Sri Lanka: The ‘colonisation war’ against Tamils

Image removed.

Within the box is one of the Tamil areas targeted by the Sri Lankan government for Sinhalese settlements. Map from Tamilnet.

By Chris Slee

March 14, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal  – The Tamilnet website has accused the Sri Lankan government of waging a "colonisation war" against the Tamil people of the island of Sri Lanka. The government has been establishing Sinhalese settlements in traditional Tamil areas. The website compares this to Israel’s policy of establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, saying: "Sri Lanka is aiming at creating an Israeli model situation as fast as possible".[1]

Just as Israel uses Jewish settlements to break up the areas inhabited by Palestinians into small fragments, thereby trying to make a Palestinian state impossible, Sri Lanka is using Sinhalese settlements to break up the Tamil areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, with the intention of making an independent Tamil state impossible.

For example, a new Sinhalese settlement at Kokkulaay will, in combination with previously established settlements, help cut off the Tamil areas in the east of the island from those in the north.[2] Other settlements and military bases will cut off the Jaffna peninsula from the Tamil areas on the mainland.[3]

A history of oppression

The policy of establishing Sinhalese settlements in Tamil areas has a long history. It was an aspect of the overall racist policy pursued by successive Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan governments since Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) gained its independence from Britain in 1948. The two main capitalist parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), competed in promoting Sinhalese racism.

Other racist policies included:

  • In 1948 Tamil plantation workers who were born in Sri Lanka but whose ancestors had come from India in the 19th century were denied Sri Lankan citizenship.
  • In 1956 Sinhala was made the sole official language. This put Tamils at a disadvantage in getting government jobs and accessing government services.
  • In 1971 a process called "standardisation" meant that Tamils had to get higher examination marks than Sinhalese to get into university.
  • In 1972 a new constitution made Buddhism (the religion of most Sinhalese) the state religion.

Peaceful protests by the Tamil people against these policies were met with repression by the army and police, as well as pogroms by Sinhalese mobs stirred up by racist politicians and Buddhist monks.

When peaceful protest failed, some Tamil youth took up arms. The main Tamil armed group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), waged a 30-year war for an independent Tamil homeland.

The LTTE was finally defeated in May 2009. At least 100,000 Tamils – probably many more – died in the war. An estimated 30,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final few weeks of the war, as the Sri Lankan army, air force and navy bombarded the shrinking LTTE-controlled areas.

At the end of the war, 300,000 Tamils were put in concentration camps. While most are now free to leave the camps, many have no homes to return to. Many are prevented from returning to their previous homes by the Sri Lankan army.

The Tamil areas remain under military occupation despite the end of the fighting. During the war large areas of land were declared to be "high security zones" (HSZs). Many Tamils were driven from their homes to create these zones. According to the Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan newspaper: "The HSZs have left 125,000-130,000 civilians displaced and unable to return to their homes in the north and east for the past 20 years".[4]

Despite promises to dismantle the zones following the end of the war, in many cases the original Tamil inhabitants of these areas have not been permitted to return. Often the excuse is that landmines have not been cleared. But in some of these areas Sinhalese settlements have been established. Some of the land has been sold to Sinhalese business interests. There are plans for tourist developments in some of these zones.

Forty-thousand Sri Lankan military personnel remain as an occupying army in the traditional Tamil areas of the north and east of the island, and are building houses for themselves and their families. The Sri Lankan armed forces are almost entirely Sinhalese in composition.

Repression of the Tamil people continues in many forms. Unknown numbers of alleged LTTE members continue to be detained nearly two years after the end of the war. According to a report issued by the International Commission of Jurists in September 2010, there were still at least 8000 of them at that time.[5]

Murders and disappearances, believed to be carried out by the Sri Lankan army or paramilitary groups allied to it, are frequent occurrences. Tamils are subject to harassment, sexual abuse and extortion at the hands of soldiers.[6]

Tamil culture is under attack. The names of roads and villages are being changed from the Tamil to the Sinhala language.[7] The government has systematically destroyed the cemeteries containing the graves of LTTE soldiers.[8] Hindu temples have been destroyed, vandalised or taken over by the army.[9]

While repression is worst in the Tamil areas, those members of the Sinhalese majority who criticise the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa are also at risk of repression, including murder and disappearances. For example, Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader, was murdered in January 2009. His statement predicting that he would be murdered by the government was published in his newspaper after his death.[10]

Murders and disappearances of opponents of the government continue. For example, cartoonist and political columnist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on January 24, 2010.

