The Sri Lankan army finished its brutal conquest of the areas of the island previously controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—the Tamil Tigers—this week. Most of the Tigers’ leaders are now dead.
Celebrations in the media about the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the new potential for peace ignore two vital facts.
First, it is the Sri Lankan army that has been responsible for more than 7,000 civilian casualties in Sri Lanka’s Tamil areas. The Tamil refugees recently seen “escaping” from Tiger controlled areas in news footage are now most likely to be in “resettlement camps” set up by the viciously anti-Tamil government.
Second, the crisis didn’t start with an unprovoked seperatist uprising by the LTTE in 1983. Tamil seperatism was a response to decades of discrimination and pogroms orchestrated by rulers from among the Sinhalese majority.
Under the British empire the colonialists used ethnic divide and rule tactics, but it was after independence that ethnic strife was ratcheted up.
This was used to challenge a history of inter-ethnic working class unity dating back at least to a carters strike in 1906.
The other side of the story could be seen in 1912 when a major rail strike was defeated because management encouraged anti-Tamil feeling among Sinhalese workers.
United rail and dock strikes were victorious in 1920, as was a general strike in 1923.
The United National Party (UNP) came to power at independence in 1948. One of its first acts was to disenfranchise Tamil workers on tea plantations who had lived in the country for more than a century.
This served to stigmatise Tamils and suggest that even Tamils whose ancestors had lived in Sri Lanka for more than 1,000 years were not authentic citizens.
Changes in the university and civil service exams made it harder for middle class Tamils to find work in government service.
A split in the UNP in 1951 created the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which called itself socialist. But it was more extreme in its Sinhalese nationalist rhetoric.
By the 1956 election the SLFP’s strategy was to talk of the country’s Buddhist nature.
The majority of Sinhala people are Buddhist, while most Tamils are Hindu. The SLFP also demanded that Sinhala be the only official language.
There were large protests by Tamils. These were peaceful, and overtly inspired by Gandhi’s pacifist protests. They were attacked. At least 150 Tamils were killed in riots across the country.
Worse was to come with the United Front government of 1970-1977, a coalition between the SLFP and two far-left parties.
This was the government that changed the name of the country from Ceylon to the more Buddhist name Sri Lanka, and stepped up discrimination against Tamils.
The 1977 election changed the governing party, but didn’t help the Tamils. A new wave of riots created a further 35,000 refugees. Many of the attacks were carried out or supported by the police.
This was the point when the LTTE emerged with a programme of armed resistance. They were still not the dominant political current among Sri Lankan Tamils.
Their influence grew as the oppression of the Tamils continued.
The chauvinism of the Sinhalese ruling class and the failure of the left drove Tamils to accept the ideas of separatism.
The Tamil socialist A Sivanandan recently said, “There will be no peace because the causes of the military struggle have not been addressed—massive discrimination, racialisation of everything, massive censorship, the murder of journalists in the south and anybody else who speaks up.”
What can people in Britain do? We can fight to expose the reality of Sri Lanka’s war.
And we can pressure our government to stop supplying arms and push to get Sri Lanka shunned and boycotted.