New book on the history of the Tamil people's struggle for self-determination

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Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka
By Ron Ridenour
New Century Book House
Chennai, India
(available from Resistance Books)

Review by Chris Slee

August 9, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Ron Ridenour‘s latest book is a very informative history of the struggle for self-determination by the Tamil people on the island of Sri Lanka. Ridenour explains the reasons why many Tamils took up arms to fight for an independent Tamil state. He shows the history of racism in Sri Lanka and the violent repression carried out by successive governments against peaceful Tamil protests. He denounces the history of mass murder of Tamils, both through government-instigated pogroms and through the bombardment of civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces. He acknowledges that the Tamil independence fighters have also committed atrocities.

Ridenour is a long-term activist in solidarity with Cuba and other Latin American revolutions and a regular contributor to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. [For Ron Ridenour's articles, click HERE.]

Ridenour briefly summarises the history of the island prior to European colonisation. “Migrations from northern India to Lanka happened in waves over a period of time with different clans and tribes coming and settling in the different parts of the island…”[1] As a result of these migrations, the north and east of the island came to be predominantly Tamil, while the south and centre became predominantly Sinhalese. “The two main nationalities on this island thus developed their own territory and culture which had links to but also independent traits from the mainland Indian subcontinent.”[2]

The Portuguese, Dutch and British empires successively attempted to conquer the island. By 1815 the British had gained control of the whole island, which they called Ceylon. (It was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972.)

The British colonisers established a plantation economy. They expropriated the common lands of the Sinhalese peasantry, and brought in Tamil workers from southern India as virtual slave labour on plantations (initially coffee, later tea) in the central highlands. This history was one factor contributing to later ethnic conflicts: Sinhalese anger at the loss of their land was channelled into hostility to the Tamil plantation workers.

Meanwhile the British offered an English-language education and civil service jobs to the upper classes among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. However, rivalries among the political elite began to take the form of ethnic confilct.

When Ceylon was granted independence in 1948, the first act of the newly independent government was to deprive Tamil plantation workers of citizenship. The pretext was that because their ancestors had come from India in the 19th century, they were Indians, not Ceylonese. This move was both racist and anti-worker: the plantation workers were the most exploited section of the working class.

Some of the elite politicians among the Tamils of the north and east supported this undemocratic measure. They were not concerned about the rights of workers, even Tamil ones.

However, the next racist move of the Sinhalese ruling class affected all Tamils, including those of the north and east, whose ancestors had lived on the island for thousands of years.

A law making Sinhala the sole official language was introduced in 1956 by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government. The opposition United National Party (UNP) initially opposed it, but soon jumped on bandwagon.

This law put Tamils at a disadvantage in getting government jobs and in dealing with government officials.

In subsequent years the two main bourgeois parties (SLFP and UNP) competed for the Sinhala racist vote. At various times both parties promised concessions to the Tamils, but dropped the idea when the other party opposed it.

The Tamils carried out peaceful protests against the language law and other discriminatory measures. They were met with violent repression by the army and police, as well as a series of pogroms carried out by racist gangs.

The main left parties -- the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP, Ceylon Equal Society Party) and the pro-Moscow Communist Party -- opposed the Sinhala-only law when it was first introduced. They argued that both Sinhala and Tamil should be official languages. However, they abandoned their principles in order to join coalition governments with the SLFP. In 1964, the LSSP joined a short-lived coalition government, then in 1970 both the LSSP and Communist Party joined a similar government.

As a result of the racist policies, the repression of peaceful protest, and the sellout by the main left parties, increasing numbers of Tamils began to support the idea of a separate Tamil state.

In May 1976 the Tamil United Liberation Front (a coalition of Tamil parties) adopted a resolution calling for an independent Tamil state. In the 1977 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections the TULF won all the seats in predominantly Tamil areas, showing the strength of support for independence amongst Tamils. Soon after the election Sinhalese chauvinists launched yet another pogrom, killing over 300 Tamils and making 100,000 homeless.


Meanwhile some Tamil youth were beginning to take up arms to fight for a Tamil state. Armed action began in the 1970s with small-scale acts of violence, such as bank robberies to raise funds, and raids on police stations to obtain weapons. It did not develop into full-scale war until after the state-sponsored pogrom of July 1983, in which 3000 Tamils were murdered. This resulted in mass support among Tamils for the armed struggle.

