Sri Lanka: Behind the genocidal war against the Tamils

By Tony Iltis

January 17, 2009 -- The January 14 announcement by the Sri Lankan government that its forces had completed the capture of the Jaffna Peninsular, effectively bringing all of the historic Tamil nation in Sri Lanka’s north-east under military occupation, was a grim reminder that the Israeli assault on the Gaza ghetto is not the only holocaust at the start of the new year.

The Tamil people have been fighting for independence from Sri Lanka since 1983 when an island-wide pogrom (the most violent of several that had regularly occurred since 1956) convinced Tamils that they would not attain equality or security under the Sinhala-chauvinist state that has ruled Sri Lanka since independence in 1948.

Sinhala is the first language of 74% of Sri Lankans. Most of the remainder are Tamil-speaking. Tamils form the majority in the north and east of the island (Tamil Eelam).

While the government has declared that the group leading the armed resistance, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is finished as a military force, this is not the first time their demise has been announced. However, it has undoubtedly suffered a serious setback as a result of the sustained military offensive by the Sri Lankan army.

As has been the case throughout the conflict, Tamil civilians have borne the brunt of the Sri Lankan army’s assault.Regardless of the fate of the LTTE, Tamil resistance is likely to continue for as long as Tamils are ruled by a militaristic, ethnically and religiously exclusive state that rejects their right to exist as a people in their own homeland.

The ideology of the Sri Lankan regime uses a mythologised history drawing from religious texts to assert that the whole of the island has been Sinhala and Buddhist by divine sanction for 2500 years — since being visited by Buddha.

While it is true that Sinhala Buddhist societies have existed in Sri Lanka for over two millenia, the Tamil presence also dates from antiquity. While the Sinhala-chauvinist official history maintains that the Tamils were later invaders, this is not at all clear from the actual historical and archaelogical record.

What is clear is that for centuries Tamil and Sinhala kingdoms coexisted on the island. When Portuguese traders visited the island in 1505 there was a northern Tamil kingdom and two Sinhala kingdoms.

By 1619, the Portuguese had changed from traders to colonialists and began overthrowing the indigenous kingdoms, bringing in three centuries of European rule, which created an economy based on plantation monoculture for export and a single state covering the island. The plantation economy and unitary state are at the centre of the current conflict.

The Sinhala-chauvinist ideology is modern, originating in the late 19th century amongst Buddhist monks who were anxious to defend their theocratic privileges from British encroachment. In the 20th century, nationalist and socialist groups developed that were secular and multinational in character.

However, when the British granted independence in 1948, politicians used populist appeals to Sinhala chauvinism to distract from their inability to satisfy popular expectations.

Immediately after independence, a million Tamil plantation workers lost their citizenship and right to vote. A majority of these stateless Tamils were deported in the 1960s and ’70s.

In the lead-up to the 1956 elections, the Buddhist clergy launched a racist anti-Tamil movement that culminated in the first pogrom against Tamils. It also proved that the clergy could swing elections and secured their position in the political elite.

Following the 1956 elections, laws were enacted making Sinhala the only official language. This excluded most Tamils from public sector employment.

A number of Tamil political parties contested elections on a platform of equal rights. Their inability to prevent further discrimination created sentiment for Tamil independence. By 1980 the Tamil United Liberation Front, that called for national self-determination, had become the largest opposition party in the Sri Lankan parliament.

The 1983 pogrom, which took 3000 lives and caused 150,000 Tamils to flee abroad, became the watershed that caused a majority of Sri Lankan Tamils to support the armed struggle for independence by the LTTE, waged since the 1970s.

The Sri Lankan army’s war against the Tamil population has involved some of the world’s worst war crimes. Civilians have been targetted: orphanages and hospitals have been regularly bombed. Starvation sieges have been imposed, including after the December 26, 2004 tsunami.

Torture, rape and random killings have been perpetrated by the military and pro-government paramilitaries.

Underpinning this war has been Western military aid and political support. This reflects Sri Lanka’s strategic significance, but also that the military, political and theocratic elites that rule Sri Lanka maintain Western domination of the economy that still follows the colonial export-oriented model.

