980s, of course, the die was effectively cast by the LTTE taking up arms. Thus, non-violent resistance probably wouldn’t work today. There simply aren’t that many Tamil youth left and the separatist cause is obviously not unifying. Too many people have fled or died, a process that the LTTE expedited. The LTTE also doomed development in the North and the East, leaving them years behind the rest of the country. They still don’t have the phone, Internet and social infrastructure to support a self-sustaining revolt.
The one scenario where non-violence might have worked is if the Tamil people of the 1980s had basically given up and had children in Sri Lanka. Those children would have grown up, presumably under oppression, and by the time they decided to revolt they would have Twitter, Facebook, al Jazeera and a fighting chance at change. What happened in the Arab world was that a generation denied gave birth to a generation that could not be denied. In Sri Lanka, a generation fought, left, and gave birth instead to a diaspora. Thus, non-violent Tamil resistance looks like it will remain the road not taken.