Sri Lanka: Peace and justice for Tamils needs international action

February 16, 2008

A packed public meeting at Brisbane's Activist Centre on February 6 heard Brian Senewiratne, a Sinhalese consultant physician in Brisbane, deliver a passionate and informative presentation on the long struggle of Sri Lanka's Tamil-speaking minority against persecution by that country's Sinhalese-dominated government.

Senewiratne, who comes from the family that has produced three of Sri Lanka's prime ministers, has been involved for more four decades — since 1948 — in exposing the human-rights abuses perpetrated against Tamils by the Sri Lanka government and Sinhalese militias. He has often been the target of abuse and threats by anti-Tamil elements, both in Australia and overseas. Books he has had published in Australia on the Tamil struggle have been banned in Sri Lanka where he has been labelled a "terrorist".

Senewiratne told the meeting that, in spite of the 2002 cease- fire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — the armed liberation movement fighting for national self-determination for the Tamil-speaking people who make up a majority of the inhabitants island's northern and eastern province — massacres of Tamils have continued.

The Sri Lankan government has launched a number of military offensives against the LTTE since late 2005, and on January 3 it formally announced that it had decided to abandon the cease-fire. Film footage screened at the meeting showed that women and children where the main victims of the Sri Lankan military's operations against the Tamil Tigers.

The Sri Lankan army, with 175,000 troops, has 55,000 troops occupying the peninsula around Jaffna, the capital of the northern province, held by the Tamil Tigers in 1990-95.

Senewiratne said the Sri Lankan government's 25-year "genocidal war" against the Tamils has resulted in 75,000 civilians being killed and 400,000 made refugees. Since the commencement of the "cease-fire" in February 2002, 7000 people had been killed — including 1200 children — up to November 2005. The Sri Lankan air force had bombed 52 schools, 1607 Hindu temples, 32 hospitals and the public library of Jaffna, the repository of much Tamil cultural history.

The fertile area around Jaffna has been quarantined by the declaration of a "high security zone". The only highway linking Jaffna to the rest of the island has been blocked since August 11, 2006. As a result, the city's 600,000-strong population is facing starvation.

"Ethnic chauvinism is not the issue — the issue is the Indian Ocean", Senewiratne told the meeting, arguing that strategic importance of Sri Lanka's position in relation to the shipment of oil from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean
to the energy markets of east Asia means that Washington wants the "security" of Sri Lanka settled through the crushing of the Tamil Tigers.

Senewiratne argued there were two struggles being carried out simultaneously — the Tamil liberation struggle and the struggle against capitalism.

The war against the Tamil people is also big business. Expenditure by the Sri Lankan government had doubled since 1977, with a large part of this increasing spending going to arms purchases from the China, India, Israel and the US.
International aid money provided to Colombo enables to it divert other funds to war spending.

Senewiratne warned of a slide to dictatorship in Colombo, with journalists and opposition MPs being assassinated by suspected government-backed death squads. Earlier this year, Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse advocated harsh punishments for critical reporting on military expenditure.

"I think that there is no need to report anything on the military", Rajapakse told the January 27 Sunday Lankadeepa. "People do not want to know how many and what kind of arms we acquired. That is not media freedom. I say without fear that if I have the power I will not allow any of these things to be written… we need to bring in laws that stipulate harsh punishments for such reporting."

Senewiratne said there were three possible ways to "resolve" the conflict in Sri Lanka — no real change (with only token development of the poorer Tamil areas), creating a federation with an autonomous Tamil state, or two separate states, one Tamil, the other Sinhalese.

The first option is no solution, he argued, and the time has long gone for the second possibility. He said it will take pressure from the "international community" to achieve the only realistic solution, an independent state of Tamil Eelam.

He called for an international campaign to demand an international human rights mission to investigate human rights in Sri Lanka; the restarring of peace talks between Colombo and the LTTE and international sanctions against the Sri Lankan government. There was a lot of support at the meeting for such a campaign, in particular a focus during tours by the Sri Lankan cricket team.

Senewiratne, an active member of Socialist Alliance, concluded the meeting by urging Tamils in the audience who were not already members to join the Socialist Alliance and work for an alternative to the capitalist system, and for the liberation of all oppressed peoples.

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