Sri Lanka: Tamil civilians suffer, oppression continues

May 30, 2009

After the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which waged an armed struggle for independence for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, the extent of the killings of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan army (SLA) has begun to emerge.

The May 29 London Times said the rate of killing increased in the final days of the offensive. From the end of April until May 19: "conservative estimate ... comes out at more than 1,000 civilian deaths each day, one UN source noted."
A leaked UN document confirmed nearly 7000 civilians were dead by the end of April since the start of the year, so in all 20,000-30,000 civilians have been killed in 2009.

However, a UN official told the Times: "These figures are not even complete yet. It's going to end up way more."

Sri Lanka has denied killing any civilians, claiming that any casualties were the result of the LTTE using civilians as human shields in the tiny territory it held and shooting anyone who tried to flee.

However, the Times cited UN figures that attribute only 2% of civilian deaths to gunshot wounds and more than 80% to SLA shelling. Most of the victims were government-designated "safe zones", which civilians were told would not be attacked.

The final "safe zone" was a 3.5 square mile strip of beach into which hundreds of thousands of civilians were crammed without adequate food or water.

Civilian suffering continues

Aid workers, United Nations representatives and journalists are still denied access to the detention camps where more than 300,000 Tamil civilians are still being held behind barbed wire.

Report from inside the camp allege deaths from lack of food and medicine, child abductions and rape.

Tamils are being increasingly driven out by death squads of villages in the island's north-east — the "Tamil Eelam" homeland. This is an increase in settlers into the area from the Sinhala ethnic majority, which has dominated the Sri Lankan state since independence in 1948.

The defeat of the LTTE has been followed by statements by government ministers urging the "integration" of Tamils into Sinhalese society.

This raises the spectre the Sri Lankan government using the LTTE's defeat to try to eradicate the Tamil identity.

Before the SLA offensive began last year, the LTTE had controlled significant territory in Tamil Eelam, running a de facto state. Now that its defeat has removed the prospect of an independent Tamil state as an immediate threat, some Western governments have voiced mild criticisms of Sri Lanka's atrocities.

On May 26 and 27, two resolutions were put to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The first, proposed by Switzerland, expressed muted concerns about abuses and called for Sri Lanka to investigate itself.

The second, proposed by Sri Lanka and supported by the Non-Aligned Movement that involves many Third World nations, congratulated Sri Lanka for its "humanitarian" victory. Both condemned the LTTE.

The UNHRC adopted the second motion.

Western complicity

The support for Sri Lanka from many Third World nations is likely due in part to anger at Western hypocrisy. Western powers commit terrible crimes with impunity, but use allegations of human rights abuses to justify invasions of, and trade sanctions against, sovereign Third World nations.

For instance, the Times, which does not oppose the many crimes committed by the British state at home and abroad, said the vote reflected "divisions between the West and the developing world".

On May 29, it blamed "the usual suspects — China, Russia, India, Pakistan and a clutch of Asian and Islamic nations determined to prevent the council ever investigating human rights violations in their own or any country".

Sri Lanka tries to portray itself as a victim of Western bullying, responding to criticism of its actions by appealing to the principle of sovereignty.

In fact, Sri Lanka's terrible crimes are the direct result of Western complicity.

The West supported Sri Lanka throughout its 26-year war against the LTTE with diplomatic, economic and military aid.

Since the advent of the "war on terror", many Western governments have banned the LTTE as a "terrorist" organisation. This criminalised support in the Tamil diaspora for resistance against Sri Lanka's oppression.

This was a huge free kick to Sri Lanka, whose terror campaign was actively assisted by powerful governments.

Sri Lanka's strategic Indian Ocean location gives it control over important commercial shipping routes. Rival powers have competed for influence by showering the regime with support. The US, Britain, France, China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan and India have all supplied arms.

The oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka is itself a legacy of British colonialism, which employed divide-and-rule tactics. It has also been fuelled by Western corporations and financial institutions.

Sinhalese chauvinism is useful for the Sri Lankan elite and Western corporations seeking stability for investments in diverting the discontent of the Sinhalese poor. Such discontent boiled over into uprisings in the early 1970s and late 1980s — both brutally repressed.

Discontent is fuelled by the fact that post-independence Sri Lanka has stayed economically subservient to Western interests.


Poverty and ethnic tensions worsened after Sri Lanka implemented an International Monetary Fund-imposed neoliberal "structural adjustment program" in 1977.

This undermined government welfare and land reform programs, dispossessing both Sinhalese and Tamil peasants.

The response of the Sinhala-chauvinist elite was to resettle 80,000 dispossessed Sinhalese peasants in the north and east — viewed by Tamils as colonisation. Rising anti-Tamil discrimination and racism, promoted by the government, culminated in the 1983 "Black July" pogroms in which 3000 Tamils were massacred.

This triggered the LTTE's armed struggle for an independent state. The LTTE and other armed Tamil groups were formed in the 1970s, but most Tamils supported non-violent struggle before Black July.

The LTTE's armed campaign had many successes. By 2002, it had a regular army, rudimentary navy and airforce, and a functioning civil administration in much of Tamil Eelam.

However, the LTTE's militarism undermined it. It didn't seek alliances with the Sinhala poor, also oppressed by the Sri Lankan state — although most of the responsibility for this lies with the chauvinism of much of the Sinhalese left, with honourable exceptions.

A guerrilla army, even as powerful as the LTTE was at is height, has never succeeded in defeating a better armed and more powerful army through force alone. On a purely military level, the advantages are with the oppressor.

For the LTTE, the crunch came when anti-terrorism laws in the West dried up the funds it previously received from the Tamil diaspora — while money and guns flowed freely to Sri Lanka.

Military actions that targeted ordinary Sinhalese people made it easier for the Sri Lankan state and its loyal media to justify its war — despite the much greater brutality of the SLA.

At different times, the LTTE dealt with other Tamil political tendencies and Tamil-speaking Muslims with violence, which helped Sri Lanka isolate it further.

However, the biggest reason for Sri Lanka's victory is the ongoing support of powerful nations that enabled it to carry out its murderous onslaught.

Sri Lanka has made it clear Tamil oppression will not ease. No one should doubt that the Tamil people will find ways to continue their struggle for justice and self-determination.

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