Due to rivalries within the ruling class, even some prominent right-wing figures have suffered repression. An example is the former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who ran against Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election, and who was then arrested on corruption charges. Given that the Rajapaksa government is thoroughly corrupt, the arrest of Fonseka was undoubtedly due to his presidential challenge, not to any corrupt dealings he may have been engaged in.

Thousands of people are currently being held in detention without charge or trial. According to Amnesty International, "some of those detained are being held secretly where they are vulnerable to a range of abuses, including torture or being killed in custody".[11] Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency almost continually since 1971. The state of emergency has been continually renewed even after the end of the war.

Role of the imperialist powers

Despite occasional mild criticism of its human rights record, the Rajapaksa government has been, and still is, being supported by the imperialist powers. Western support played a crucial role in the Sri Lankan government's military victory over the LTTE.

Perhaps the most important form of military aid provided by the United States to the Sri Lankan government was in the fields of electronic surveillance and military intelligence. According to Jon Lee Anderson, writing in the New Yorker: "Sri Lankan diplomats and military officers acknowledged to me privately that US satellite intelligence had been crucial when, in 2008, Sri Lanka's navy sank seven Tiger ships loaded with military cargo. The ships – members of the Sea Pigeons fleet, which sailed without identification from various Asian seaports – were cruising in international waters, as far as a thousand miles from Sri Lanka, when they were attacked. They carried war material worth tens of millions of dollars, and their destruction deprived the Tigers of their traditional means of military re-supply just as the Sri Lankan Army ramped up hostilities. From then on, the Tigers were on the run, herded ineluctably into shrinking territory".[12]

The US also supplied Sri Lanka with a radar-based maritime surveillance system. Close US allies such as Israel also supplied military equipment.

Donald Perera, the Sri Lankan ambassador to Israel, who is a former Sri Lankan Air Force commander, told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: "For years Israel has aided our war on terror through the exchange of information and the sale of military technology and equipment… Our air force fleet includes 17 Kfir warplanes, and we also have Dabur patrol boats. Our pilots were trained in Israel, and we have received billions of dollars in aid over the past few years."[13]

Other countries supporting Sri Lanka in the war included India, China and Pakistan. The Sri Lankan government took advantage of rivalries among these countries, offering them favours such as access to harbours and investment opportunities in return for aid. For China, access to the port of Hambantota was particularly important, given the growth of China's trade with the Middle East and Africa across the Indian ocean.

While the Western powers supported Sri Lankan government in its war against the LTTE, they have also made occasional mild criticisms of its human rights record. In part this was a response to the protests of the Tamil diaspora in Western countries. But there is also another reason. The Western powers like to pretend concern for human rights in order to distance themselves a bit from the crimes of governments which they support.

The US State Department produces an annual report on the state of human rights around the world. As you would expect, this report criticises countries such as Cuba whose government the US does not like. But it also has some criticisms of US allies.

Why is this? One reason is that when a US-backed dictator such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is overthrown, the US can say, "We were critical of him all along" and try to recover some credibility among the people of that country.

Thus Western criticisms of the Rajapaksa regime indicate that they are keeping their options open, in case he loses power.

But in the meantime he continues to receive Western support. The International Monetary Fund agreed to a US$2.6 billion bailout package for Sri Lanka, two months after the government's military victory.[14] The World Bank agreed to supply annual funding of $465 million in 2011.[15]

However, the Sri Lankan government has at times tried to portray any criticism by Western governments, NGOs and aid agencies as a form of "outside interference", in order to win the sympathy of other Third World countries. But the most serious form of outside interference has been imperialist military aid to the Sri Lankan government in its war against the Tamil people.

The Tamil diaspora

Because the Tamils living under extreme oppression inside Sri Lanka are at present unable to speak out freely, Tamils in the diaspora, who number more than 1 million, have played a leading role raising awareness about the situation and putting forward demands for human rights and national self-determination.

There have been big protests by Tamils in the streets of many cities around the world. Referendums have been held among Tamils in many countries, with more than 98% of the participants voting to reaffirm support for the goal of national self-determination for the Tamil people. Diaspora Tamils have created bodies such as the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam and the Global Tamil Forum to put forward their views.

Sometimes the protests of the diaspora can have an impact on the policies of Western governments. The decision of the European Union to take away Sri Lanka's preferential access to the European market was in part a response to public awareness of the oppression suffered by Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Struggles in the south

While Tamils are the main victims of the Rajapksa government's policies, Sinhalese workers, peasants and students living in the south of the island are also affected.

The large and growing spending on the military – even after the end of the war – diverts resources away from other purposes. The military budget went from 177 billion rupees in in 2009 to 201 billion rupees in 2010.[16] Maintaining the military occupation of Tamil areas is expensive. Costs include the construction of new military bases in Tamil areas.

