by Michael Red - BASICS #14 (June / July 2009)
The horrors now facing more than 300,000 Tamils held in prison camps in northern Sri Lanka is deeply rooted in imperialism. Ever since the British colonial regime vacated the country in 1948, war and oppression have plagued the peoples of Sri Lanka. Following in the footsteps of Dutch and Portuguese colonialists, the British ruled Sri Lanka according to divide and rule policy. Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim people who had previously lived interdependently for thousands of years were pitted against one another throughout the Crown’s rule. When the Sinhalese majority took power upon independence, the first measure the new government initiated was stripping Hill Country Tamils of their citizenship. At the time, Hill Country Tamils were the most exploited of all Sri Lanka’s peoples – they were indentured labourers originally from India who harvested the country’s tea for world export markets. These Tamils had a tradition of organizing and fighting back and they often worked in coordination with Sinhalese Marxists and peasants. Therefore, the Sinhalese government’s first move was decidedly based on ethnic and class oppression.
As the government moved to completely marginalize all Tamils, by making Sri Lanka a Sinhala Buddhist state which denied Tamils entrance into universities and public sector jobs, Tamils began a rich tradition of struggle based on ethnic, class and caste empowerment. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Tamils in the North and East of Sri Lanka engaged in a variety of organized civil disobedience, political education, and militant struggle. Many of the early militant groups embraced Marxism and the struggle as a whole was largely against Sinhalese imperialism. Courageous Tamil feminists campaigned against war mongering and rape. The government responded with ruthless oppression and instigated murderous race riots against Tamils on at least three occasions. The regime in Colombo also turned their guns against two attempted revolutions in the South, resulting in the murder of more than 50,000 Sinhalese peasants and youth.
Following the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, the war moved into a new phase. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as an exclusively nationalist army fighting for national liberation while Marxist and feminist voices were largely silenced. The state embraced neo-liberalism, increased military spending to more than 20% of the GDP, and formalized a constant stream of arms from Britain, China, the Czech Republic, Israel, the United States, and Canada. For example, the Chrétien government supplied the Sri Lankan government with Bell helicopters that were used to bomb Tamil villages in the North and East. More recently, the Harper government increased small arms sales to Sri Lanka following the designation of the LTTE as a terrorist organization.
During the so-called ceasefire periods throughout the war, foreign powers have played a more direct role in oppressing Tamils. In 1988, the Indian Peace Keeping Forces committed countless atrocities in the North, including murder, rape and torture. Finally, during the recent war in the Vanni, as thousands of Tamils were slaughtered by daily aerial bombing and artillery fire, the Western world turned a blind eye to the contemporary tragedy unfolding in Sri Lanka.
Over the last 25 years, the war between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has cost as many as 100,000 lives and resulted in the internal displacement of more than half a million people. The modern legacy of imperialism here is extremely complex. The state is now abusively using “anti-imperialist” rhetoric to actually keep humanitarian aid and independent observers out of the prison camps, where torture, rape, murder, disappearances and starvation are occurring daily. Meanwhile, imperialist states such as China and Russia came to the support of Colombo’s racist war against the Tamil people.
So what can be done in such a desperate, seemingly hopeless situation? The answer can be found by remembering that despite decades of imperialism, there are thousands of progressive activists who have survived the war in Sri Lanka. They continue to struggle in Sri Lanka and they live right here with us in Toronto. Existing on the margins of society here in Canada, there are Tamils who have dedicated their lives to struggling against the racist oppression of the Sri Lankan state and the exploitation of the West. In Sri Lanka itself, there are many Sinhalese workers and activists who refuse to buy into the fascist communalism of the state. It is these people we desperately need to reach out to, to learn from and to act in solidarity with, before their voices are silenced forever.
17 May 2009: A Sri Lankan Army soldier seen walking among the debris of a devastated war zone that saw some 20,000 Tamil civilians slaughtered.