A vicious and increasingly one-sided war is taking place on the island of Sri Lanka – a few dozen miles off the coast of south east India.
Utilising its own interpretation of the “war on terror” the Sri Lankan government is determined to crush the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are better known as the Tamil Tigers.
In the process the military has effectively declared that all Tamil civilians are “terrorists”, hemming them into a strip of coastal land, the Jaffna Peninsula, while repeatedly bombing their schools, hospitals and shelters.
According to a recent United Nations report, up to 190,000 civilians have been sealed into this tiny area.
Last week the army’s guns targeted a makeshift hospital in the village of Putumattalan, killing dozens of the sick and injured. Countries in the West, including Britain, the island’s former colonial master, have supplied the weapons for this offensive.
On the rare occasions that the media cover the conflict it is presented as an unfathomable and ancient religious-ethnic rivalry, with the Buddhist Sinhalese government on one side, and the Hindu Tamils on the other.
But rather than an age-old clash between clearly defined groups, the civil war reflects the way that rival bands among the ruling class, and the middle classes that stand beneath them, have sought to use ethnic nationalism to further their own positions.
Just over 20 million people live in Sri Lanka, on an island about a quarter the size of Britain. The majority describe themselves as Buddhists and speak Sinhalese, but there are significant minorities of differing religions and languages.
Tamils in Sri Lanka, despite speaking a common language, are not a homogenous ethnic or religious group.
Sri Lankan Tamils, who make up around 14 percent of the population, have lived on the island for more than 1,000 years, and have, at various times, been represented in the upper echelons of society.
Indian Tamils were shipped into what was then British-controlled Ceylon in the middle of the 19th century. They were put to work on the tea plantations, and largely remain poor. The majority of Tamils are Hindu, but there are significant religious minorities among them.
Repeated and violent conflicts among the Sinhalese majority prove that it is also wrong to regard them as a single identity.
The British regime helped to lay the foundations for today’s conflict by using divide and rule to aid in its exploitation of the mass of the population.
It favoured the Tamil minority in order to encourage their loyalty. They were given preferences for lucrative jobs in government and were disproportionately represented in the island’s universities.
Nevertheless, there were few signs of animosity between Tamil and Sinhalese speakers prior to 1948, when Ceylon obtained its freedom from the British Empire.
As in so many countries, the collapse of the exiting authority led to a mass scramble for power among those who wanted to become the new elite.
To win elections, and divert attention from the acute class divisions on the island, politicians of all backgrounds attempted to cultivate support by appealing to people as ethnic and religious groups.
In Sri Lanka the key method of division was language. At the time of independence, English was the country’s official language.
The election of a new government on a ticket of replacing English with Sinhalese was a covert attack on the Sri Lankan Tamil middle class, who generally spoke English and Tamil.
The new government also proposed to deport hundreds of thousands of Indian Tamils back to India, while depriving those who remained of their right to vote.
This was an explicit attack on the left and the trade unions, which had successfully organised heavily among Indian Tamil plantation workers.
These acts marked the creation of a new and distinct Sinhalese identity.
In an effort to present a united response to the state’s discrimination, middle class Tamil speakers attempted to create an all-embracing Tamil identity. Both groups utilised and transformed religious symbols and legends to lend justification to their project. Initially there was little evidence of a mass following for these newly-constructed ethnicities.
For most people, the growing conflict remained a quarrel within the establishment. But within a few years the battle that began over language became the basis of a civil war.
Following a landslide election victory in 1956 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party made good on its promise to make Sinhalese the sole official language – a modest amendment to allow the “reasonable use of Tamil” led to a violent demonstration by Buddhist monks.
The new law brought a decline in the number of Tamil speakers in public employment. In the civil service Tamils went from being around 30 percent of all employees in 1948 to just 6 percent by 1970.
Many upper and middle class Sri Lankan Tamils now found themselves excluded from decent jobs, while their children stood little chance of getting a university education.
There were widespread anti-Tamil riots in 1958. Three years later, during a general strike by Tamils against discrimination, the government declared a state of emergency and sent troops into the Tamil heartlands in the central highlands and the north of the island.
Tamils became legitimate targets for pogroms and repression by the state.
The left in Sri Lanka should have been able to undercut the wave of ethnic tension unleashed by the government. Ordinary Sinhalese speaking workers and peasants had nothing to gain from the chauvinism of the ruling class.
The strongest socialist party on the island, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), was a Trotskyist party with a mass membership among all linguistic groups. For a time it was the country’s main opposition party.
But rather that appealing to working class unity, the LSSP, together with the Communist Party, joined the government and declared itself to be the authentic voice of nationalism.
In 1970 a new government made up of the UNP opposition party, in alliance with the left and a number of Tamil parties, took power promising an end to the conflict.
It planned a degree of regional autonomy in which Tamils would be given some power. Soon after coming to office the government faced a rebellion by educated Sinhalese youth demanding an end to Buddhist caste discrimination that excluded them from jobs. Some 10,000 people were killed in the fighting and state of emergency that followed.
The fragility of the ruling class was sharply exposed. The government’s response was to increase its vilification of Tamils in the hope of diverting attention away from its record.
At roughly the same time, younger Tamils, angered by the lack of change and the compromises made by their mainstream parties, started to take up arms against the state.
They formed a variety of groups, the Tamil Tigers chief among them, to demand a separate state in the north of the island. Within a few years they controlled much of the territory.
Sri Lankan authorities launched a crackdown in which thousands of Tamils were jailed and tortured. The Tigers responded with kidnappings and bombings. So began a spiral of violence that engulfed much of the country.
Rather than seeing possibilities in the rebellion sweeping the south, the Tigers characterised all Sinhalese speakers as complicit in their oppression.
Having neither mass support across the country nor enough firepower to defeat the state, the Tigers looked to India for backing. But the Indian state was to play a duplicitous role.
Having initially helped to arm the Tigers from bases in the Indian city of Madras, the Indian government later helped broker a peace deal that involved the sending of 75,000 “peacekeeping” troops to the island.
India feared that the collapse of the state in Sri Lanka could spread instability across the region and instructed its forces to disarm the Tigers. This resulted in fierce fighting and the scattering of Tamil refugees across the world.
Since the 1980s successive governments have used a mix of diplomacy and military offensives in an effort to break the Tigers.
Meanwhile, neoliberal economics and the 2004 Tsunami have laid waste to the livelihoods of millions of the island’s poor – regardless of their religion or language.
The government was recently forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for a £1.3 billion loan, which is demanding austerity measures and privatisation in return.
The military defeat of the Tigers, far from bring a new era of peace and prosperity, looks certain to usher in a new era of attacks on the working class.
Rather than massive spending on the military, the country desperately needs health workers, engineers, and teachers. There needs to be a massive programme of public works to house, feed and tend to all those displaced by the conflict and environmental chaos. These are among the demands of the left in Sri Lanka.
We should demand that our governments condemn the military action and halt all arms sales to Sri Lanka.
Halting the Sri Lankan assault and winning vital improvements for the poor requires a united fight. But only a movement that is prepared to challenge the discrimination of the state, and the culture of chauvinism that has been encouraged by it, is capable of winning this struggle.