Sri Lanka: Genocide of the Tamil minority

Tamil refugees who fled from Sri Lankan military operation in Vanni

By Brian Senewiratne

January 23, 2009 -- There is a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil minority in the island’s north and east are facing annihilation at the hands of the Sinhalese-dominated government. 

This article will deal with the current crisis, with the more fundamental problem of the legacy left by colonial British rule (1796-1948) dealt with in later articles. These colonial administrative structures will need to be reversed of there is ever to be peace or prosperity in Sri Lanka.

I am a Sinhalese, from the majority community, not from the brutalised Tamil minority. I quit Sri Lanka in 1976.

Who runs that country is of no concern to me, as long as it is run without serious violations of human rights. Sri Lanka was tossed out of the UN Human Rights Council in May last year due to its human rights record, and the drift of a democracy to a fascist politico-military dictatorship, none of which have been publicised internationally.

Current problem

The ethno-religious mix of Sri Lanka, with 20 million people, consists of ethnic Sinhalese (74%), Tamils (18%) in two groups (ethnic Tamils, 12.5%, and the plantation, or Indian, Tamils, 5.5%) and Moors (6.5%).

The ethnic Sinhalese and the ethnic Tamils have been in the country for at least 2500 years — the Tamils for probably much longer, given the proximity of Sri Lanka to south India from where the ethnic Tamils came.

The plantation Tamils are descendants of indentured labourers brought to the country by the British in the mid-1850s to work in the tea plantations in the central hills. The Moors are descendants of Arab traders from the 13th-15th century.

The ethnic conflict is between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the ethnic Tamils. The Sinhalese speak an Indoaryan language, Sinhalese, while the Tamils a Dravidian language, Tamil. The Moors are mainly Tamil-speaking but many are bilingual.

To add a religious dimension to an already existing ethno-linguistic one, the Sinhalese are Buddhist (70%) and the Tamils are Hindus. About 7% of each group have been converted to Christianity by Westerners. The Moors are mostly Muslims.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multireligious, multilingual and multicultural country. Despite this, the Sinhala-Buddhist majority claim that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country.

The main proponents of this ethno-religious chauvinism are, firstly, the Buddhist monks who claim that Buddha on his death bed nominated Sri Lanka to be the custodian of his teaching, and secondly Sinhalese politicians across the entire political spectrum who have done so to gain the political support of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority to get into or remain in power.

The major Sinhalese political parties have competed with each other to discriminate against the Tamils in language, education and employment with the clear intention of getting the Sinhalese vote.

A third proponent is the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan Armed Forces (99% Sinhalese). The head of the Sri Lankan army stated in an interview in September last year: “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese …”

The real danger is that while the ethno-religious bigots among the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhalese political opportunists are not in a position to deliver an exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist nation, the Sri Lankan army — equipped and supported by countries such as the US, China, India, Pakistan, Britain and Israel, for their own geopolitical/economic gains — do have that capacity.

If this means committing genocide against the Tamil people, the politico-military junta, which has the temerity to call itself the “Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri lanka”, is more than willing to do so.

Problem of ethnic cleansing

There are four options to achieve an exclusively Sinaha-Buddhist Sri Lanka.

1. Drive them out of the country. Although 1.3 million have already been driven out, there are still 2 million left.

2. Make them “non-people”, ie: internal refugees. Currently, there are 500,000 Tamil civilians living in refugee camps in the Tamil north and east or have fled into the jungles in the north to escape Sri Lankan army bombing. There are also 200,000 Tamil refugees in south India.

On November 19, Amnesty International USA, in a publication titled Sri Lanka government must act now to protect 300,000 displaced persons, stated: “In September 2008, the Sri Lankan government ordered the United Nations (UN) and non-government aid-workers to leave the region (the Tamil North). The government then assumed total responsibility for ensuring the needs of the civilian population affected by the hostilities are met.”

On December 23, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) came out with a 49-page report entitled Besieged, Displaced, and Detained. The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region, which detailed the Sri Lankan government’s responsibility for the plight of 230,000 to 300,000 displaced people in the Vanni (northern) conflict zone.

It documents that thousands of Tamils fleeing the fighting in the north are trapped by the government and are being denied basic provisions.

Brad Adams, HRW Asia Director, one of the people who wrote this report, said: “To add insult to injury, people who manage to flee the fighting end up being held indefinitely in army-run prison camps.” He went on to make the situation abundantly clear: “The government’s ’welfare centers’ for civilians fleeing the Wanni are just badly disguised prisons.”

3. Make them “disappear”. Today, Sri Lanka leads the world in “involuntary disappearances”. On November 24, HRW published report entitled Sri Lanka: Human Rights Situation Deteriorating in the East in which Adams stated: “The Sri Lankan government says that the ‘liberated’ East is an example of democracy in action and a model for areas recaptured from the LTTE. But killings and abductions are rife, and there is total impunity for horrific acts.”

4. Kill them — i.e. commit genocide. “Genocide” is defined by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as “an act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. Genocide has nothing to do with numbers killed, it is the intention and the act(s) to achieve this intention that defines it.

Bombing, shelling and shooting are not the only ways to kill. One could starve them, withhold essential medicines, prevent survival activity (e.g. fishing and agriculture), destroy businesses, markets, homes, hospitals and schools. Once the intention is there, the ways to achieve genocide are endless.

There are also different types of genocide. I have called these, “educational genocide”, “cultural genocide”, “economic genocide” and “religious genocide” — defined as the intention, backed by the act, of destroying in whole or part the education, culture or economy and religion of an ethnic group.

The Sri Lankan government is guilty of all of these.