At that stage there were many armed Tamil groups. However they not only fought the government but also engaged in internecine warfare between themselves. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, came out on top.

In 1987, India sent troops in an effort to impose a solution. Tamils were offered a degree of autonomy -- but not independence. The Indian army ordered the LTTE to disarm. War broke out between LTTE and Indian troops. The Indian army withdrew 1990.

War continued until 2009, interrupted by ceasefires in 1994 and again in 2002. No agreement was reached at the peace talks held during these ceasefires, and war broke out again.

For many years the LTTE controlled significant areas of the north and east. For nearly a decade it controlled the Jaffna district. Ridenour describes the LTTE administration in Jaffna as follows: “They provided a judicial court system, a police force, and social assistance for the poorest, as well as health care and education. LTTE ran a bank, a radio station (Voice of Tigers), and a television station. Guerrilla leaders helped organise small cooperative farming units based on traditional methods. The LTTE banned the caste system and officially stopped discrimination against women.”[3]

In 1997 the LTTE was forced to retreat from Jaffna, but it continued to control other areas in the north and east -- a fact that was formally recognised during the 2002 ceasefire.

However the Sri Lankan government made use of the 2002 ceasefire to

strengthen its armed forces, with the aid of many governments around the world. By January 2009 the government had recaptured much of the Tamil homeland.

During the final months of the war, the army “indiscriminately bombed civilians, even in the ‘safe zones’ where the government had told them to flee”. [4] Ridenour quotes an Amnesty International report saying that: “The Sri Lankan armed forces launched indiscriminate attacks with artillery on areas densely populated by civilians. Hospitals were shelled, resulting in death and injuries among patients and staff.”[5]

In May 2009 the war ended with the defeat of the LTTE.

Outside intervention

Governments giving military aid to Sri Lanka included the United States, the European Union countries, Israel, China, India and Pakistan. Iran provided economic aid and investments. Some of these governments are, to varying degrees, in conflict with each other. Why then did they all support the Sri Lankan government?

These governments were competing for influence within Sri Lanka. For example, China’s military aid was given in return for permission to build a refueling and docking station for its navy at Hambantota on Sri Lanka's south coast, which is on the trade route between China and the Middle East. Since much of Iran’s oil is exported to China, Iran shares China’s economic motive for having access to a port in Sri Lanka.

Ridenour says that “Sri Lanka played one power against another: India against Pakistan and China, US against China, Israel against Iran and Libya, the West against the NAM [Non Aligned Movement].”[6]

Ridenour gives details of the aid provided by various countries. He says that the US “has been arming and financing Sri Lanka for most of the civil war period… The US signed a ten year Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Sri Lanka on 5 March 2007, which provides, along with other things, logistic supplies and refueling facilities. The US already has a Voice of America installation at Trincomalee, which can be used for surveillance. From at least the 1990s, the US has provided military training, financing and weapons sales averaging $1.5 million annually... The Pentagon provided counter-insurgency training, maritime radar, patrols of US warships and aircraft. This was a continuation of ‘Operation Balanced Style’, which uses US Special Forces instructors since 1996.”[7]

Israel also has longstanding military links with Sri Lanka. Between 1970 and 2000, formal diplomatic links between the two countries did not exist. “Under the table, however, Sri Lanka's successive regimes embraced Israel’s military advisors, a special commando unit in the police, and Mossad counter-intelligence agents, who sought to drive a wedge between Muslims and Tamils.” More recently, “Israel sent 16 of its supersonic Kfir fighter jets, some Dvora fast naval attack craft, and electronic and imagery surveillance equipment, plus advisors and technicians. Israeli personnel took part in military attacks on Tamil units, and its pilots flew attack aircraft.”[8]

China’s military links have been more recent. “In April 2007, Sri Lanka made a deal to buy Chinese ammunition and ordnance for its military. China gave it six F7 jet fighters… China has also given or sold on credit an anti-submarine warfare vessel, gunboats and landing craft, battle tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and air surveillance radars.”[9]

Who are the terrorists?

