Posts Tagged ‘Tamil minority’

The Bloodbath in Sri Lanka

April 28, 2009

Why Battering the Tamil Tigers Won’t Bring Peace

By MITU SENGUPTA | Counterpunch, April 28, 2009

Over the course of a long and brutal war with Sri Lanka’s armed forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) emerged as one of the world’s most formidable insurgent groups.  Besides engaging the Sri Lankan government in a bloody battle for more than 25 years, the LTTE (or, more informally, the ‘Tamil Tigers’) managed to seize substantial chunks of government territory, and operated these as a quasi-state for well over a decade.  Today, however, the mighty Tigers are on the verge of  total military defeat.  Will their demise bring peace to Sri Lanka?

Unsurprisingly, the LTTE’s hammering has come at an enormous price.  Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, the war has claimed more than 70,000 lives, rendered some half a million Tamils refugees in their own country, and driven an equal number out of Sri Lanka. The last six months of fighting have been particularly intense, with the Sri Lankan government at its most aggressive in decades.  Reports from the United Nations, Red Cross and several other reputed humanitarian organizations indicate that the country is on the brink of a colossal humanitarian disaster.  Some 6,500 civilians have been killed since January, and another 100,000 are caught – facing carnage, and without adequate food, shelter and medicine – in the crossfire between the Tigers and government forces.  An additional 40,000 or so that have fled the war zone are being held in military-run camps, where conditions, according to the most recent reports, are similar to those in Nazi-run concentration camps (journalists and humanitarian workers have been banned from these camps for over a month).

Led by the United Nations, concerned voices in the international community have repeatedly pleaded for a halt to the fighting, or even a ceasefire of a reasonable length, in which more civilians may be moved to safety, and aid workers allowed access to the sick and wounded.  Determined to run the Tigers to the ground, however, the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has remained undeterred, apparently confident that a full purging of the LTTE – now perhaps only days away – will have been worth the carnage and dislocation, and the palpable damage to his country’s international reputation.  Rajapaksa evidently believes that a Sri Lanka free of the Tigers will be a Sri Lanka whither all good things will come.

Over the years, the LTTE has earned the reputation of being a ruthless organization; one that turns children into hardened soldiers; that has perfected suicide bombing as a tactic; that relies on extortion and smuggling for funding, and that has zero tolerance for critics and competitors.  While there are no reliable measures of the extent of support for the LTTE among Tamils in Sri Lanka, or within the vast diaspora, Tamil human rights activists both inside and outside the country have spoken out against the LTTE’s cruel ways, totalitarian structure, and uncompromising, maximalist demands.  The LTTE has duly assassinated many of these detractors.  Indeed, given all of this, it is tempting to presume that Sri Lanka will be infinitely better off without the LTTE, and that its elimination will necessarily steer the country towards order, stability and reconciliation.  But though appealing, this conclusion ultimately rests on a wrongheaded view of the Tigers’ role in the conflict.  The LTTE is the product, not the cause, of Sri Lanka’s deadly politics.

To begin with, the conflict, if not the war, predates the LTTE by a few generations.  Its origins may be traced to the effects of the nefarious “divide and rule” policies devised by British colonial administrators to govern Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The British used the island’s Tamil minority to keep its Sinhalese majority in check, and in return, gave Tamils the best government jobs and the benefit of English education.  With independence in 1948, however, the Tamils were deprived of their patrons, and found themselves outnumbered and marginalized inside the new Sri Lanka’s unitary state and majoritarian institutional framework. With the Tamils rendered politically irrelevant, short-sighted politicians competed with each other for the Sinhalese vote, and soon discovered that the political party with the stronger anti-minority stance was almost always guaranteed electoral success.

Such “ethnic outbidding,” as scholars have characterized the dreadful process, led to the rise of a ferocious Sinhala nationalism that demanded revenge for the Tamils’ supremacy during the colonial period, along with a revival of Sinhala language and culture.  It saw Sri Lanka as for the Sinhalese alone, and insisted that the Tamil minority submit to its second-class position or, better still, simply leave the island.  In the first few decades following independence, Sri Lanka’s Tamils were systematically stripped of their erstwhile social and economic privileges, with the demotion of their language (Tamil) to secondary status, and the imposition of strict quotas that shrank their employment and educational opportunities.  Sinhalese farmers were encouraged to settle in and around the island’s north-east, in an obvious attempt to reduce the concentration of Tamils in these areas.

Initially, the Tamils attempted to resist these changes through democratic means, forming political parties that pressed for federalism and various minority guarantees.  While many sensible Sinhalese politicians warmed to such appeals, the forces of majoritarianism always seemed to triumph.  Any government seen as making too many concessions to the Tamils was swiftly pulled down, a disheartening ritual that eventually left most Tamils alienated, and the Tamil parties largely discredited.  By the late 1970s, the conflict had taken a violent turn, with the surfacing of several militant outfits, including the LTTE, which called for armed struggle and secession – the creation of a Tamil ‘homeland’ (‘eelam’) out of the Tamil majority areas in Sri Lanka’s north-east. The LTTE proved the strongest of these militant groups, and, out-powering its rivals, became locked in bitter conflict with the Sri Lankan state.

