By Dan Mayer
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 337

Savage repression won’t bring peace to Sri Lanka

This article is over 12 years, 11 months old
The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has reconquered all of the areas previously held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Issue 337

Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa claims that his military victory will usher in a new period of peace and prosperity on the island. It will not. The brutal methods deployed by the SLA in its efforts to win this war, and the horrific conditions the defeated Tamil population are now being subjected to, will fan the flames of Tamil resistance, guaranteeing the prospect of even more bitter struggles in the future.

Since January the United Nations estimates that at least 7,000 people have died as the SLA indiscriminately targeted civilian areas, shelled hospitals and pushed tens of thousands of civilians into an ever decreasing strip of land. The Red Cross described the situation as a “bloodbath”. As many as 300,000 refugees are now being held in “resettlement camps”, with some Sri Lankan government sources saying they will operate for at least two years in order to “weed out” all the LTTE fighters. Malnourishment is rife and sanitary facilities are woefully inadequate in these concentration camps. Rapes and disappearances are commonplace. International journalists and most aid workers are barred from north eastern Sri Lanka.

While condemning SLA “excesses”, most Western journalists and politicians have celebrated the demise of the Tigers, arguing that the LTTE were the main obstacle to peace. But discrimination against Tamils existed long before the current war started in 1983.

The British Empire had used divide and rule tactics in Sri Lanka, encouraging resentment of the Tamil (mainly Hindu) minority by the majority Sinhalese (mainly Buddhists). Almost as soon as it became independent in 1948 the Sri Lankan ruling class disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers who the British had brought over from India 100 years earlier. This served to stigmatise the Sri Lankan Tamils who had lived on the island for thousands of years.

In 1956 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party came to power promising laws to restore the “Buddhist” nature of the island. They made Sinhalese the only official state language and made it harder for Tamils to gain access to education and jobs in the civil service. Anti-Tamil hatred was a useful diversion for a government that, despite claiming to be socialist, did little to tackle poverty. There were vicious pogroms against Tamils in 1958, 1977 and 1983, each more terrible than the last.

For more than 20 years Tamil resistance – inspired by Gandhi – did not involve armed struggle. The rise of the LTTE resulted from the failure of all other methods of resistance: it was a last resort. The Sri Lankan left bears a terrible responsibility for this.

At independence Sri Lanka had a strong Communist Party and – unusually – an even stronger Trotskyist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. Both failed to resist the rise of Sinhalese chauvinism. Worse, both actually participated in coalition governments in the 1960s and 1970s, providing left cover for discriminatory laws. This adventure proved disastrous for the left. Having become indistinguishable from the parties of the nationalist right, they suffered electoral oblivion in 1977. The Tamil minority was forced into the armed struggle by brutal discrimination and the failure of the Sri Lankan left to promote joint Sinhalese-Tamil resistance to it.

The current phase of the war, too, did not begin with the LTTE but with the Sri Lankan government. From 2002 to 2006 there was a ceasefire in which the LTTE controlled and operated a rudimentary state apparatus in much of the Tamil Eelam (homeland) in north eastern Sri Lanka. It was the government of Rajapaksa that, unwilling to accept coexistence, broke the ceasefire – egged on by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and their “war on terror”, and armed to the teeth with weapons from Britain and China.

The conditions that gave rise to conflict, the discrimination against Tamils in western Sri Lanka, the brutal repression of them in the north east, have not disappeared with the defeat of the LTTE. Help will not come from Western governments or from India – they are interested in maintaining the status quo, in “stability” and in selling weapons.

There is one glimmer of hope. Hundreds of thousands in the Tamil diaspora have begun to fight back. The permanent protests in Parliament Square, often involving pitched battles with the police, must be the longest illegal protests in British history. This solidarity movement is here to stay: next time the situation flares up in Sri Lanka it will not be an isolated military struggle, but a political movement that spans the globe.

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