Why Tamils flee Sri Lanka

The arrival in February of 85 refugees from Sri Lanka, most of them members of the island's Tamil minority, in Australian waters near Christmas Island highlights the situation of war and racial oppression in Sri Lanka.

Over the past year, full-scale war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has broken out again after a period of relative peace following the signing of a ceasefire agreement in February 2002. During the past year more than 200,000 people have been forced to leave their homes, adding to the hundreds of thousands already displaced by the nearly 20 years of large-scale war before 2002, as well as by the December 2004 tsunami.

LTTE-controlled areas have been subject to aerial and artillery bombardment by the Sri Lankan armed forces, as well as blockades preventing food supplies and other necessities from entering these areas. Tamil civilians have been murdered by government troops and pro-government militias, and Tamil youth have been conscripted into such militias against their will.

The violence has been most intense in the eastern part of the island, from where the refugees on Christmas Island reportedly come.

Origins of the conflict

The roots of the conflict lie in a long history of state oppression of the Tamils, which eventually led some Tamil youth to take up arms against the government.

When Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, one of the new government's first acts was to deprive Tamil plantation workers of citizenship rights. These workers were descended from people brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British in the 19th century to work on coffee and tea plantations. Despite their families having lived in Sri Lanka for several generations, a million people were denied Sri Lankan citizenship, being defined as "Indians".

The citizenship law did not directly affect the main group of Tamils, whose ancestors had lived in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka for thousands of years. But it was soon followed by new laws adversely affecting all Tamils. Sinhalese was declared the sole official language of Sri Lanka, making speakers of the Tamil language second-class citizens. Knowledge of Sinhalese was made a prerequisite for employment in the public service, thereby excluding most Tamils from government jobs. Discrimination against Tamils was also applied in education.

For many years Tamils opposed these discriminatory laws by peaceful means, including demonstrations, sit-ins and participation in elections. But peaceful protests were met by violent repression, carried out by the police and army as well as racist Sinhalese mobs incited to violence by politicians and Buddhist monks. There was a series of pogroms against Tamils, culminating in the murder of an estimated 3000 people in the government-instigated riots of July 1983.

The increasing repression fostered the growth of Tamil nationalist sentiment. In 1977 the Tamil United Liberation Front won 17 seats in the Sri Lankan parliament on a platform of self-determination for Tamils.

The violent repression of peaceful protest led many Tamil youth to turn to armed struggle. The LTTE was formed in 1972 and carried out its first major armed action in 1978. After the 1983 pogrom, the LTTE gained increased support from the Tamil community and dramatically stepped up its military offensive against the Sri Lankan army.

The government forces were unable to defeat the LTTE, despite brutal repression including numerous massacres of Tamil civilians.

There have been a number of attempts at a peaceful settlement to the war. The 2002 ceasefire was the longest-lasting attempt to bring peace. But the United National Party (UNP) government not only failed to offer the Tamil people a just solution that could guarantee a lasting peace; it failed even to fully implement the provisions of the ceasefire agreement. For example, it failed to disarm the pro-government paramilitary groups that had been responsible for numerous murders.

The UNP government, which claimed to want peace but failed to deliver, was replaced in 2004 by a more openly chauvinist government, a coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. This government has recently become even more reactionary, with the entry into the ruling coalition of the Jatika Hela Urumaya, an extremely chauvinist Sinhalese Buddhist party. Natural resources minister Champika Ranawaka, a member of the JHU, recently publically justified the murder of peace activists, whom he called "traitors".

Role of imperialism

The United States and other imperialist powers have always supported the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil struggle. They have supplied weapons and military training to the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). Israel has supplied Kfir jets to the Sri Lankan air force. The United States has long banned the LTTE as a "terrorist organisation" (while ignoring the state terrorism carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces). The European Union recently followed suit.

The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, headed by a Norwegian general, which was established to supervise the 2002 ceasefire, failed to enforce certain key provisions of the ceasefire agreement — for example, those requiring the Sri Lankan army to vacate public buildings it occupies in Tamil areas and to disarm paramilitary groups allied to the army. The Norwegian mediators also did not take seriously the LTTE's call for refugees to be allowed to return to their homes in the large areas of land occupied by the SLA (the so-called "high security zones"). As a result the LTTE eventually suspended its participation in the talks.

Massacres and blockades

With the renewed outbreak of war, the SLA is once again showing its brutality and anti-Tamil racism. There have been a series of massacres by the armed forces. On June 17 last year, in the fishing village of Pesalai, Sri Lankan Navy troops threw grenades into a church where Tamil refugees were sheltering. On August 4 in the town of Muttur, 17 aid workers (most of them Tamils) employed by a French charity were murdered in cold blood by the SLA. On August 14 in Mullaitivu, an orphanage was bombed by the Sri Lankan air force, killing more than 50 children.

Fifteen-thousand people fled from the town of Vaharai in eastern Sri Lanka following heavy shelling by the SLA on January 18, 2007. According to the Tamilnet website, the shelling was intensified in the evening despite an urgent message sent to the International Committee of the Red Cross from Vaharai hospital authorities saying that the area around the hospital, where many displaced people had sought refuge, was under attack.

On March 9 Tamilnet reported that 40,000 people had been displaced from the Paduvankarai area in a period of 48 hours due to heavy artillery and multi-barrel rocket launcher fire from the SLA.

Thousands of Tamils have fled to India. However the waters between India and Sri Lanka are heavily patrolled by the Sri Lankan Navy, and many boats have been sunk in these waters. Hence it is not surprising that some refugees have chosen to flee in a different direction — towards Indonesia and Australia.

Australia should welcome these refugees, not deport them back to the nightmare of Sri Lanka. But we also need to do what we can to promote a peaceful and just solution to the conflict.

A meeting of 400 Tamils in Melbourne on June 3 last year called on the Australian government to "exert appropriate political pressure on the Sri Lankan government to immediately halt the state-sponsored violence, murder and human rights violations perpetrated on the Tamil people". This call is even more urgent today.

A lasting solution requires that the Sri Lankan government recognise the right of the Tamil people to self-determination. The SLA is an army of occupation in Tamil areas. Its removal from these areas is a precondition for peace.

The Tamil people must be allowed to exercise their right to self-determination in their traditional homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Self-determination won't necessarily lead to total separation of predominantly-Tamil areas from the Sri Lankan state — the LTTE has stated its willingness to consider a federal structure. But the unity of Sri Lanka must be voluntary. "Unity" cannot be imposed by the SLA through violent repression of the Tamil people.