Israel advises Sri Lanka on slow-motion genocide

Israel is advising the Sri Lankan regime in its campaign of dispossession and 'slow genocide' of the Tamil people.

Towards the end of 2008, I joined thousands in Toronto to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza. At York University, where I was a student, we mobilised the campus to defend Palestinian rights.

A few months later, bombs were falling on my own people ― in the predominantly Tamil Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka. And once again, we hit Toronto’s streets in protest.

I realised then that even though our homelands are oceans apart, Palestinians and Tamils have much in common.

Through the “war on terror”, the Israeli and Sri Lankan armies have waged war on civilian populations.

The Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal has commissioned an independent report that found the Sri Lankan state guilty of bombing hospitals, humanitarian operations and even government-declared “safe zones”, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.

A United Nations report, released in March 2011, estimates that from January to May 2009, between 40,000 and 75,000 people were killed.

The Sri Lankan government’s own statistical data reveals that almost 147,000 persons remain unaccounted for: no one knows if they are held in prison, injured, or dead.

Major arms supplier

But there are more direct connections. Israel has been a big arms supplier to Sri Lanka’s government, as well as providing it with strategic military advice. With permission from the United States, Israel has sold Sri Lanka consignments of Kfir jets.

Israel has also supplied Dvora patrol boats to Sri Lanka, which have been used extensively against Tamils. Israel has provided training to the Special Task Force, a brutal commando unit in the Sri Lanka police.

The similarities don’t end there. Palestinians and Tamils have both been subjected to a process of settler-based colonialism.

In the 1980s, Israel offered advice to Sri Lanka as it built Sinhala-only armed settlements in the eastern province, which aimed to create buffer zones around Tamil-majority populations (the Sinhalese are the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka).

The strategy was the same as Israel’s in the West Bank: to destroy the local population’s claim to national existence and render invalid any political solution based on popular sovereignty.

Just like in Palestine, land seizures and settlement programs in Sri Lanka are fragmenting the Tamil people’s national and social coherence throughout their historic homeland in the north and east of the island.

As exiled journalist and human rights worker Nirmanusan Balasundaram wrote in April, the effect is to undermine any possibility of creating a contiguous national homeland.

Sham dialogue

Within the occupied West Bank, this process takes place against the backdrop of “dialogue”, which more and more Palestinians see as a sham as Israeli settlements spread across their land. After the 2009 war, the Sri Lankan government used the rhetoric of “reconstruction” and “redevelopment” to obscure its process of rapid colonisation.

For Tamils, “post-war development” has become another form of counter-insurgency warfare, whereby Sinhala settlements, state-led militarisation and open gerrymandering of constituencies all threaten the Tamils’ historic relationship to their homeland.

The Palestinian experience ― in particular, the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993 ― has been instructive for Tamils.

An international agreement with India foresees Sri Lanka holding elections this September for a Northern Provincial Council, supposedly another gesture of reconciliation. The US is backing the election, despite serious reservations within Tamil civil society and the diaspora.

The council, if elected, would provide Tamils with only the perception of self-determination ― similar to the experience of the Palestinian Authority ― while the military occupation continues to dominate every aspect of civilian life.

The council’s powers would remain under the control of the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and its governor would be a direct appointment of the Sri Lankan president.

Regardless of the facade of self-government, the crime of apartheid remains a fact of life for Tamils in Sri Lanka, as it does for Palestinians under Israeli rule.

Sri Lanka’s treatment of the Tamils in the north and east of the island meets the definition of apartheid contained in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Apartheid involves the domination of one racial or ethnic group over another. The convention is not restricted to the particular manifestation of apartheid in South Africa or to majorities being oppressed by minorities. Instead, it condemns practices that resemble apartheid ― of which there is more than one version.

Without a doubt, there are critical differences between the oppression faced by Palestinians and the oppression faced by Tamils (and by black South Africans, for that matter). Nevertheless, Israel and Sri Lanka are both characterised by discrimination, repression and territorial fragmentation through stolen land.

The unitary Sri Lankan state structure constitutionally places all power of the state exclusively in the hands of the Sinhalese people, while denying Tamils equal access to education, their own language, their land, and self-determination.

Common experience

In light of this common experience, the Palestinian and Tamil peoples are enduring a slow, but relentless, genocide. The massacres in Gaza and the Vanni were carried out to kill civilians, and cause serious bodily and mental harm. They impose conditions of life that produce partial and gradual physical destruction ― all with little meaningful opposition from other governments.

Both can be considered cases of genocide, as it is defined by the United Nations.

In the case of Sri Lanka, as long as it uses the language of “reconciliation”, it will continue to pursue the same strategy and enjoy praise from major powers.

But the realisation of our peoples’ aspirations does not depend on the whims of foreign governments. It rests with the Tamil people ― as the aspirations for a liberated Palestine rest with the Palestinians ― and the support of a mobilised and engaged international solidarity movement.

By supporting each other’s struggles, and by learning from each other’s histories, we can get one step closer to a more just world.

For both Palestinians and Tamils, the attacks of 2008 and 2009 were part of a broader history of dispossession, occupation and genocide. Our people have a lot in common in the struggle for peace and justice. In fact, our oppressors appear to have lots in common too.

[Reprinted from Electronic Intifada. Krisna Saravanamuttu is an activist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a member of the steering committee of the Canadian Peace Alliance, and is the spokesperson of the National Council of Canadian Tamils.]