Sri Lanka’s war to crush the Tamils
Refugees from Sri Lanka have been among the asylum seekers recently prevented from reaching Australia’s shores.
Many are Tamils, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, fleeing a vicious assault by the Sri Lankan military as it attempts to finally crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the Tamil Tigers).
For 30 years, the Tigers have waged a struggle for an independent state for the Tamil people.
Until recently they controlled most of the northern and eastern coastal areas of Sri Lanka. But today, having been pushed into a 10 kilometre strip of land on the Jaffna Peninsula, the Tigers are all but military defeated.
Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa has demanded the Tigers surrender or face total annihilation.
In the last three months, at least 6,432 civilian Tamils have been killed, while tens of thousands have been maimed.
Up to 300,000 Tamil civilians have been displaced by the military offensive.
Under the guise of the “war on terror”, schools, hospitals and even civilian “safety zones” have all been targeted by aerial bombings, at times with devastating and totally indiscriminate cluster bombs.
For months, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians have been trapped in the war zone without adequate food, water and medicines.
As Tamil areas have fallen to the Sri Lankan military, starved, emaciated and seriously injured men, women, children and the elderly have poured into highly militarised government-controlled transit camps, or “welfare villages”, designed to allow the Sri Lankan military to single out alleged Tamil Tiger activists.
Predictably, there have been disturbing reports of disappearances from these camps.
Around the world, the Tamil diaspora has protested to raise awareness about the war crimes being committed against their people. Over 100,000 Tamils and their supporters took the streets in London in January and again in April.
These protests have drawn attention to the plight of the Tamils when the corporate media have all but refused to.
This silence is partly because the Sri Lankan government has refused the media entry to the war zone. Furthermore, critics of the government’s repressive war have been physically silenced – abducted, arbitrarily arrested, disappeared or assassinated.
In the last two years, 19 journalists have been abducted and at least nine killed, making Sri Lanka the fourth-most dangerous country for journalists to work in according to Reporters Without Borders.
But the deadly silence of the media internationally has more to do with their support for the Sri Lankan government’s war. The Rudd government has refused to condemn Sri Lanka’s slaughter of innocent Tamils.
The US has quietly backed the war, despite concerns that communal tensions might flow over into neighbouring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, destabilising a key economic and strategic asset for the US in South Asia.
Britain, the US, China, Russia and Israel have all supplied the Sri Lankan army with weaponry used in the offensive. And many Western countries have proscribed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation to cut off important sources of funds.
Where the international media have reported on the conflict they have focused on the violence of the Tamil resistance, despite the overwhelming responsibility for the violence lying with the government.
There has also been a complete absence of any discussion of the roots of the civil war, which lies in the long history of state-sponsored racism and oppression of the Tamils.
When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the political and economic elite from the ethnic Sinhalese majority sought to cement their power by cultivating an intense ethnic nationalism.
Migrant Indian Tamil plantation workers in Sri Lanka were denied citizenship and deported to India. Sinhalese was made the sole official language, making Tamil speakers second-class citizens. Tamil children also had little chance of a university education.
There have been numerous violent anti-Tamil pogroms, often led by Buddhist monks with the support of the police and army. These genocidal pogroms culminated in the murder of an estimated 3,000 people in the government-instigated 1983 riots.
Attempts to end discrimination through a non-violent civil rights struggle were repeatedly repressed by the state. Unsurprisingly, non-violent action gave way to formation of guerrilla organisations, as Tamil youth took up arms against the state in the 1970s.
But the Sri Lankan state has refused to cede any autonomy, let alone independence, to the Tamils.
The military defeat of the Tigers and the barbaric slaughter of Tamil civilians will not bring a lasting peace to Sri Lanka.
Without addressing the discrimination and poverty faced by Tamils, without a just political solution, their struggle for the right to self-determination will continue.
This article, by Liz Walsh, first appeared in this month’s Australian socialist magazine, Socialist Alternative.