By Patrick Bond
(Centre for Civil Society seminar photos: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?11,61,3,1737)
A delegation of Tamil leaders from Sri Lanka, Australia, Canada and Britain was hosted by the Centre for Civil Society on April 21. Thirty in attendance received background information from former Member of Parliament M. K. Eelaventhan, including the long history of colonial and post-colonial repression: 'The crux of the Tamil problem is land. In the name of wiping out the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government is wiping out our nation. This is racial discrimination and racial segregation, and it is so severe it amounts to genocide.'
From the Tamil Canadian diaspora, Sahabthan Jesuthasan discussed the contemporary genocide, dating to the early 1980s attempt to wipe out the culture, literature and language, including thousands killed in 1983: 'Many more thousands have been murdered in recent days.'
According to Australia-based Adrian //Fiancis, 'The significance of South Africa for this struggle includes a substantial group of people of Tamil descent, especially in Durban. Discrimination in Sri Lanka is similar to apartheid. The main difference is that the existence of our race in Northern Sri Lanka is in question. The SA government, more than any other government, has listened to their cries. But the immediacy of the situation requires an accelerated approach. The superpowers of the region are China and India. Their influence on the conflict, and provision of arms to the Sri Lankan government, is to propogate the genocide. When we worked through Mexico to put this onto the UN Security Council agenda, Russia and China have vetoed the discussion of the issue. They are complicit in the genocide by fuelling the government's military campaign. This genocide can be stopped by the UN, through sanctions or restrictions.'
Myuran Elango, a Melbourne-based journalist, explained why we know so little about the situation: 'Sri Lanka has no free press. Any journalist who dares to speak out is targeted by government-affiliated forces. Two dozen reporters were killed recently. This is the only country that has used the War on Terrorism as a way to muzzle the press. South Africa can be the first country that takes a step forward, to really raise world consciousness about the situation.'
According to Sahabthan Jesuthasan from Toronto, 'From 2006, the Sri Lankan government pulled out of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, a month before a Tamil state would have come into effect. In August 2006, a children's home (for orphans) was bombed indiscriminately, killing 61 school children. Their rationale was an absurd claim that the LTT was growing child soldiers. These childrens were entirely victims. 300 000 civilians are trapped in the war zone, in an 18 square mile zone. In 2006, we had a de facto government with 1/3 of the country. In the next couple of days, the 250 000 civilians are under immediate threat. Adrian lost 11 family members last week; we don't know where my family is, we haven't heard them since January. The Sri Lankan government killed two doctors and a nurse today.'
Local supporter Suvani Naidoo explained, 'In South Africa, the Tamil Youth Organisation is bringing to the society's attention the genocide. We want to raise widespread support for the aspirations of the Tamil people. We will have a celebration on 27 April in Bayview, Chatsworth. We want the government to lead the international calls for a ceasefire. And we need sanctions - diplomatic, economic, even academic - to put pressure on the government and isolate it.'
The three demands made by the Tamil liberation movement are:
* An immediate ceasefire leading to a permanent negotiated settlement.
* Immediate humanitarian assistance to the war zone.
* The LTTE should be recognised as the liberation movement and should be unbanned and destigmatised, the way the ANC was after 1990 (prior to which it was considered 'terrorist').
Durban social activist Roy Chetty reported that the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation is a key vehicle for material aid and solidarity. But political pressure is needed, too: 'The SA government is obsessed with being powerbrokers. That means they pull their punches, so as not to jeapardise relations. We should move further to boot the Sri Lankans from the Commonwealth and UN.'
As Prabha Bala from the UK observed, 'The ANC has had ties to the LTT for years. The Sri Lankan government won't listen to the SA government because of those ties.'
But what action can be taken against the extreme conflict unfolding now in the northeast of the island? If the SA government is as reliable an ally of the Tamil liberation movement as it is for democrats in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Burma and Palestine, then only disappointment awaits these activists.
Instead, the kinds of people-people solidarity that South Africans helped pioneer will be needed. The seminar discussed material aid, but also the dockworkers' refusal to unload a Zimbabwe-bound shipment of 3 million bullets in April 2008 and a decision in February to refuse Israeli ship unloading. Prof Dennis Brutus' experiences with the anti-apartheid sports boycott were seen as a model for consciouness-raising, especially given that Sri Lankan cricket players are coming to Durban for the Indian Premier League. And a variety of other pressure tactics were discussed.
It is definitely time to act, to prevent immediate suffering and mass
deaths; if the SA government is a half-hearted ally more prone to taking
Chinese orders than following human rights principles, then civil
society should redouble efforts to provide solidarity to the Tamil people.