If you’re unusually attentive, you might have noticed that this kind of thing is currently going down in northern Sri Lanka, and has been for some time:
What is happening now is the latest stage in one of the world’s longest currently civil wars. The latest offensive by the Sri Lankan army, which started in January 2008, has been militarily successful. The rebels now control only around 20km of land in a single province – an area one eighteenth the size of the Gaza strip. However, it has also been incredibly damaging for the people of northern Sri Lanka. Around 3,200 people have died since 2008, and thousands more have been wounded or displaced by the conflict. it’s very hard to gauge an accurate picture of what’s actually happening there, as there are few journalists and the Sri Lankan government is exercising a tight grip on all information coming out of the area. However, there are widespread allegations that a genocide is being carried out against ethnic Tamils.
so, how did this mess start?
The roots of the conflict are in the ethno-religious divide in Sri Lanka. the majority population is Sinhalese, who have been there since around the 6th century BCE, and are predominately Buddhist with a very small Christian minority. the pesky minority are the Tamils, a south Indian ethnic group who as far as we can tell arrived in the island as mercenaries in the 7th to 11th centuries – although some revisionist historians have attempted to prove that the Tamils were in fact the original inhabitants of the island. Tamils are concentrated in the north and east of Sri Lanka, and are mostly Hindu, with a minor population of Muslims. Here’s a map of the percentage of Tamils in Sri Lanka by territory:
numbers in italics are from the 1981 census, others are from 2001. this map isn’t actually all that useful because there have been constant population movement, but it helps to show the area we’re talking about.
The area of Sri Lanka predominately inhabited by Tamils is known as Tamil Eelam. The Tamil-dominated area of southern India is known as Tamil Nadu. tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils were basically non-existent for most of history. Sinhalese princes would often rely on Tamil soldiers, and occasionally larger states in Tamil Nadu would conquer the entire island. as with most messed-up situations in the world, problems started to emerge with the British empire and its disintegration. Britain ruled the island as part of the Presidency of Fort st. George or the Madras Presidency – a part of British India. As colonial powers usually do, Britain employed divide-and-rule tactics, supporting the Sinhalese majority and repressing the Tamils, who had been rebellious under the previous Portuguese and Dutch ownership of the island. Under Britain, the primary export was tea, and most tea was grown by indentured Tamils. Some of these were native to the island, but over a million were brought over from Tamil Nadu. Tamil labourers were kept in near-slave conditions, and soon made up around 10% of the population.
a Tamil girl picking tea, if you couldn’t tell
During this time some of the high-caste Sinhalese started to agitate for independence – and for them, independence meant a unified island. Many were unhappy at British introduction of some elements of democracy, which had slightly elevated the Tamils they now looked down on due to British imperialism. there was also an egalitarian Marxist independence movement by the twentieth century but they were tiny and ineffective. in the meantime, the Tamil figurehead was a firebrand named G. G. Ponnambalam (short for Ganapathipillai Gangaser Ponnambalam), who demanded that an independent Ceylon should have 50-50 representation for Sinhalese and Tamils, despite the fact that Tamils only made up around 15% of the population.
g. g. with his crew
Sri Lanka became an independent nation as Ceylon on February 4th, 1948, the year after India and Pakistan. In India, there had at first been some resentment against the unified Indian state from Tamil Nadu, but this was quickly quelled by a constitution which granted the different ethnic groups a significant measure of autonomy. In Ceylon, however, the majority Sinhalese government began to introduce a fuckload of restrictive legislation. Citizenship was denied to those of Indian origin – which meant a large majority of the Tamil population, who had been brought over under british rule. G. G.’s Tamil Congress had joined the new national government but he found himself unable to secure civil rights for Tamils, as their share of the vote declined with the refusal to grant Tamils citizenship. As a result he was harshly criticised by Marxists and the new Tamil Federal Party. There were government projects which settled tens of thousands of Sinhalese in Tamil areas in the East of the island to limit Tamil influence. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 made Sinhala the only official language, rather than Sinhala, Tamil, and English, as had been the case before. In 1958, against a background of increased nationalism, there were a series of violent anti-Tamil riots. Many of the perpetrators were Sinalese settled by the government in Tamil areas.
Here’s a pretty horrifying description of one incident:
On the night of May 25, one of the most heinous crimes in the history of Ceylon was carried out. Almost simultaneously, on the Government farms at Polonnaruwa and Hingurakgoda, the thugs struck remorselessly. The Tamil labourers in the Polonnaruwa sugar-cane plantation fled when they saw the enemy approaching and hid in the sugar-cane bushes. The goondas wasted no time. They set the sugar cane alight and flushed out the Tamils. As they came out screaming, men, women and children were cut down with home-made swords, grass-cutting knives and katties, or pulped under heavy clubs.
At the Government farm at Hingurakgoda, too, the Tamils were slaughtered that night. One woman in sheer terror embraced her two children and jumped into a well. The rioters were enjoying themselves thoroughly. They ripped open the belly of a woman eight months pregnant, and left her to bleed to death. First estimates of the mass murders on that night were frightening: 150-200 was a quick guess on the basis of forty families on an average of four each. This estimate was later pruned down to around seventy, on the basis of bodies recovered and the possibility that many Tamils had got away in time.
