'Dialogue' or Tamil self-determination: a response to Michael Cooke

Tamil refugees.

By Chris Slee

October 27, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Michael Cooke's article "Election Monitoring in Lanka"[1] contains a lot of useful information on the history and politics of Sri Lanka, including topics ranging from the burning of the Jaffna library by Sri Lankan police in 1981 to the murder of journalists, the repression of trade unionists and the instigation of anti-Muslim riots under the current government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

However the article has some serious flaws. In particular, Cooke does not deal adequately with the national question in Sri Lanka.

The article is largely based on three visits that Cooke made to Sri Lanka, including two periods as an election monitor (in 2001 and 2005). It is also informed by his extensive knowledge of Sri Lankan history, much of it gained through the research he did for his excellent biography of Lionel Bopage.[2]

Cooke's work as an election monitor gave him a unique vantage point from which to observe Sri Lankan politics. But it was not always easy to find out the truth. Cooke admits that he is not sure who committed some of the acts of violence that he observed.

There is also the question of barriers to communication with local people. Cooke was an outsider who could not speak the local languages. He was able to spend only a limited time in any particular place. I suspect that these factors would have made it difficult for Cooke to establish sufficient trust from local people that they would be completely open in expressing their political views to him.

Communication would have been much easier with those who were fluent in English than with those who were not. This may have encouraged greater openness among fluent English speakers than among others.

Cooke complains of being "chaperoned at all times" when visiting areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But wariness towards outsiders is scarcely surprising among people who are living under siege, as the inhabitants of the LTTE zones were in 2005.

He was able to have discussions with some prominent political figures, notably Douglas Devananda, a former Tamil revolutionary who had become a minister in the Sri Lankan government. But to what extent he was able to have serious political discussions with ordinary people is unclear.

Cooke denounces Tamil diaspora organisations for allegedly failing to represent the lower castes of Tamil society. Having made this accusation, Cooke is obliged to explain what efforts he made to find out the views of lower-caste people. However in this article he does not mention any political discussions with people identifying as lower caste. Nor does he mention any such discussions with workers, peasants or poor people. This may be due to the obstacles to communication which I mentioned above.

Cooke says:

The future of Lanka I am sad to say, if left in the hands of its traditional political leaders and parties, is bleak. On one side you have the Tamil diaspora whose leadership is mainly made up of well to do former inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula, who are still banging on the annihilated and politically bankrupt drum of the LTTE. The voices of dalits and lower caste communities and their needs get drowned out in the din for Eelam. The leadership of the expatriate Tamil community must be democratised and be more open to other alternative solutions and political currents. The Lankan state must also encourage the seeds of democratic thought and practice and not demonise or sideline them as they are currently doing.

In my view this passage is very confused. The middle-class composition of the Tamil diaspora (at least in Australia) is due to Australia's immigration policy, which keeps out non-white people unless they are well educated. Given the association between education, class and caste, Australia's intake of Tamils is probably weighted towards the upper castes. (Those who come "illegally" by boat may be an exception.)

I am not aware of any evidence that lower-caste Tamils were less supportive of the LTTE than upper-caste ones, or that they are today less committed to an independent Tamil Eelam than upper-caste people. It seems more likely that the reverse would be the case, given the LTTE's commitment to abolishing caste discrimination.[3]

It is not the leaders of the Tamil diaspora who silence the voices of the lower-caste Tamils. It is state repression that does this.

On the island of Sri Lanka itself, a lower-caste/class Tamil who is too vociferous in criticising the government is likely to be taken away by the army in the middle of the night and never seen again. This can happen to upper-caste/class Tamils too. But the latter are more likely to have connections with people who can make a fuss in Colombo and/or internationally. This is a (slight) deterrent to the repression of upper-caste/class people.

Even in Australia, lower-caste/class Tamils would be hesitant about speaking out, because of possible repercussions on their relatives at home, as well as fear of harassment by government agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (and in the case of those who are not Australian citizens, fear of deportation).