As an insurgent force, the LTTE has been remarkably successful.  By the early 2000s, it had captured much of the north and east, and was governing these territories as though they were already a separate state (the LTTE provided schools, postal services, and even rudimentary hospitals).  The LTTE brought forth a harsh and authoritarian regime, but one that was, perhaps, an inevitable response to the harsh and authoritarian regime that the Sri Lankan government had become.  Human Rights Watch has characterized the Sri Lankan government as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances.  Indeed, in many ways, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state have been reflections of each other’s total lack of generosity.  Both have squandered numerous opportunities for peace, though it is unlikely that the Sri Lankan government would have agreed to negotiate at all – as it did in 2003, following a ceasefire – had it faced a lesser organization than the Tigers.  The annihilation of the LTTE will mean that only one of the two fearsome, unbending contenders in the country’s long and bloody war will have left the arena and, that too, probably not for good.  Far from being a recipe for peace, this will probably ignite a new cycle of grotesque injustice and pitiless retaliation.

One danger that looms heavily is that the Sri Lankan state will try to use its victory to seek a permanent solution to its “Tamil minority problem.”  The government might begin by preventing Tamil civilians interned in its military camps from returning to their villages.  These camps have already taken on an air of permanence, with the government arguing that no-one can be moved until the LTTE is fully flushed out, and the military demines the conflict zone. This could take months, if not years.  It is entirely possible that while tens of thousands of Tamils languish in these camps, encircled by razor-wired fences, the government will move large numbers of Sinhalese settlers into the island’s north and east, thus stamping out, once and for all, the geographical rationale for a separate Tamil homeland.  The counterpoint to the government’s expected belligerence might be an even darker phase in the Tamil resistance; one with a more lucid and focused fury that will bring great disquiet to Tamils everywhere.

To most governments, the bloodbath in Sri Lanka is the consequence of a sovereign power besieged by a brutal domestic insurgency.  This is to be expected in a world where states are generally considered legitimate, no matter what they do, and those that challenge their authority are immediately viewed as criminal – a distinction that’s been sharpened, of course, by the menacing language around the “war on terror.”  Indeed, following Sri Lanka’s success in having the LTTE proscribed as a terrorist organization by 31 countries, including the United States, the sense that the Sri Lankan state is on the right side of history has gone from strength to strength, which might explain the muted condemnation of its actions in the rapidly unfolding tragedy.

It’s probably too much to expect the US government – or any other government for that matter – to accept the argument, however rigorously advanced, that the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE have mirrored each other’s unyielding attitudes and methods, and, that ultimately, the noble sovereign power and the sinister terrorist organization are two sides of the same bloodied coin.  The one, small opening for peace that the LTTE’s retreat may provide, however, is that without its looming spectre, the Sri Lankan government will be less able to shield its decaying democracy and ugly human rights record from the eyes of the world.  It will, hopefully, be the subject of an international initiative that helps rein in the country’s majoritarian forces, thus barring any further acceleration of the vicious cycle of injury and retribution these tend to set in motion.

Mitu Sengupta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She may be reached by email: mitu.sengupta@gmail.com

Sri Lanka’s war of terror

February 20, 2009

Nagesh Rao explains the historical background to the Sri Lankan government’s latest war crimes against the Tamil minority.

A group of made refugees in Sri Lanka's civil warA group of made refugees in Sri Lanka’s civil war

THE SRI LANKAN military is intensifying its war on the country’s Tamil minority–but the international media is focused far more on the violence of the Tamil resistance.

Just as the Israelis did during their most recent invasion of Gaza, Sri Lankan authorities have prevented journalists from entering war zones. Consequently, the media has largely followed official Sri Lankan pronouncements and viewed this decades-old conflict through the relatively new lens of the “war on terror.”

Meanwhile, human rights organizations, various NGOs, and Tamil organizations worldwide have produced evidence of a brutal military campaign by the Sri Lankan state directed against the Tamil population at large.

A January 28 Amnesty International press release about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka stated:

“Recent fighting has placed more than a quarter of a million civilians at great risk. People displaced by the conflict are experiencing acute shortages of humanitarian aid, especially food, shelter and medical care. There has been no food convoy in the area since 16 January,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher.

The Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out military operations in areas with a civilian population. The aerial and artillery bombardment has reportedly led to civilian deaths, injuries, the destruction of property and mass displacement on this island nation off India’s southeastern coast.

Sri Lankan government forces have pushed the Tamil Tigers out of all major urban areas they had held for nearly a decade and into a small pocket of land. More than 300,000 civilians who have fled the oncoming government troops are also trapped in this small area. They have been displaced multiple times and are increasingly vulnerable as fighting moves closer.