And here is the reaction of the British Governon-General:
Gentlemen, if any of you have an idea that this was a spontaneous outburst of communalism, you can disabuse your minds of it. This the work of a master mind who has been at the back of people who have planned this carefully and knew exactly what they were doing. It was a time bomb set about two years ago which has now exploded.
What the riots did was remove the idea that a federal solution was possible. After 1958, Tamils increasingly desired independence from the government of Ceylon. government persecution of Tamils continued unabated – in 1970 it became illegal for Tamil-language books, films and music to be imported from Tamil Nadu There were further anti-Tamil riots in 1977, in which 300 Tamils died. over the next decade or so armed resistance groups began to form – the most prominent amongst these being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, or LTTE.
You do not want to fuck with this flag.
the borders of the proposed state
The Civil War
Full-scale civil war erupted in 1983. This was kickstarted by an ambush of Sri Lankan soldiers (Ceylon changed its name in 1972 when it ditched the British monarchy). From wikipedia:
Members of the rebel LTTE organization ambushed a military convoy in the North of Sri Lanka on the evening of July 23, 1983 outside the town of Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka. Initially, a remote controlled improvised explosive device was detonated beneath the jeep that was leading the convoy, injuring at least two soldiers on board. As soldiers travelling in a truck which was following the jeep dismounted to help their colleagues, they were ambushed by a group of Tamil Tiger fighters, who fired at them with automatic weapons and hurled grenades at them. In the ensuing clashes, one officer and 12 soldiers died immediately, while two more were fatally wounded, bringing the total death toll to 15 along with number of rebels.
In order to avoid a violent backlash from the population due to the ambush, the government decided to quietly bury the 15 soldiers at the Kanatte cemetery in Colombo. They would therefore be going against standard procedure where the fallen members of the armed forces were buried in their home villages. On July 24, the day the 15 servicemen were to be buried, some Sinhalese civilians who had gathered at the cemetery, angered by news of the ambush, which was magnified by wild rumour, formed mobs and started killing, raping, and assaulting Tamils, while looting and burning their properties in retribution for what happened. Sinhalese civilians were equipped with voter registration lists, burning and attacking only Tamil residences and business, while army and government officials stood by.
These riots quickly spread around the country, and significantly galvanised the Tamil opposition. 1983 is usually considered the year when the Sinhalese-Tamil tensions erupted into full-scale civil war. The history of the civil war would require a medium-length book to explain properly, but atrocities were carried out both by the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. The two sides soon carried out massacres of civilians in a tit-for-tat fashion. In 1984, 62 Sinhalese civilians were killed by the LTTE in Kent and Dollar Farms, villages set up shortly after independence by the government in a predominately Tamil area. The worst LTTE massacre was carried out in the ancient holy city of Anuradhapura. LTTE fighters in a hijacked bus machine-gunned civilians waiting at bus stops and monks and nuns at ancient shrines, killing 146 civilians. The LTTE also invented suicide bombing, which was subsequently picked up by the PLO, and are the first non-governmental military to have developed a functioning air force.
Child victims of the Kent Farm massacre
The Sri Lankan Army was just as brutal in putting down Tamil separatism. Unlike the LTTE, they had modern weaponry provided by Britain and the United States. A characteristic strategy was to ‘steamroll’ through rebel-held areas, often flattening entire villages. They were also not above using terrorist tactics – for instance, in 1985 six Sri Lankan Navy personnel boarded a ferry sailing between two islands in the Tamil north and hacked up to 48 passengers to death.
India steps into the fray
Well, India had actually always been a player. India was keen to assert its dominance in the region, and to prevent its own Tamils from causing disturbance. In the early 1980s India’s Research and Analysis Wing provided arms and funding to the LTTE and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, which withered after the start of the civil war. The Indian Air Force also dropped aid to LTTE fighters in the besieged city of Jaffna in 1987. India’s intervention was swiftly followed by the signing of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord, under which the Sri Lankan government would grant a measure of autonomy to Tamil Eelam and civil rights to the Tamils, the Tamil fighters would disarm, and an Indian Peace Keeping Force would oversee the truce. Whilst many Tamil groups gid disarm, the LTTE kept on fighting, and the IPKF attempted to subdue them by force. Here the situation started to become very odd. The LTTE turned on their former Indian allies and open warfare broke out. The Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka, which was itself not particularly happy about the presence of Indian troops, covertly funded and armed the LTTE to help them expel the IPKF. The IPKF departed in 1990, with 1,100 Indians and 5,000 Tamils left dead by the fighting. In 1991, any vestiges of Indian sympathy for the LTTE collapsed when the ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had been responsible for the IPKF, was assasinated by a female LTTE suicide bomber.
