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The Politics of Powerlessness

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When Xenia Tashlitsky chose to study separatism with men-tor Professor Petracca, she hypothesized that modern separatist movements would match traditional models of legitimization, which posit that secessionists will seek to prove their monopoly on force and recognition by key international actors. But when confronted with real-world separatists’ online statements, Xenia concluded that instead of power, Sir Lanka’s seces-sionists attempt to establish their powerlessness. Through rejecting this hypothesis, Xenia learned that sometimes being wrong is more instructive than being right—if you succeed in answering the question of why? Xenia is an inaugural class member of the UCI School of Law, opening August 2009.At all levels of governance, in virtually all parts of the world, the World-Wide Web is being utilized to inform, challenge, and potentially alter political life. Xenia's thesis seeks to document, analyze, and understand the use of the Internet by the Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to enhance the inter-national legitimacy of this secessionist movement. Contrary to scholarly expectations, Xenia's research finds that appeals from the LTTE to the international community for independent recognition are characterized by claims of powerlessness which have yet to produce the desired result among key international actors.Key TermsLegitimizationSecessionSeparatismSri LankaTamil TigersThe Politics of Powerlessness: How and Why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Employ the Internet to Establish the Legitimacy of their Cause and to Ensure the Success of their MovementXenia TashlitskyPolitical ScienceMark PetraccaSchool of Social SciencesThe Internet’s sprawling sphere of influence and small cost of use allows modern movements for state secession to access relatively large audiences at reasonably little expense. As Sri Lanka’s strongest active militant movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is employing the Internet to sketch the political map of the island around the Tamil minority in the northeastern area of the state. To understand how the LTTE caters the claims on its website to the legitimization of its cause and the success of its movement, I analyzed approximately 1,800 news stories from the group’s online archive, as well as several other LTTE, state and scholarly sources. Some scholars speculate that the message-making strategies of secession-seeking movements should appeal to arguments for political power. However, my study suggests that the LTTE instead appeals to assertions for political powerless-ness tailored to an increasingly international audience. Because separatist sites are both unprecedentedly current and uniquely first-person, my research offers a new approach to analyzing the legitimization of modern social movements in an increas-ingly Web-based world.59 T HE UCI UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH JOURNALAuthorAbstractFaculty Mentor60 The UCI Undergraduate Research Journal THE POLITICS OF POWERLESSNESSIntroductionOver the last century, the persistent survival of multina-tional states has come into conflict with the precipitous rise of separatist movements. Many multinational states contain explosive combinations of deep differences in race, religion and language, as well as enormous inequalities in political power, social position, and economic potential. Both social and separatist groups may argue that they are underrep-resented, under-resourced, and otherwise underserved by their state governments because they are regionally, linguis-tically, racially, ethnically, religiously, and/or socio-culturally “different.” However, while social movements seek recog-nition, restitution and redress within the system, separatist movements demand authority and autonomy outside of it. Separatists’ cynicism for obtaining their objectives within the framework of the state makes their success a threat to the state’s survival. In the Colonial Era, state size was synonymous with political power; in the Post-World War II Era, the status quo was tantamount to global stability. The state’s refusal to relinquish its land and the international community’s reluctance to recognize an emergent sovereign entity weighs heavily against the legitimization and seces-sion of separatist movements. Clearly, separatist groups have a practical stake in legitimacy creation and social move-ment success.Sri Lanka’s strongest active militant movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is employing the Internet to sketch the political map of the island around the state’s Tamil minority. I juxtaposed separatists’ claims to legitimacy with scholars’ theories on the creation of legiti-macy and the success of social movements. Because the separatist sites are both current and uniquely first-person, I sought to offer a new approach to analyzing modern social movements.BackgroundAs one of approximately 400 modern movements for state secession (Hewitt and Cheetham 300), Sri Lanka’s ethnic separatists are struggling to sketch the political map of the island around the Tamil minority in the northeast of the state (Rajanayagam, 1994). Since the violence of the mid-1970s, the targets of the groups have transformed from increased autonomy to inclusive separation from the government of Sri Lanka, which is controlled by the ethnic Sinhalese (Shastri 208). The bi-ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese-speaking majority and the Ceylon Tamil-speaking minority (Wilson and Manogaran 236) has contributed to more than 30,000 deaths and over half a million displace-ments (Pfaffenberger 1), with the Indian Tamil-speakers and the Muslim Tamil-speakers sometimes caught in the crossfire (Wilson and Manogaran 236).While some claim that the Sinhalese and the Tamils are “his-toric” adversaries, others contend that Sri Lankan history is neither immutable nor apolitical. Tilly (1985) connects the success of a separatist movement to the creation of a claim to cultural legitimacy, which includes “sobriety, propriety of dress, endorsement of moral authorities, and evidence of previous undeserved suffering” (p. 261). Accordingly, Rajanayagam (1994) suggests that the Sinhalese and the Tamils are struggling over the ownership of Sri Lankan cul-tural history because “who possesses the history possesses the country, possesses the right to rule, and possesses the elusive right to exist in that country.” The Tamils


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