Hundreds of people have been killed or injured and such medical care as has been available is threatened due to danger to the few health workers and damage to hospitals.

The government had declared “safe zones” to allow civilians to seek shelter, but information made available to Amnesty International indicates that several civilians in the so-called safe zone have been killed or sustained injuries as a result of artillery bombardment.

A doctor working in a hospital in a “safe zone” says that about 1,000 shells fell around the hospital.

Yet even though Amnesty International demonstrated that the overwhelming responsibility for the violence lay with government authorities, it titled its press release, “Government and Tamil Tigers violating laws of war.” According to Amnesty, “in at least one instance,” the rebel Tamil Tigers blocked the movement of a Red Cross convoy of injured and at-risk people out of the war zone. The statement ends by quoting Yolanda Foster again:

The immediate priority is medical attention for the seriously wounded. The Tamil Tigers must let injured civilians go. Preventing civilians from accessing medical care constitutes a war crime.

The Amnesty International statement thus offers a lengthy list of crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military, only to end by suggesting that the obstacle to meeting the most “immediate priority” is the “war crime” being committed by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group. Nowhere in the statement are the words “war crime” associated with the government’s actions, which are instead referred to as “a military campaign.”

In response, many Tamil activists and organizations have urged the international community to recognize the Sri Lankan government’s latest military assault on the Tamils as constituting, at a minimum, “acts of genocide” as defined by the Geneva Convention.

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ON THE streets of the capital Colombo, roving gangs of political thugs have waged a campaign of terror designed to intimidate any and all opposition to the Sri Lankan state. On January 28, human rights lawyer and activist Amitha Ariyaratne received death threats from police officers at a police station just north of Colombo. Three days later, his office was burned down by an unknown arsonist.

This came on the heels of the sensational assassination on January 8 of a leading journalist and critic of the government and editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. Lasantha Wickramatunga was assassinated by unidentified assailants during his morning commute in rush-hour traffic. His car window was smashed in, and he was shot in the head, the chest and the stomach. He died on the way to the hospital.

Wickramatunga’s last article, “And then they came for me,” was a moving and passionate letter to his readers predicting his own death at the hands of his government. Not surprisingly, Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 165th (out of 173 countries) in its index of press freedom around the world.

The Sri Lankan government has turned a deaf ear to international human rights organizations and Tamil NGOs who have complained about innumerable human rights violations and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the northeast. Using “war on terror” rhetoric, Sri Lankan state propaganda has instead deflected international media attention towards war crimes allegedly committed by the LTTE.

However, the Sri Lankan government has absolved itself of its own obligation to respect human rights. In 2006 the Supreme Court declared that “[T]he Human Rights Committee at Geneva…is not reposed with judicial power under our constitution,” (see the text of the ruling here) providing a legal fig-leaf for the government’s draconian crackdown on the Tamils. The Asian Human Rights Commission has declared, “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka is a part of the human rights violation mechanism.”

About 74 percent of the Sri Lankan population consists of Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, while the rest are Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims. Since the 1980s, a brutal civil war between the government forces and the Tamil Tigers has claimed over 70,000 lives, with hundreds of thousands more injured and displaced, the majority of them Tamils.

Most media reports date the origins of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese to the founding of the LTTE in the 1980s, but the Tamils have faced discrimination and repression at the hands of Colombo’s Sinhala-dominated government ever since Sri Lanka achieved its independence from Britain in 1948.

One of the first acts of the newly independent state in 1949 was to disenfranchise, at the stroke of a pen, some 1 million Tamils who had arrived in Sri Lanka in the twentieth century. They were declared non-citizens and told to return to India. Many of these “Indian Tamils” had been brought in by the British from India to not only labor in the tea plantations but to serve in the colonial administrative bureaucracy. British divide-and-rule policies resulted in special privileges for middle-class Tamils who had been educated in English in India. This bred resentment among sections of the Sinhala majority, and right-wing Sinhalese chauvinism began to gain ground during the waning years of British rule.

By disenfranchising the “Indian Tamils,” the newly-independent Sri Lankan state had resorted to a despicably ethnic-chauvinist policy, and encouraged the growth of the far right. In 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rode this wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism to come to power and unleashed the first anti-Tamil pogrom, leaving some 100 Tamils dead and thousands displaced from their homes. The pogroms were led, and egged on, by militant and fascistic Buddhist monks.

Another wave of anti-Tamil hysteria in the 1960s resulted in the declaration of Sinhala as the only official language of the state. More pogroms followed in the early 1970s, with the monks and their allies periodically terrorizing and intimidating the Tamil population, while their political patrons reaped the rewards of a ready-made majority at the polls. In 1981, in an act that often referred to as “cultural genocide,” rioting policemen burned down the Jaffna Library, which housed much of the cultural memory of the Tamil population.

Continued >>


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