Rising military spending requires increased taxation, as well as cuts to food subsidies and other measures benefiting the poor.

There has been some resistance from workers, including a strike on July 15, 2010 to protest at pay rises below the increase in the cost of living. During the war, workers had been reluctant to strike because it might be seen as weakening the war effort. However the July 15 strike was well supported. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, the general secretary of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (NSSP, New Socialist Party), commented: "I believe the proletarians are coming out of the opium of chauvinism."[17] Karunaratne was welcomed at the protest by some workers who had previously called him a traitor because of his anti-war stance.

However ,the revival of worker militancy has still been fairly limited. Part of the reason is that "the majority of trade union leadership is either with the government or intimidated", according to Karunaratne.[18]

Students have also been active, campaigning against the government agenda of privatisation of education. According to a statement from the NSSP issued on October 20, 2010, "Lankan universities are ablaze. Student activists who come forward against government steps to slash free education are met with severe oppression. Police might is used to beat them up, arrest them and put them behind bars." [19] The NSSP reports that there are already "nearly 80 private higher education institutes doing business in Sri Lanka". The privatisation of education is part of the neoliberal agenda being imposed on Sri Lanka as part of its deal with the IMF. The government is also moving to privatise health, electricity and postal services.[20]

There have been protests against attacks on democratic rights. There have been demonstrations protesting against arrests, murders and disappearances, as well as against a constitutional amendment concentrating more power in the hands of the president.[21]

There is widespread anger at the regime’s broken promises. According to Karunaratne: "The problem of the government is the debt, and the bondage pressed on them by the international money lenders. Mahinda [Rajapaksa] had to carry out every promise he has given to the people of this country in the negative. No, to wage increase, no, to free education, no, to free medicine, no, to village welfare, no, to pensioners and no, to fisher folk; but yes to the agents of global capital."[22]

Popular discontent with the government's policies means that there are opportunities for socialists to win broader support. However the left is still weak, as a result of past sellouts by left parties.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the main left parties (the pro-Moscow Communist Party and the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party), which had previously opposed racist government policies, betrayed their principles and joined coalition governments led by the racist Sri Lanka Freedom Party.[23]

Only small groups of leftists remained to continue the anti-racist tradition of the genuine left. These groups have continued to campaign against racism and war, and for workers rights and democratic rights.

The way forward

Karunaratne argues that the defeat of the LTTE does not mean the end of the struggle for Tamil liberation: "Tamil liberation will continue and rise up again and again, until an acceptable solution is given to the Tamil people." But he adds that solidarity from workers in the south is essential: "Tamil freedom rests on the fundamental unity between the Tamil liberation and the struggle of the proletarians, both local and international."[24]

The Sri Lankan government, when suppressing Tamil aspirations for national self-determination, talks of Sri Lankan "national unity". But real unity can not built by violently repressing the Tamil people. As Karunaratne says: "The only unity possible is the voluntary union of the two nationalities. For this, recognition of the right of self-determination of Tamil people is a precondition. Acceptance of equality, autonomy and the right of self-determination is the only basis for a democratic unity."[25]


1., Tamilnet, February 9, 2011.

2., Tamilnet, January 31, 2001.

3., Tamilnet, February 9, 2011.

4., Sunday Leader, February 7, 2010.

5. ICJ report, cited by Tamilnet, September 27, 2010,

6. See for example Tamilnet, June 12, 2010, August 11, 2010, August 20, 2010, and December 29, 2010,

7., Tamilnet, May 30, 2010.

8., Tamilnet, July 4, 2010.

9. See Tamilnet, July 1, 2010, and August 17, 2010,

10., Sunday Leader, January 11, 2009.

11. Amnesty International report, cited by Tamilnet, March 9, 2011,

12. New Yorker, January 17, 2011, p. 48.


14., Tamilnet, October 12, 2010.

15., Tamilnet, December 20, 2010.

16., Sunday Leader, June 13, 2010.


18., NSSP, January 11, 2011.

19., NSSP, October 20, 2010.

20., NSSP,  October 31, 2010.

21. See for example, Lakbimanews, January 17, 2010;, NSSP, October  11, 2010;, NSSP, September  13, 2010.

22., NSSP, December 19, 2010.

23. The degeneration of the LSSP is documented in Revolutionary Marxism vs. Class Collaboration in Sri Lanka, published by the US Socialist Workers Party as part of its Education For Socialists series. The LSSP first joined a coalition government with the SLFP in 1964-5, and did so again in 1970.

24., NSSP, December 19, 2010.