Sri Lanka: Tamils dispossession worsens

Tamil solidarity rally, Sydney, April 2009. The situation is grim for Tamils in Sri Lanka, but one bright spot is the growing or

More than a year after its victory over the pro-independence Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) continues to hold large areas of land in the predominantly Tamil north and east of Sri Lanka as “high security zones” (HSZ).

Many of the Tamil inhabitants who were evicted from these areas to create the HSZs during the decades-long war are still unable to return to their homes.

The February 7 Colombo Sunday Leader said: “The HSZs have left 125,000-130,000 civilians displaced and unable to return to their homes in the north and east for the past 20 years.”

Many schools and other public buildings are also occupied by the army, as are large areas of agricultural land. On May 26, Tamilnet.com said agricultural organisations claimed the proportion of farmland under military occupation in Vanni and the Jaffna peninsula is as high as 80%.

In some of these areas, settlements for the majority Sinhalese ethnic group are being established. The Sri Lankan government has long had a policy of putting Sinhalese settlements in traditional Tamil areas. This is similar to the Israeli policy of putting Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Just as the Jewish settlements are intended to make an independent Palestinian state unviable, the Sinhalese settlements are intended to do the same for a Tamil state.

After the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, 300,000 Tamil civilians who had been living in LTTE-controlled areas were placed in concentration camps. They were forcibly detained for more than six months.

Most are now allowed to leave. However, many are unable to because their houses have been destroyed, they are in areas made unsafe by land mines, or they are in areas occupied by the SLA.

About 80,000 Tamils remain in the camps. Others are living in makeshift shelters or staying with relatives. More than 10,000 alleged LTTE members are detained in secret camps.

Even those able to return to their homes are not safe. They are subject to disappearances, sexual abuse and extortion by members of the SLA, Tamilnet.com said on June 12.

Despite the end of the war, a state of emergency is continually renewed by the government every month. It recently asked parliament for an increased military budget for the remainder of 2010 to help fund its continued occupation of Tamil areas.

Ever since Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948, successive governments have used anti-Tamil racism to win the support of the Sinhalese masses. The two main capitalist parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party, competed to be the most racist.

In 1948, Tamil plantation workers who were born in Sri Lanka but whose ancestors had come from India during the nineteenth century were denied Sri Lankan citizenship.

In 1956, Sinhala was made the sole official language. This put Tamils at a disadvantage in getting government jobs and accessing government services.

In 1971, a process called “standardisation” meant that Tamils had to get higher examination marks than Sinhalese to get into university. The next year, a new constitution made Buddhism (the religion of most Sinhalese) the state religion.

Peaceful Tamil protests were met with violent repression, not only by the army and police, but also by mobs of Sinhalese racists stirred up by politicians and Buddhist monks.

There was a series of pogroms against the Tamils, beginning in 1956 and culminating in the massacre of an estimated 3000 Tamils in 1983.

The result of these policies was rising support among Tamils for an independent Tamil state. This was reflected in the 1977 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, when the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won 18 of the 22 seats it contested on a platform of self-determination.

Some Tamil youth, not satisfied with the TULF’s peaceful methods, took up arms to fight for independence. Support for the armed struggle grew after the 1983 pogrom.

The LTTE developed into a formidable military force. It drove the SLA out of large parts of the Tamil homeland and established an effective administration for the liberated zones.

The imperialist powers always opposed the LTTE. The United States declared it a terrorist organisation in 1997, as did Britain in 2000 and the European Union in 2006.

The US and its allies, including India and Israel, gave military aid to the Sri Lankan armed forces. The Sri Lankan navy received Israeli Dvora fast naval attack craft.

In November 2007, the US donated a radar-based maritime surveillance system and a set of new rigid-hulled inflatable boats to the Sri Lankan Navy.

This aid was crucial, allowing the navy to cut off contact between LTTE-controlled areas and the outside world. It also countered LTTE attacks on ships carrying troops and supplies to the SLA’s occupation force on the Jaffna peninsula.

In a triumphalist September 12 article on the Sri Lankan navy’s role in the defeat of the LTTE, the newspaper Island noted the importance of “much needed international support”.

It said: “President Mahinda Rajapksa has publicly appreciated the support given by the US in this regard.”

The Sri Lankan air force used Israeli Kfir jets to bomb LTTE-controlled areas. The Sri Lankan army also received training and other assistance from the US and Israeli armed forces.

The solid imperialist support for the Sri Lankan government was thinly disguised by occasional expressions of mild concern about Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

The US Senate passed a motion in December 2007 that imposed some restrictions on the sale of military equipment to Sri Lanka, though equipment for the purpose of “maritime and air surveillance and communications” (i.e. the most important form of US aid at that time) was excluded.

In addition to the strong support it recieved from the imperialist powers, the Sri Lankan government also received military aid from China. Sri Lanka takes advantage of the rivalry between the US, China and India for influence in the Indian Ocean region to get aid from all three countries.

When seeking aid from the imperialist governments to fight the LTTE, successive Sri Lankan governments have put its fight in the framework of the “war on terror”. But the government of President Mahinda Rajapksa is also capable of using “anti-imperialist” rhetoric to attack Western critics.

If a Western NGO or government makes even mild criticisms of Sri Lanka’s human rights record, the government complains of “outside interference”.

In reality, the military aid by Western powers to the Sri Lankan government is a much greater form of “outside interference”. As New Socialist Party (NSSP) leader Wickramabahu Karunaratne wrote at Lakbimanews.lk: “Mahinda is using bogus anti west campaigns to cover up his chauvinist regime and his brutal repressions.

“A man who is completely dependent on the handouts of Americans, Indians and other powers, from time to time deploys his adjutants to make noises outside western embassies.”

The situation is grim for Tamils in Sri Lanka, but one bright spot is the growing organisation and mobilisation of Tamils in the diaspora.

Tamils in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and elsewhere protested on the streets in large numbers during the final stages of the war. They have recently reaffirmed their support for an independent Tamil homeland in referenda held amongst Tamils in many countries.

They are acting as the voice for the Tamil struggle, which for the time being has been suppressed in Sri Lanka itself.