Losing Santhia: one Tamil refugee's story that reveals an ongoing freedom struggle

Losing Santhia: Life & Loss in the Struggle for Tamil Eelam
By Ben Hillier
Interventions, 2019
150 pages

In 2009, the Sri Lankan military launched a genocidal offensive against the island's Tamil population on a stretch of sand in Mullivaikal, in the island's north-east.

Claiming its offensive was to rescue civilians, the Sri Lankan military carried out an indiscriminate bombing offensive against Tamil civilians that killed tens of thousands.

With the assistance of imperialist powers, the Sri Lankan military was able to militarily defeat the liberation struggle of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with most of its leadership and cadres wiped out.

However, a number survived. Among them was Santhia, who fled to Tamil Nadu in India with her infant son. Recognised by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as a refugee, Santhia and her son attempted to reach Australia. However, stranded in Jakarta, Santhia died of kidney failure in 2017, aged only 42.

Sponsored by the Tamil Refugee Council, Red Flag journalist Ben Hillier traces Santhia's journey in Losing Santhia from joining the Tigers while still in high school. It places her life in the context of the Tamil liberation struggle, looking at the circumstances that would inspire someone to take up arms.

Having been colonised in the 1830s, the British unified the separate kingdoms of Kandy and Ceylon. To consolidate colonial power, the British used divide and rule policies to the benefit of the Sinhalese Buddhist elite. When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, these elites marginalised the island's Tamil minority.

From 1956 onwards, this discrimination became officially entrenched. The powerful Buddhist clergy driving these moves linked the Sinhalese ethnic identity and Buddhism culminating in the 1972 constitution that declared the country a “Unitary State” — one in which only the Sinhalese could claim the right to self-determination.

Non-violent resistance campaigns led by mainstream Tamil parties were crushed. The parties of the Sinhalese left failed to mobilise the impoverished Sinhalese masses against this, instead capitulating to Sinhalese chauvinism. The Buddhist clergy were able to manipulate these masses as settlers in their colonisation schemes in Tamil-majority areas.

Meanwhile, thousands of Tamils were murdered in racist pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1983. The pogrom in July 1983 became known as "Black July", in which 3000 were killed and 100,000 were left homeless. It was in this context that the LTTE took up its armed struggle.

The LTTE was able to wage a three-decade long struggle against the Sri Lankan state with the support of the Tamil masses, even running a de-facto administration in areas it held. However, the limits of its militarist strategy were exposed as imperialist powers such as the US and Australia aided the Sri Lankan state in crushing the LTTE in 2008–09.

While critical of the LTTE's tactics and militarist approach, Hillier is damming of the "international community" for their ongoing complicity in the Sri Lankan state's oppression of the Tamil people. He also illustrates how Santhia's story embodies the Tamil liberation struggle.

Paired with this is the seminal document, Liberation Tigers and Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle, written by Anton Balasingham on behalf of the LTTE in 1983 in the wake of Black July. It provides a vital outline of the Tamil freedom struggle.

Packed with poems and watercolour drawings, Losing Santhia is an amazing account of one woman's life and her part in the ongoing struggle of the Tamil people for self-determination.

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