The article below is based on a talk given at a Socialist Alliance meeting on June 26 in Melbourne by Chris Slee, a member of the SA Melbourne branch.
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The Socialist Alliance supports the right of the Tamil people to self-determination.
A resolution adopted at an SA national conference reads: "Socialist Alliance recognises that Tamils are an oppressed nation within Sri Lanka, and supports their right to self-determination.
"This means that Tamils should have the right to choose whether they wish to be part of a united Sri Lanka, to break away and form an independent Tamil state in their traditional homelands in the north and east of the island, or to have some intermediate form such as federalism or autonomy.
"Regardless of whether Sri Lanka remains a single state or whether the Tamil areas become independent, the rights of minorities must be protected.
"This includes the rights of Tamils, Muslims and other minorities in Sinhalese areas, and the rights of Muslims and Sinhalese in Tamil areas.
SA calls for full political, religious and linguistic rights for such groups.
Our support for the right of Tamils to break away and form their own state (if they so choose) is similar to VI Lenin's policy in the Russian Revolution. He supported the right of those nationalities oppressed by the Russian empire to break away and form their own states.
However, Lenin also offered the different nationalities the opportunity to unite into a federation if they wished.
After the revolution, most of the nationalities that had been part of the Russian empire did in fact unite into what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
If a progressive government came to power in the south of Sri Lanka, it should also offer the Tamils the option of forming a federal structure for the island. The important thing is that Tamils have the right to choose.
Socialists in Australia have supported campaigns for Tamil rights for many years. Back in 1983, I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (which later changed its name to Democratic Socialist Party). We worked with the Ceylon Tamil Association of Victoria to protest against the 1983 massacre of Tamils, which was instigated by the Sri Lankan government.
When Socialist Alliance was formed in 2001, this tradition of solidarity with the Tamils was continued. We have campaigned for Tamil rights, including through Green Left Weekly.
We have campaigned for freedom for Tamil refugees in Australia's detention centres and against the use of "anti-terror" laws to attack Tamil activists.
The road to war
In the 1950s and 1960s, Tamils in Sri Lanka carried out peaceful protests against discriminatory laws, such as a law adopted in 1956 that made Sinhala the sole official language, and laws discriminating against Tamils in education and government employment.
Peaceful protests were met with violent repression by the army and police, as well as racist gangs stirred up by politicians and Buddhist monks. These gangs killed and injured Tamils, and burned their homes and shops.
There was a series of such pogroms, starting in 1956 and culminating in the Black July massacre in 1983, where 3000 Tamils were killed.
As a result, most Tamils decided they wanted a separate state.
In May 1976, an alliance of Tamil parties ― the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) ― adopted the Vaddukodai resolution, calling for an independent Tamil state.
In July 1977, the TULF ran candidates in Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections. They won an large majority in Tamil areas on a platform of independence.
The government responded by instigating another pogrom. It made it illegal to advocate a separate Tamil state.
Some Tamil youth, believing that peaceful protests and election campaigns were futile, began preparing an armed struggle. Several armed groups were formed. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the strongest.
Given the violent repression of peaceful protests, Tamils had the right to take up arms to fight for an independent Tamil state. This does not mean that I agree with everything the LTTE did.
In fighting against a ruthless enemy ― the Sri Lankan state ― the LTTE also acted in a ruthless manner that alienated some potential allies.
Some LTTE violence was directed against Sinhalese civilians. Some was directed against other Tamil groups. Some was directed against Muslims, after agents of the Sri Lankan government instigated clashes between Tamils and Muslims in the east of the island.
However, the main source of violence in Sri Lanka was the Sri Lankan state. Its racist policies caused the war. Its armed forces carried out many massacres of Tamil civilians.
An unknown number of Tamils, probably hundreds of thousands, were killed. Many others were driven from their homes.
The war lasted for about 30 years. For a long time, the LTTE controlled significant areas in the north and east of the island. They had a civil administration that, in effect, was the government of these areas.