If lower-caste Tamils in Australia are looking for an alternative to the Tamil groups controlled by upper-caste people, they have several options. They could join multi-ethnic groups such as People for Human Rights and Equality, or the Movement for Equal Rights. They could also join left groups such as the Frontline Socialist Party or the NSSP (New Socialist Party). They could form a new Tamil group.

If the voices of the lower castes are being "drowned out", the solution is to shout louder. What prevents this is state repression, both in Sri Lanka and in the countries to which Tamils have fled, such as Australia.

To say that the Sri Lankan government should "encourage the seeds of democratic thought and practice" is very nebulous. We should demand that it stop murdering and torturing its opponents, and should end military rule in Tamil areas.

We should also demand that the Australian government stop deporting Tamils to Sri Lanka, free those in detention and give them permanent residency, welfare rights and the opportunity to become Australian citizens.

Cooke's discussion of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is inadequate. He recognises that the Tamils have suffered discriminatory laws, pogroms, etc. But he does not discuss what should be the political solution to the oppression of Tamils.

He expresses sympathy for a young Tamil woman, interviewed in a documentary film[4], who joined the Tigers because of her experiences of injustice, including the murder of her father. But he does not engage with her political argument that "... to live in peace we need a separate state".

It is clear that Cooke disagrees with this opinion, but he doesn't actually argue against it and put forward his own opinion on what political goals the Tamils should be striving for.

As a result of decades of oppression, many Tamils came to agree with the LTTE on the need for a separate state. This helps to explain the December 2001 parliamentary election results, in which most Tamils voted for the Tamil National Alliance, which was seen as being allied to the LTTE, despite intimidation by pro-government forces. Cooke reports what happened in the Jaffna district as follows:

The election in Jaffna was relatively trouble free as the Tamil Tigers through their political allies expected to win the majority of the seats, which they did. The EPDP [Eelam Peoples Democratic Party, led by Douglas Devananda] lost one of their seats but retained Kayts. Most of the intimidation, vote rigging and violence came from one source, the EPDP. They were the only ones armed and organised, who had the means to do this. In most instances, they did this blatantly and with impunity.

Thus the people of Jaffna voted for the "allies" of LTTE (the Tamil National Alliance) despite intimidation by the EDPD, which had the support of the occupying Sri Lankan army. This implies that the TNA (and presumably the Tigers) had strong popular support.

Cooke's proposed solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic problem is that "... civil society must be strengthened, institutional safeguards introduced and dialogue must replace the rancour that so drowns out and infantilises political discourse in Sri Lanka".

These are all worthy goals, but completely insufficient. Cooke fails to put forward concrete measures to end the national oppression of the Tamils. The army must be withdrawn from Tamil areas. Land seized from Tamils must be returned to its rightful owners. There should be a referendum among Tamils on whether they want to be part of a unitary Sri Lanka, or have their own separate state, or have some intermediate option such as federalism.

In campaigning to end national oppression, Tamils will need to link up with progressive forces in the south of Sri Lanka. Cooke outlines some of the injustices causing discontent in the south -- rising inequality, declining real wages for many workers, attacks on union rights, evictions carried out by the army, the murder of journalists and pogroms against Muslims. The left needs to combine campaigns around these issues with propaganda and actions in solidarity with the Tamil struggle for human rights and national self-determination.

[Chris Slee is an activist in the solidarity movement with the Tamil people in Melbourne and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]


1. "Election Monitoring in Lanka", by Michael Cooke. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://links.org.au/node/4102.

2. Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: the Lionel Bopage Story, by Michael Cooke, Agahas Publishers, Colombo, 2001.

3. "The former LTTE de facto state: a resident's view", by Chris Slee. Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://links.org.au/node/4103.

4. My Daughter the Terrorist, film by B. Arnestad and M. Daae, 2007. Snitt Film Production.