Aftermath of the Valvettiturai Massacre of 1989, in which Indian soldiers killed 63 Tamil civilians
Rajiv Gandhi, moments before his assassination
There was a brief ceasefire in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, which collapsed in December 2005. Since then, there has been an upsurge in violence, with suicide bombings by the LTTE and airstrikes and political assassinations by the SLA. Sri Lanka has managed to redefine its conflict in terms of the War on Terror, pointing out the LTTE’s links with Palestinian resistance fighters and use of suicide bombings. The SLA has been very successful in its military campaign, retaking almost all of Tamil Eelam, but at a vast cost to Tamil civilians. Accusations have emerged that Sri Lanka is practicing a covert genocide of its Tamil minority under the guise of flushing out the LTTE, although it is hard to ascertain how true they may be. However, the situation has received very little attention from the Western media, especially when contrasted with Israel’s comparable attack on Gaza.
Here is a very good article on the topic written by the author Arundhati Roy and published in the Guardian. I’m not going to bold any of it because it’s all important and if you can’t read unbolded text you will probably have already stopped reading already.
The horror that is unfolding in Sri Lanka becomes possible because of the silence that surrounds it. There is almost no reporting in the mainstream Indian media – or indeed in the international press – about what is happening there. Why this should be so is a matter of serious concern.
From the little information that is filtering through, it looks as though the Sri Lankan government is using the propaganda of “the war on terror” as a fig leaf to dismantle any semblance of democracy in the country, and commit unspeakable crimes against the Tamil people. Working on the principle that every Tamil is a terrorist unless he or she can prove otherwise, civilian areas, hospitals and shelters are being bombed and turned into a war zone. Reliable estimates put the number of civilians trapped at over 200,000. The Sri Lankan army is advancing, armed with tanks and aircraft.
Meanwhile, there are official reports that several “welfare villages” have been established to house displaced Tamils in Vavuniya and Mannar districts. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, these villages “will be compulsory holding centres for all civilians fleeing the fighting”. Is this a euphemism for concentration camps? Mangala Samaraveera, the former foreign minister, told the Telegraph: “A few months ago the government started registering all Tamils in Colombo on the grounds that they could be a security threat, but this could be exploited for other purposes, like the Nazis in the 1930s. They’re basically going to label the whole civilian Tamil population as potential terrorists.”
Given its stated objective of “wiping out” the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, this malevolent collapse of civilians and “terrorists” does seem to signal that the government of Sri Lanka is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide. According to a UN estimate, several thousand people have already been killed. Thousands more are critically wounded. The few eyewitness reports that have come out are descriptions of a nightmare from hell.
What we are witnessing, or should we say what is happening, in Sri Lanka – and what is being so effectively hidden from public scrutiny – is a brazen, openly racist war. The impunity with which the Sri Lankan government is being able to commit these crimes actually unveils the deeply ingrained racist prejudice that is precisely what led to the marginalisation and alienation of the Tamils of Sri Lanka in the first place. That racism has a long history – of social ostracism, economic blockades, pogroms and torture. The brutal nature of the decades-long civil war, which started as a peaceful protest, has its roots in this.
Why the silence? In another interview Samaraveera says that “a free media is virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka today”. He talks about death squads and “white van abductions”, which have made society “freeze with fear”. Voices of dissent, including several journalists, have been abducted and assassinated. The International Federation of Journalists accuses the Sri Lanka government of using a combination of anti-terrorism laws, disappearances and assassinations to silence journalists.
There are disturbing but unconfirmed reports that India is lending material and logistical support to the Sri Lankan government in these crimes against humanity. If the reports are true, it is outrageous. What of the governments of other countries? Pakistan? China? What are they doing to help or to harm the situation?
In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu the war in Sri Lanka has fuelled passions that have led to more than 10 people immolating themselves. The public anger and anguish, much of it genuine, some of it cynical political manipulation, has become an election issue.
It is extraordinary that this concern has not travelled to the rest of India. Why is there silence here? There are no “white van abductions” – at least not on this issue. Given the scale of what is happening in Sri Lanka, the silence is inexcusable. More so because of the Indian government’s long history of irresponsible dabbling in the conflict, first taking one side and then the other. Several of us – including myself – who should have spoken out much earlier have not done so, simply because of a lack of information about the war.
So while the killing continues, while tens of thousands of people are being barricaded into concentration camps, while more than 200,000 face starvation, and a genocide waits to happen, there is dead silence from this great country.
Why should I care about any of this?
Because people are dying and (presumably) you like to think of yourself as having some measure of human compassion. Considering how angry LF got at Israel, it’s only reasonable to hope that you will get angry at a comparable atrocity, even if the perpetrators aren’t those nasty murderous Jews but everyone’s favourites, the peaceful and kindly Buddhists. Unlike the conflict in Gaza, the civil war in Sri Lanka isn’t particularly photogenic except for that one time when the LTTE airforce attacked Colombo, and the Sri Lankan government has ensured that photographic evidence of their offensive in the north are few and far between. Oh yeah and popular music sensation ‘M.I.A.’ is of Tamil origin and is also the only reason a lot of people care about this which is fucked up in all kinds of ways.
Read a fucking book or something