Why we should boycott Sri Lankan cricket
In recent weeks a campaign has developed momentum calling for a boycott of Sri Lankan cricket matches to protest both the Sri Lankan regime’s genocide of Tamils and the Australian government’s attacks on Tamil refugees. Andrew Cheeseman in Socialist Alternative explains why.
Outside of the Australian Tamil community, little is known in this country of why so many Tamils are fleeing Sri Lanka and of the history of oppression that they have endured. With Gillard so hostile to Tamil refugees today, this is a history that must be shared.
Sri Lanka was seized by Portugal in 1505, marking the beginning of nearly five hundred years of colonial domination. Prior to this, the island had long been divided into a Tamil kingdom in the northeast, and two Sinhalese kingdoms in the south and west. Tamils and Sinhalese spoke different languages, mostly followed different religions (with most Sinhalese following Buddhism and Tamils mostly following Hinduism with a large Christian minority), and had totally separate state structures throughout this time.
The Portuguese colonialists, and also the Dutch after they seized the colony, maintained this separation and treated the island as multiple colonies. Things would change greatly, however, when the British seized control in 1815.
The British colonialists forcibly amalgamated the disparate kingdoms into what they termed British Ceylon, then from 1827 imported large numbers of additional Tamils from India to work on tea plantations. Today their descendants are generally referred to as “Indian Tamils” while the descendants of Tamils from the pre-colonial Jaffna Kingdom are called “Sri Lankan Tamils”.
In response to agitation for reforms by the Ceylon National Congress, a united Sinhalese and Tamil organisation, British governor William Manning went out of his way to stir communal tensions and to turn Tamils against Sinhalese by encouraging communal representation. In a cunning move the British granted proportionally more representation to the minority Tamils and underrepresented the Sinhalese majority. Partially this was an attempt to get Tamil support for the colonial project, but more important for the British was the way it turned the Sinhalese against Tamils. As in many other countries dominated by colonialism, the seeds of hatred sowed to divide and rule would in time lead to a war that would outlast the colonialists by decades.
Sri Lankan independence in 1948 did not heal the tension that had been building – in many ways it heightened them. Sinhalese chauvinist parties quickly came to power and enacted several extremely discriminatory laws.
Within a year, the Ceylon Citizenship Act was passed. This law denied citizenship to Indian Tamils, taking away their right to vote and eventually leading to the mass expulsion of six hundred thousand people. The regime’s motives here were political – denying citizenship and voting rights to such a large number of Tamils allowed the Sinhalese chauvinist parties a significant majority in parliament and dramatically reduced Tamil representation.
Worse was to come.
In 1956 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister and quickly legislated to make Sinhalese the only official language of government. This resulted in a nearly-complete purge of Tamils (very few of whom were fluent in Sinhalese) from the civil service. It also made it nearly impossible for Tamils to access government services for almost all of the 1960s.
When protests were organised against the Sinhala Only Act by the fairly moderate Federal Party, Sinhalese chauvinists including a government minister organised counter-demonstrations that led to riots and looting in Colombo. Days later, as news of these disturbances spread and were exaggerated with every retelling, Sinhalese chauvinists massacred an estimated 150 Tamils in the Gal Oya valley. Local police watched as the rioters murdered Tamils with knives, sticks and by burning them alive. Similar events would be repeated in 1958, alongside the first organised violent retaliation by Tamils – which led to the banning of the Federal Party and the arrest of a majority of Tamil parliamentarians.
Over 20 years of oppression led to the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front which stood for secession from Sri Lanka and the formation of a new state, Tamil Eelam, in the majority Tamil north and east of the country. It stood for election in 1977 and won the support of most Tamils. In response Prime Minister Junius Jayewardene gave all police a week’s leave and mobilised armed supporters to Tamil areas. His supporters burned houses of leftists that supported Tamil rights, and killed hundreds of Tamils in a week of pogroms.
Predictably, this spelled the end of mass support for peaceful change among Tamils and the beginning of mass support for armed resistance. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) rose to prominence during this period. Their popularity only increased when Sinhalese policemen burned down the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, killing four and destroying irreplaceable artefacts of Tamil history. Throughout this period it was widely accepted that police and the military could kill Tamils with impunity.
The Black July massacres of 1983 would ensure that that year would become the worst year for Tamils until 2009. The Black July massacres are documented by many groups, particularly the Canadian Tamil Congress, who set up a website as a memorial to those murdered. There were various other government provocations such as the banning of Tamil language newspapers and the following extraordinarily vile statement from (by this time President) Jayewardene:
“… I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people [Tamils] now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy… “
In response, the LTTE attacked a military convoy and killed thirteen soldiers. This was exactly the opportunity the regime had been preparing for. Within hours, roadblocks had been set up by Sinhalese chauvinists, at which cars were searched. In one incident witnessed by many tourists a bus containing Tamils was torched and all of its passengers burned to death.
Eyewitnesses reported the active military involvement in the massacres, including officers using electoral rolls to determine which houses held Tamil families and then directing rioters to burn them down and kill anyone inside. One harrowing account from survivor Shanthi Sachithanandam described the terror of the pogrom in Colombo:
“In the lane there were about 50 to 75 people in a mob carrying all kinds of sticks and clubs and knives. They were shouting; it was like the sound of an ocean, a chilling sound.”
After Sachithanandam got into a car, the attackers banged on the windows demanding to know if there was a Tamil inside. Luckily she escaped. Her husband also escaped, hiding at the house of a Sinhalese friend who was brave enough to tell the pogromists who held a knife to his throat that there were no Tamils in his house.
During a week of nationwide race riots Jayewardene made an address to further stoke communal hatred. When the pogrom finally ended, an estimated 3,000 people were dead and most Tamils in Colombo had fled to Jaffna or out of the country. In the aftermath over 100,000 Tamils fled to Canada, and many more went elsewhere.
The Civil War
As a result of the Black July pogrom, the previous banning of the mainstream moderate Tamil opposition parties and the LTTE’s ruthless attempts to absorb or destroy its political rivals, the LTTE became the main organisation of Tamil resistance. A protracted civil war developed, punctuated by intermittent ceasefires. The LTTE used a combination of conventional warfare and terrorist tactics, while the government used airstrikes as its form of terrorism. During this period the LTTE was essentially the government of the north and east of the island.
In the context of the US “War on Terror”, the Rajapaksa regime in 2008 began a serious military offensive in the north. This culminated in the horrific concentration camps and massacres of May 2009 that made even the Black July slaughter look tiny.
It is impossible to know how many Tamils are still in concentration camps in the north and how many are dead – particularly as aid groups are still denied access. Most estimate that 40,000 were killed, with as many as 10,000 killed on the night of 9 May 2009 when the Sri Lankan military shelled one of the “safe zones” civilians had fled to.
Rajapaksa, the man responsible for the massacres in 2009, is still running the country. Political dissidents are still tortured whether they are Tamil or Sinhalese. Attending a protest march means putting your life at risk, and supporting the right of Tamils to secede from Sri Lanka to form their own country will get you labelled an LTTE terrorist.
We need to make Sri Lanka a pariah state until Rajapaksa has faced justice for the 2009 atrocities and Tamils are free to make their own decision as to whether to remain part of Sri Lanka or to secede. Boycotting Sri Lanka’s cricket team is a small step in that direction.
The Australian Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket Campaign will be holding a protest at the first day/night match at the MCG tomorrow (Friday) at 1 pm. Activists will then embark on a “Freedom Ride” to Adelaide on Saturday before protesting at the match at the Adelaide Oval on Sunday.