Barbarous assault on the Tamils

FRFI 209 June / July 2009

The last stronghold of the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was overrun by Sri Lankan government forces on 18 May. The Sri Lankan state fought a war of extermination. The scale of the slaughter inflicted is intended to confirm the completeness of victory for Sinhalese chauvinism and total defeat of Tamil national liberation. The Times (29 May 2009), citing UN sources, reported over 20,000 Tamil civilians killed, 45% of them children, in the last three weeks of fighting. Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa said no civilians were killed. Three doctors who worked in the war zone are under arrest, charged with fabricating casualty figures. 300,000 refugees are held in 42 camps surrounded by razor-wire and armed guards. This murderous operation copied the attacks in Jenin, 2002, Fallujah, 2004 and Gaza, 2008-09. The same methods were deployed.

The Sri Lankan army used heavy artillery, cluster bombs and multi-barrel rocket launchers and there is evidence of the UN-prohibited, flesh burning, white phosphorus. The Sri Lankan government said the LTTE used the phosphorus on its own people. It also made claims about human shields, despite evidence that civilians were used to shield the Sri Lankan army advancing on the ‘no fire zone’. Hospitals and clinics were bombed and shelled by Sri Lankan forces.

A Red Cross representative said they witnessed ‘an unimaginable human catastrophe’. Rajapaksa called it ‘a humanitarian operation’ and ‘the world’s largest hostage rescue mission.’ British Labour government foreign secretary David Miliband said Sri Lankan military advances had been ‘striking’, but the ‘scale of civilian casualties is very large indeed, extremely distressing to the international community’. He was ‘gravely concerned’ by the conflict. The word ‘concerned’ is a monument to British ruling class collusion.

The Sri Lankan government rejected ceasefire calls and ignored the 17 May LTTE decision to ‘silence our guns’ to stop the killing of Tamils. At the end, two civilian LTTE leaders arranged through the Red Cross to surrender to the Sri Lankan forces. Following instructions given by the government both were shot dead by Sri Lankan soldiers. Rajapaksa declared 20 May a public holiday. He admitted that since July 2006 6,261 members of the Sri Lankan security forces were killed and 29,551 were injured. 80,000 to 100,000 people have been killed in the war since 1983. 

Divide and rule
Tamils constitute 25% of the island’s 21 million people. Historically, Ceylon was made up of two dominant communities: the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil, living in different regions and governed separately. In 1796 Britain wrested control over the island from the Dutch and joined the regions for administrative purposes, allowing the whole of Ceylon to be exploited for tea, coffee and rubber. Tamils were imported from southern India to work in slave-like conditions on plantations. Tamils indigenous to the island were educated by missionaries and served in the colonial administration, fuelling Sinhalese resentment. Britain granted independence in 1948 but kept strategic military bases and crippling trade agreements in place. Tamil delegations to the London Colonial Office requesting protective measures were brushed aside by the Labour government, fearing harming relations with Sinhalese leaders. Political power was handed to the Sinhalese government who declared one million plantation Tamils non-citizens, removing their right to vote. Tamil language and culture were attacked, a new constitution was imposed without Tamil participation and Tamils were forced out of jobs in the civil service, education, police, army, railways and so on. They resisted, demanding self-determination, through peaceful means including school marches, pickets of parliament and workplace strikes. Non- violent protest was met with state organised violence and pogroms killing thousands of Tamils.

In 1976 elected Tamil leaders declared an independent Tamil state in the north east of Sri Lanka. To create and protect this state the LTTE took up arms, backed by the Tamil population, and have fought for national liberation since. The LTTE were not simply a military organisation. They implemented a judicial system, an alternative to racist Sri Lankan courts; they established an education and health sector, built colleges and hospitals; created the Northeast Secretariat on Human Rights functioning as a human rights commission for Tamils; ran the Bank of TamilEelam and,
in 2004, set up the Planning and Development Secretariat to plan rehabilitation of areas hit by the tsunami. By 2001 70% of the Tamil homeland in the north east was part of Tamil Eelam and a ceasefire was agreed in 2002, mediated by Norway. Within three years the Sri Lankan government broke these agreements and in 2005 President Rajapaksa was elected on promises of ‘No recognition’ of the Tamil homeland or right to self-rule and ‘No to international mediation’. Government paramilitaries and soldiers killed 47 aid workers, assassinated five Tamil MPs, murdered journalists, abducted hundreds of Tamils and broke the ceasefire, bombing a children’s home, killing 67 pupils and seven teachers. A government minister justified the bombing saying ‘there is nothing wrong in killing future child soldiers’. British arms exports to Sri Lanka rose 60% in 2005.

Strategic significance
Sri Lanka is located at the junction of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and is consequently the object of major power struggles. Since 2007 the British Labour government has licensed sales of machine guns, small arms, communications equipment and armoured vehicles to Sri Lanka. Israel has provided Blue Horizon drones and military advisers. The complete ban on journalists entering the war zone, the targeting of hospitals and clinics and use of white phosphorus are reminiscent of the Israeli attack on Gaza.

Despite Sri Lankan state terrorism the United Nations Security Council demanded that the LTTE stop using civilians as human shields, lay down their arms, renounce terrorism and join political talks. Within the Security Council, Russia and China considered the war to be an ‘internal matter’. The Security Council did not call on the government to stop fighting, only to stop using heavy weapons – a call that was ignored.

China was the biggest aid provider to Sri Lanka in 2008 and since the 1990s has been the biggest arms supplier. In terms of trade routes, Sri Lanka is potentially a key ally. ‘We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean of only the Indians,’ remarked the head of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1993. Oil is transported from the Persian Gulf and raw materials from Africa across the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka and through the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea. In 2006 the Malacca trade route recorded 35% of all seaborne oil flow. The route supplies 85% of China’s imported oil. China deployed a naval fleet to the Strait in December 2008. It is building ports along the Indian Ocean coastline: at Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Hambantota in the south of Sri Lanka. The US and India have designs on Trincomalee, a deepwater port in the Tamil region.

These power struggles are dictating the fate of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government is using its strategic significance to play rival powers off against each other, preventing sanctions and using it as a permit to buy all manner of arms, UN-prohibited or not. Governments go through the motions of expressing ‘deep concern’ but the UN Security Council still agrees to a $1.9 billion loan which will further aid the genocide.

The fight will continue
In Sri Lanka the Tamils, vastly outgunned, truly fought like tigers. Across western Europe they defied police repression and the European Union’s proscription of the LTTE as ‘terrorist’ to take to the streets in protest at the extermination. These protests have been constant in London since 7 April and have visited Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leicester and other cities. Undaunted by proscriptions of the Terrorism Act or the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act there is a permanent Tamil presence outside the Houses of Parliament. The Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group has cordoned and baton-charged the protest, attacked photographers and journalists and separated children from their families in attempts to shut down the protest.

300,000 Tamils are held in concentration camps in Sri Lanka. There are reports of murders, abductions, hunger and disease. The media are completely barred. Sinhalese chauvinists will be tempted to wreak vengeance on their captives. Sri Lanka exports textiles, clothes, tea, diamonds, jewellery and petrol worth over £500 million a year to Britain. Britain is Europe’s largest investor in Sri Lanka. Socialists in Britain must stand in solidarity with the Tamils, demand an end to all arms sales to the Sri Lankan state and demand sanctions on trade until the right of the Tamils to self-determination is secured. All repression of Tamils in Britain and Europe must be opposed.

Sam McGill and Trevor Rayne


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