A war on Tamils

The “war” that is going on in Sri Lanka is a liberation struggle of the Tamil people for their right to self-determination, which would enable them to exist with equality, dignity and safety in the area of historical habitation of the Tamil people — the north and the east of Sri Lanka.

This war could not continue without foreign aid going to the Sri Lankan government. Without this aid, Sri Lanka would be forced to the negotiating table. Imperialism today takes the form of foreign aid.

No discussion of what is going on in Sri lanka is complete without a comment on the question of suicide bombings and child soldiers, issues used to demonise Tamil resistance to the Sri Lankan regime.

Suicide bombings have been a hallmark of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in its decades-long armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state. The latter has used and promoted extreme violence in its attempt to enforce Sinhalese (the majority ethnic group) domination on the island.

I will quote the Booker prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy in her book The Ordinary Persons Guide to Empire. Substitute Sri Lanka for Israel and Tamil for Palestinian.

“Young Palestinians who cannot contain their anger turn themselves into human bombs and haunt Israel’s streets, blowing themselves up, killing ordinary people. Suicide bombing is an act of individual despair, not a revolutionary tactic.

“The world is called upon to condemn suicide bombers, but can we ignore the long road they have journeyed on before they arrived at their destination?”

The psychology of the suicide bomber is: “You shot my father, raped and killed my mother, hanged my brother, tortured and killed my sister. I have nothing left. When I decide to leave this planet, I will take you with me.”

Also, the LTTE has, for years, recruited children as fighters. What is new is that there are several recent reports that the Sri Lankan army is doing the same thing.

Allan Rock is a Canadian diplomat working with the United Nations sent to Sri Lanka in 2006, who issued a report that confirmed that the LTTE was recruiting child soldiers.

He also stated that Tamil paramilitary groups working with the Sri Lankan army were doing the same thing, conscripting child soldiers in the eastern province.

A December 2 report by the US-based Human Rights Watch stated that the leaders of the Tamil paramilitary groups working with the Sri Lankan regime, one of them recently appointed a member of parliament by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, “have been implicated in serious human rights abuses … The abuses included abducting large numbers of children and forcing them to serve as soldiers … Escapees often must go into hiding to prevent being abducted again. In some instances, their families have faced pressure to give a ’replacement’ child soldier to the group.”

International interests

Violations of human rights can no longer be considered an “internal affair” of that country. That is why the world got involved in the issue of apartheid in South Africa (indisputably an “internal affair” of that country).

Sri Lanka cannot say it is not our business. It is.

These “internal affairs” cause refugees that seek safe havens in other countries such as Australia. Tamil civilians brutilised by the Sri Lankan regime contact “people smugglers”, are put into leaking boats that sink off the Australian coast, or arrive here to be locked up as criminals.

Rather than creating inhumane ways of dealing with these people, the source of the problem, the human rights violations in Sri Lanka, must be addressed.

What is more, all conflicts come to an end. The conflict in East Timor did come to an end, as has the conflict in Ireland and so many others. The Sri Lankan conflict will come to an end in five years, 10, or longer. It might do so with Sri Lanka reduced to a shell, as East Timor was.

The rebuilding of Sri Lanka when the conflict is over will fall on the “international community” (as it did with East Timor). To prevent this catastrophe, action must be taken.

It is not appreciated that there are two conflicts in Sri Lanka.

First, between the Sri Lankan regime and the Tamil people to force the Tamil people to accept Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist nation.

Second, between the US, India and China for control of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is not the largest ocean on this planet, but by far, the busiest. Forty per cent of the world’s population is in countries around the Indian Ocean. Seventy percent of the world’s oil shipments, and 50% of the world’s container cargo, travel across this ocean.

As US admiral Alfred Maher commented 100 years ago, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia”.

This international “war” is a peculiar one. These interests compete with each other to control the Indian Ocean, and cooperate with each other to prevent a solution to the problem in Sri Lanka. Just as oil is the problem in the Middle East, the geographical position of Sri Lanka, astride the Indian Ocean, is the problem in Sri Lanka.

The “prize” is Trincomalee, the fourth largest natural harbour in the world, in the Tamil north-east. Trincomalee remaining in the hands of a corrupt Sinhalese regime in Colombo is a better option to it falling into the hands of an independent Tamil state.

To negotiate with a corrupt regime is a far easier task than negotiating with the much more disciplined Tamils.

China has a special interest in safeguarding its crucial oil supply from the Middle East, which passes just below Sri Lanka.

India has a special interest in preventing any other power from “interfering” (even if this means solving a problem) in its “area of control”.

For India to get a foothold in Sri Lanka is crucial. That would be easier to achieve with a corrupt, disorganised, despotic regime in Colombo, than with an independent Tamil state.

What has to be done

International human rights monitors must be admitted into Sri Lanka, now. Tomorrow might be too late for the Tamils.

Sri Lankan disinformation that the problem is “Tamil terrorism” must be exposed. The problem is Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious chauvinism and state terrorism aimed at turning Sri Lanka into a Sinhala-Buddhist nation.

I have DVDs that set this out in detail, which I have donated to the Socialist Alliance in Australia.

Sri Lanka must be isolated, as was apartheid South Africa. Economic sanctions should be imposed. We should stop buying Sri Lankan goods. A boycott should target tourism and point to the blood-stained beaches of Sri Lanka. Trade union action to stop handling goods, to and from Sri Lanka, should be implemented.

Public protests need to be organised internationally.

We should pressure our governments to force Sri Lanka to the negotiating table and to make clear that a military “solution” to the Tamil question is not acceptable.

[This article first appeared in Australia's Green Left Weekly, in two parts on January 23 and February 4. Brian Senewiratne is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Brisbane, Australia. Many of his articles on the Tamil question can be found at]