The major suppliers of arms are the US and Israel. Israel provides Kfir jets and illegal cluster munitions and the Israeli secret police, Mossad, train Sri Lankan special forces and paramilitary death squads.

As with Palestine and Lebanon, the West delegitmises resistance by branding it as terrorism. Like Hezbollah and Hamas, the LTTE are banned as terrorist organisation in several Western countries.

In Australia, it is not technically banned, although three Tamils are currently on bail facing charges under anti-terror laws for alleged links with the LTTE. Some of the allegations involve collecting money for tsunami relief and reconstruction in areas that were administered by the LTTE at the time.

In February 2002, there was a cease-fire and Norwegian-sponsored peace talks. Much of the north and east was under LTTE control, however the Sri Lankan government increasingly ignored the ceasefire, staging military incursions and arming pro-government Tamil militias that took contol of the east.

Finally, in January 2008, the government abrogated the peace process and embarked on the reconquest of the north through brutal war with devastating consequences for the Tamil people.

Sri Lanka: Army captures Kilinochchi, editor murdered

By Chris Slee

January 17, 2009 -- After five months of fighting, on January 2, the Sri Lankan army finally captured the town of Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka.

Kilinochchi had for many years been the administrative centre for areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group fighting for self-determination for Tamils living in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The population of Kilinochchi had been evacuated to other LTTE-controlled areas before the Sri Lankan army entered the town, which had been devastated by aerial and artillery bombardment.

Since capturing Kilinochchi, the Sri Lankan army has made other territorial gains, including the capture of the Elephant Pass, which links the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland.

Most journalists see the capture of Kilinochchi as a major victory for the government. But some disagree.

Vasantha Raja, editor of Lanka Eye, argues that the LTTE has changed its tactics: instead of trying to hold major towns such as Kilinochchi, they will carry out guerrilla attacks from the jungle. Raja says that “the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka’s army is now stretched to its limits in Tamil areas… Thus, over 100,000 soldiers are occupying Tamil areas — primarily as garrisons concentrated mainly in tiny towns surrounded by the jungle … The military has to provide regular supplies from the south to maintain the garrisons; and the supply routes will constantly be under the threat of guerrilla attacks.”

The war has had a terrible effect on the civilian population. A statement by the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations (AFTA) refers to the Sri Lankan army’s northern offensive, which began in late 2007 after a similar offensive in the east, as a “genocidal military onslaught… Because of the indiscriminate artillery and multi barrel shelling and aerial bombardment, more than 300,000 people were forced to flee the advancing army of occupation and become IDPs [internally displaced people] in their own homeland, while thousands fled across the sea to nearby India.

“Some of the IDPs have been on the move for nearly a year now and have been living without permanent shelters, exposed to the heavy monsoon rains.”

AFTA said it was “shocked and dismayed by the absolute silence maintained by the international community” about this onslaught. It appealed for action by various countries, including the US, India and Australia, to bring about an immediate ceasefire, and to “persuade the Sri Lankan government to enter into peace negotiations with the LTTE to find a political solution that recognises the right to self-determination of the Tamil people”.

However, the US government has rejected the idea of negotiations with the LTTE. A statement issued by the US embassy in Colombo welcomed the Sri Lankan army’s capture of Kilinochchi, and said: “We hope it will help hasten an end to the conflict … The US does not advocate that the government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE, a group designated by the United States since 1997 as a foreign terrorist organisation".

Instead the US advocated that the Sri Lankan government talk to other Tamil groups to reach “a political solution that Tamils … see as legitimate”, in the hope that this would “erode the support of the LTTE”.

While the government is waging war on the Tamil people of the north, it is also repressing dissent in the predominantly Sinhalese south of Sri Lanka. Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader, a weekly newspaper critical of the government of president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was murdered by “unknown gunmen” on January 8.

This is part of a pattern of violent attacks on critics of the government. Amnesty International said last year that at least ten media workers were killed over a two-year period, while others were abducted, detained or had disappeared.

Wickramatunga himself had been attacked several times before, and expected to be murdered. He wrote an article to be published after his death, in which he said: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”. 

[These articles first appeared in Green Left Weekly, issue #779.]