For most Tamils in the world today, the events of the last month have been devastating but they must also have been expected.
Maybe 300 Tamils have been killed in the last few days [28 January] by Sri Lankan army shelling; 300,000 civilians are trapped in a full-scale warzone being denied the right to leave by the Tigers or genuine safe passage and humanitarian aid by the Sri Lankan government.
The seizure of the de facto Tamil Tiger capital Kilinochchi on 2 January 2009 came exactly a year after the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapackse formally abrogated the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire of 2002, and declared there could only be a military solution to defeating the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam. Thus is the wisdom of the “war on terror” we have come to know so well.
It has been the conventional military endgame, and a victory for the Sri Lankan Army, but could also usher in a renewed period of guerrilla warfare by the Tigers and suicide bombings on state personnel and civilians.
The Tigers have suffered an immense set back. In the days after Kilinochchi fell, the remaining strongholds that had been under Tiger control for the last 10-15 years were taken. There are now more than 100,000 SLA troops occupying the North, and the Tigers have been driven back to villages and jungle, holding with them 300,000 civilians who are being killed in the crossfire.
The Sri Lankan army is known to have detained all those who tried to leave the Vanni region. After the recent rounding-up and forced registration of all Tamils in Colombo, and the widespread sense that this government is genocidal — with or without the LTTE — the Tamil people are currently a separate and oppressed people under siege. And the war against the Tigers is set to be generalised in to an escalated war against all opposition, the trade unions and leftists and Tamils and plantation workers — the masses that are tired of a war and economic hardship that the Sri Lankan state is unable to solve.
The situation is bleak. Over the last two years 200,000 Tamils have been internally displaced as a result of the first part of the strategy to defeat the Tigers. In the Eastern Province, Pillayan, leader of an armed breakaway from the LTTE, is now in power in concert with Rajapackse. The elections were characterised by the open violence of his TMVP armed thugs in a process that de-merged the Northern and Eastern provinces. De-merger was a blow to one of the agreed principles of Tamil sovereignty that underpinned previous peace talks.
There is some talk of the government implementing the 13th amendment, a provision of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987, which would strengthen provincial autonomy. But few people even know about this legal relic. It is rejected in advance by the Tigers as a sleight of hand, and even by Pillayan as “just a step”.
The President’s stance jettisons all previous consensus in Sri Lanka that there must ultimately be a political solution negotiated with the LTTE. His stance was prepared by an international ban on the Tigers, in the US since 1997 and in the EU since 2006. India renewed its ban for a further two years in the midst of fierce fighting just last November.
No socialist organisation in Sri Lanka has supported the ban, though some vehemently oppose the Tigers.
The ban has already had a far-reaching impact. Money still flows from Europe and the rest of the diaspora to the Tigers (an estimated 40% of LTTE funds come from the UK), but political space has been drastically shut down, including for any kind of peace process.
In the UK, the British Tamil Forum, which supports the Tigers, has opted to lobby inanely for peace and human rights and self-determination in the abstract, refusing to campaign for the ban to be lifted for fear of the ban imposing on their comfortable lives.
My uncle, Dr Vinayagamoorthy, an GP in Enfield, North London has been detained for two years in the US under counter-terrorism powers without having been brought to trial. He has a record of working with the LTTE for peace and for self-determination for the Tamils.
After years of violently suppressing most other Tamil opposition on its watch, the LTTE has become the accepted face of the Northern Tamils for many, whether they like it or not.
It is a testament to the contradictory attitudes of the Tamil diaspora that when longstanding LTTE peace negotiator Anton Balasingham died in December 2006, some 70,000 filed past his coffin at Alexandra Palace in North London; but LTTE heroes day on the 27 November attracted far less people, and even then numbers were mainly due to the ongoing fighting. The Sri Lanka Democracy Forum is hostile to the LTTE and the Tamil Information Centre concentrates on human rights issues.
Over the last two years, the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state have been so terrible and open that even the US and India have stemmed direct military aid to the government. China, Iran and Pakistan have no such qualms and have stepped in as the main creditor-lifeline-exploiters as part of their political manoeuvrings.
The EU have maintained preferential trade agreements signed after the Tsunami, called GSP+, which are supposed to be tied to labour, environmental and human rights standards. These constitute 2% of GDP for Sri Lanka and also deliver the products of high-skilled sweated labour to Europe. GSP+ is due to have lapsed at the end last year.