At various times the LTTE held peace talks with the Sri Lankan government. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002. It collapsed because Sinhalese chauvinist forces opposed any step towards Tamil self-determination.
Eventually the Sri Lankan government gained the upper hand in the war. By May 2009, the LTTE had been driven out of all the areas it had controlled, except for a small strip of land on the north-east coast.
A large number of civilians had accompanied the LTTE during its retreat. The Sri Lankan army, navy and air force bombarded the shrinking LTTE-controlled area. In the process of defeating the LTTE, Sri Lankan forces killed an estimated 40,000 people in a few weeks.
The Sri Lankan government was able to win the war doe to support it got from many governments around the world.
The United States gave many forms of aid, including weapons, equipment and training. But probably the most important form of US aid was satellite surveillance information, which enabled the Sri Lankan navy to sink boats bringing supplies to the LTTE.
Israel supplied aircraft that bombed the LTTE-controlled areas, and patrol boats to help sink LTTE boats.
Britain, India, China, Russia, Pakistan and other countries all helped the Sri Lankan armed forces in various ways.
US bases in Australia played a key role in communicating with the satellites that provided surveillance information to the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The LTTE had no outside support, except from Tamils in the diaspora.
Even the progressive governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia did not support the Tamil struggle. Although not involved militarily, they expressed political support for the Sri Lankan government. They viewed the LTTE merely as a terrorist organisation, not recognising the national oppression that gave rise to the armed struggle.
Today, the Tamil areas in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka are under military occupation. New military bases have been established, despite the end of the fighting.
Sinhalese settlements are expanding, in a similar way to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Land is also being given to foreign capitalists.
Many displaced Tamils are unable to return to their homes and farms, because the land is occupied by military bases or Sinhalese settlements.
There are still thousands of Tamil political prisoners. Murders and disappearances are regular occurrences. Hindu temples have been destroyed or damaged.
The situation for Tamils is extremely grim. Repression in the Tamil areas is very intense.
Nevertheless, there is resistance. For example, there have been protests by people demanding the right to return to their homes and farms in areas under military occupation.
There have also been protests by Tamils in the diaspora. For example, Tamils in Britain recently protested at the visit of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa for the Queen's jubilee celebrations.
Tamils can't win alone. They need allies. The LTTE, while often successful in inflicting military defeats on the Sri Lankan army, was less successful in the necessary task of building alliances.
The LTTE was not successful in winning the support of the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the east. The Tamilnet website has said the conflict between Tamils and Muslims was the "Achilles heel" of the Tamil struggle.
Yet Muslims have also been victims of Sinhalese chauvinism, so it should be possible for Tamils and Muslims to unite.
Tamils also need to strengthen their links with progressive Sinhalese. There are some socialist parties based in the mostly Sinhalese south of Sri Lanka that support Tamil rights.
Southern workers and peasants are paying for the cost of the military occupation of the Tamil homeland in the form of higher taxes and cuts to health, education and other services. This creates the potential to build a campaign in the south against the military occupation of the north.
Internationally, Tamils need to continue their efforts to educate people about the situation in Sri Lanka. While continuing to mobilise Tamils for demonstrations, they need to also involve non-Tamils more.
Demands that need to be raised include freedom for political prisoners, the dismantling of military bases in the occupied Tamil areas and the right of displaced Tamils to return to their homes and farms.
The Tamilnet website has called for a United Nations-supervised referendum among Tamils to allow them to exercise their right of self-determination. Such a referendum would include the option of an independent Tamil state, a unitary Sri Lankan state, and a third option (for example, a federal structure, or autonomy).
Another demand raised by many Tamils is for an international investigation into war crimes.
We should demand that the Australian government support the proposal for a UN-supervised referendum. We should also demand that it end all ties with the Sri Lankan army and the other repressive forces of the Sri Lankan state. res
We must demand an end to the persecution of Tamil refugees, some of whom are detained in Australia as "security risks", presumably on the basis of misinformation supplied by the racist Sri Lankan government.