Sri Lanka: Genocide against Tamils

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 (SLA).

As has been the case throughout the conflict, Tamil civilians have born the brunt of the SLA'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 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 SLA'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.

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