Perhaps the liberal tears shed over the assassination of the Sunday Leader editor and his dramatic death note reprinted by the Guardian and the Times will force the UK to do something. While Brown advocated a ceasefire, the Foreign Office has avoided calling for a ceasefire, let alone an end to the occupation or negotiations with the LTTE.
Class and the conflict
Rajapackse’s war has been overwhelmingly supported by the Sinhalese working-class. He was known previously as a defender of human rights and seems to have been promoted because of his rural “low-country origins”, as a means of stemming the rapid growth of the (Communist Party rooted) JVP movement in its recent parliamentary form.
The JVP, which in some ways mirrors the Tigers among the poor in the rural south, is virulently anti-Tiger, as is the Buddhist-fascist NHP, both of which prop up the government’s ruling coalition.
The war’s popularity, combined with court injunctions and state repression, has kept down latent strike action among the Sinhala working class despite Sri Lanka’s highest inflation in South Asia. A 7% growth in the economy has largely benefitted the rich and better-off skilled workers in the west of the island. For the low-country Sinhalese, this war is one way for a young person to generate income for his family.
The war is, unsurprisingly, opposed by most Tamils and other minorities though whether this translates as support for the LTTE is difficult to tell. The Tigers have tightened up their regime of forced recruitment over the last two years, have started recruiting 17 year olds again, and have imposed forced frontline labour on the relatives of those who have failed to return to “Eelam”, the LTTE condition for granting passes to leave. Whether the thousands fleeing to India over the last months have done so with permission is unclear; with journalists banned and terrorised throughout Sri Lanka, getting a clear picture is difficult.
Communal-class conflict is responsible for more than 70,000 murders on the island over the last 30 years; hundreds of thousands of migrations; countless thousands of victims of abduction, extrajudicial killing, torture, maiming and rape; the youth of the poor have been exterminated through an island-wide war machine and in communal riots.
30,000 Sri Lankans were wiped out by the tsunami: that the Tamils came out worse, immediately and thereafter, fits the gross logic of the current reality. Tens of thousands were made homeless and lost their livelihoods to cyclone “Nisha” last November. That the northern and eastern provinces of the island, the terrain of the would-be Tamil homeland of Eelam, may be claimed by the sea due to climate change, is a shattering irony.
This crucial juncture in a long war demands the action and solidarity of all those who stand for freedom and equality and peace. Millions now across the world have chanted “We are all Palestinians”; will the same now be said of the Tamils (or indeed, the Congolese, the Somalis, the Kashmiris, the Darfuris)?
Our solidarity should go to those sections of the international socialist movement and trade unions that have a proven record of fighting for equal rights in Sri Lanka. It appears to me that what remains of the LTTE should be granted an amnesty, as a means to shifting this violent conflict onto political tracks. There must be a full accounting of human rights abuses on both sides, with full reparations paid to individuals and to rebuild civilian life across the country. Immediately there must be a ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid and the release and safe passage of civilians.
A democratic solution to this tragedy must allow for the self-determination of Tamils, including a separate state, even if this is a petty-bourgeois dream maintained by the Tamil diaspora as an answer to the oppression faced by the decimated Tamil population that remains.
There is deep affinity with the suffering of Tamils in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu; increasing solidarity and co-ordination between workers in the garment industry and other sectors across the region.
During the recent No Sweat tour, Shahida Sarkar, president of the Bangladeshi garment workers’ federation told me of a protest she had organised in solidarity with the Tamil workers.
The main hope has to lie with the Sinhala working-class. Class-lines need to be redrawn. The struggles that have been in abeyance the last year while the people have suffered for the war effort will have to find their resolution.
In the 20s and 30s, students from (then) Ceylon in London became socialists and built up a formidable force for socialism in Sri Lanka. That heritage needs to be remembered and renewed for our times as opposed to the expedient myths and legends of Sinhala supremacist and Tamil nationhood.
Hundreds of thousands of Tamils live across the world, an estimated 150,000 in the UK, and many Sinhalese who want an end to this war, especially students. It is an urgent duty of solidarity for those workers and students to organise as part of the class struggles across the world and to act for peace and workers’ unity in Sri Lanka and across South Asia.
Workers’ Liberty will be joining the upcoming protests and will be holding meetings in Tamil areas in London and will work with socialist groups in the UK who have sections in Sri Lanka. There have been discussions to relaunch the trade union solidarity campaign which ended following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tigers in 1991.
A programme for today should be conceived along the lines of internationalist socialism so impressively demonstrated by the Trotskyist pioneers of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, but driving forward class consciousness and political self-education, pushing beyond the communalist fetters that have divided, subjugated and brutalised the Sri Lankan working class for the last decades.