The LTTE has been condemned as “terrorist” by many governments, including those of the US and the European Union. Ridenour, while acknowledging that the LTTE has carried out acts of terrorism, argues that the state terrorism of the Sri Lankan government has been much greater. He cites a 1987 UN General Assembly resolution which says: “The terrorism of modern state power and its high technology weaponry exceeds qualitatively by many orders of magnitude the political violence relied upon by groups aspiring to undo oppression and achieve liberation.”[10]

Ridenour argues that this statement is applicable to Sri Lanka. Acts of state terrorism range from torture, murder and disappearances (affecting Sinhalese as well as Tamils) to the massive bombardment of Tamil civilians during the war: “Many tens of thousands were killed, perhaps as many as 40,000, in just the last two weeks of fighting.”[11]

However Ridenour recognises that the LTTE also committed terrorist acts. Explaining this, he says: “I believe that the use of brutality breeds more brutality into an unending spiral.” Sinhalese chauvinists started the violence, but then “those who are the victims of violence … eventually pick up arms and become brutal in their defence”.[12]

Ridenour says that the LTTE's use of terrorist tactics is not unique among national liberation movements. He says that “most if not all armed movements commit … atrocities, even acts of terror in the long course of warfare”. [13] He cites FARC, the PFLP and the ANC as examples. Nevertheless he supports them against governments that “practice state terror endemically”.

Following the defeat of the LTTE, Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka are living under military occupation. Many have had their homes and land confiscated for Sinhalese settlers.

After the end of the war, the size of the Sri Lankan army has not been reduced, but increased by 100,000. Ridenour comments: “More troops are needed because systematic ethnic cleansing is now the order of the day for the Tamil people. Their Homeland will be obliterated by introducing more Sinhalese settlers. The same strategy, as John Pilger pointed out, that Israel uses against Palestinians.”[14]

ALBA countries' attitude

Ridenour also discusses the attitude taken towards the Tamil struggle by the ALBA countries (the left-wing Latin American countries including Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia). He was prompted to begin writing about the Tamil struggle when a member of the Latin America Friendship Association in Tamil Nadu, India, wrote to him about the bad position taken by the ALBA countries in the discussion of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. The ALBA representatives dismissed the LTTE simply as “terrorists” and supported the Sri Lankan government, ignoring the oppression of the Tamil people that led to the formation of the LTTE.

Why did the ALBA countries take this position? Ridenour says that one reason may be ignorance. “Perhaps they have not studied the sordid history of Sri Lanka.”[15]

Another factor may be suspicion of “separatism”. Imperialism has at times encouraged separatist movements to undermine progressive governments: “Bolivia and Venezuela, too, are pressed by separatist demands; but these demands come from a rich class of whites and creoles, which has no historic ethnic homeland, and not from any nationality.”[16] The Tamil struggle is quite different from such imperialist-backed separatist movements. It arises from real national oppression.

Far from supporting the LTTE, the US and its allies strongly supported the Sri Lankan government’s war effort. However they have occasionally made some very mild criticisms of Sri Lanka's human rights record. Sri Lankan government representatives sometimes use leftist rhetoric, portraying such criticism as imperialist interference.

At the UNHRC discussion, the ambassadors of some ALBA countries appeared to give credence to these arguments. Bolivia’s ambassador spoke of “neocolonialist attitudes”[17] on the part of those criticising Sri Lanka.

Ridenour also considers the possible geopolitical reasons for ALBA’s attitude. China and Iran are important trading partners of the ALBA countries, and are seen as allies against US imperialism. Since China and Iran support the Sri Lankan government, there may be a tendency for the ALBA countries to follow suit.

Whatever the reason for ALBA’s attitude, it has unfortunate results. It deprives the Tamils of support in international forums. It also damages the reputation of ALBA among those who are aware of the real situation in Sri Lanka (including the people of Tamil Nadu in southern India, who sympathise with the plight of their fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka).


1. Ridenour, p. 34

2. Ridenour, p. 38

3. Ridenour, p. 95

4. Ridenour, p. 120

5. Ridenour, p. 121;

6. Ridenour, p. 123

7. Ridenour, pp.121-2

8. Ridenour, p. 122

9. Ridenour, p. 124

10. Ridenour, p. 117

11. Ridenour, p. 120

12. Ridenour, p. 126

13. Ridenour, p. 134

14. Ridenour, p. 128

15. Ridenour, p. 29

16. Ridenour, p. 29

17. Ridenour, p. 25