The Tamil Tigers are notorious for the long and bloody “war of liberation” they have waged on behalf of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Less well-known, according to News Weekly’s special correspondent, is the relentless oppression of the Tamils by the majority Sinhalese.
It looks as if war is on again in Sri Lanka and, as usual, it is mostly civilian flesh being torn from the bone. Bombs are exploding in schools or under buses, corpses are floating in wells, aid workers are being shot, refugees shelled and children deprived. And, given the filtering of media by the Sri Lanka Government and the current preoccupation with “terrorism”, it is only natural that people should blame the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But things are not that straightforward in Sri Lanka. Certainly, the Tamil Tigers have earned a reputation for ruthless prosecution of their “war of liberation” beyond the frontiers of their claimed traditional homeland in the north and east of the island, and well in breach of the Geneva Convention. And, if to earn the title of “terrorist” means to have terrorised the enemy, the Tigers have earned that appellation from the United States, Australian and other governments.There are, however, things not well known in Australia that should be considered before lumping the Tigers with Al Qaeda and other threats to Western civilisation and concluding, as the media would suggest, that they are the only source of violence in Sri Lanka.
Tamil oppression in Sri Lanka.
The first is something of the history of racial oppression in Sri Lanka of the Tamil minority by the Sinhalese majority. It is an ugly story, based on different races with their own languages, customs and religions.
The Tamils are mostly Hindu; the Sinhalese, Buddhist. The Tamils derive from a Dravidian race in south India. The Sinhalese claim an “Aryan” origin. The Tamils claim the flat north-east as their historical habitation; the Sinhalese, the mountains and plains of the south west.
The Tamils once comprised about 20 per cent of the population but great numbers have fled. The Sinhalese comprise about 70 per cent of the population, and Muslims about 5 per cent.
The Tamils were more open to colonial influence, especially education and the English language, perhaps because their less fertile region made them more dependent on commerce. As a result, they were disproportionately successful until independence from Britain in 1948.
After independence, governments of the Sinhalese majority began to enact “Sinhala only” legislation: making Sinhala the official language, restricting Tamil access to university education and employment, enforcing Buddhism as the dominant religion, and reducing economic development of many Tamil lands while settling Sinhalese in others.
Opposition to Sinhalese rule was inflamed by a Prevention of Terrorism Act which rendered the police and armed forces unaccountable and a Sixth Amendment which prohibited any public promotion of Tamil autonomy in the north-east. To Tamil resentment was added the fear of violent race riots, culminating in the terror of July 1983 when mobs sought and killed Tamils and destroyed their property, navigating with electoral lists Tamils believed to have been supplied by government sources.
A contemporary report said: “The violence was vicious and bloody. … In Colombo, groups of rioters hit only at shops and factories, as well as homes owned by Tamils. Their careful selectivity is apparent now. In each street, individual business premises were burnt down, while others alongside stood unscathed. Troops and police (almost all Sinhalese) either joined the rioters or stood idly by.” (Financial Times, August 12, 1983).
Perhaps 3,000 Tamils died in that onslaught which continued for almost a week. Tens of thousands sought refuge overseas or in the north of the island. Many concluded the terror was genocidal and the government complicit. Many youths saw no alternative to joining the armed struggle for some kind of Tamil liberation in the north-east.
Tamil resistance to the racial laws had begun with their enactment, but no progress was discerned at the political level and, by the 1970s, young people had became radicalised by lack of opportunity, and inspired for action by “wars of liberation” in other countries and, ironically, by the example of the Marxist-Leninist insurrection by Sinhalese against Sinhalese in the south of the island.
One such young person was Velupillai Prabakharan, from north of Jaffna, whose group in 1976 was renamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Under his single-minded leadership, the LTTE gained such strength in the succeeding 15 years that it not only dominated the Tamil resistance and prevailed against the Sinhalese military, but humiliated the regional superpower, India, in a guerrilla war after India’s army had entered the north-east, and the theoretical goal of bringing peace to the Tamils had deteriorated into rape, pillage and war with the LTTE.
After the Indian army withdrew in 1990, India’s Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit reluctantly praised the leadership of his adversary, Prabakharan:
“I cannot help but acknowledge his deep idealism and his political and military skills …. Events over the years have shown him as an accomplished political strategist and military tactician, qualities strengthened further by his forbearance and his capacity for survival.”
Somewhat wistfully, Dixit concluded, “His surviving [the Indian peace-keeping force's military operations] and carrying on his struggle [have] made him a folk hero among his people.”
This “folk hero” is still leading the LTTE in a struggle for at least Tamil autonomy in some kind of federal arrangement, if not independence, in north-east Sri Lanka. He leads a military force whose most feared weapon are the ranks of Kamikaze soldiers and sailors, but he also leads a de facto government which administers the territory, provides schools, orphanages, hospitals and courts of law.
Because the LTTE has not renounced violence or terrorism, according to Richard Armitage, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, it remains listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.
The role of Buddhism in violence.
Contrary to the common perception of Buddhism as a religion of tolerance, compassion and peaceful withdrawal from the affairs of the world, much of the racist force against the Tamils has derived from a national-socialist form of that religion in Sri Lanka that believes it has a duty to re-establish a Buddhist nation run on socialist lines under the spiritual leadership and political counsel of the “Sangha”, or council of monks.
This strain aims to return to a perceived happier period of communal life around the temple, the tank (irrigation system) and the paddy which was destroyed, according to their chronicle of “history” The Mahawamsa, by Tamil invaders who deserved the physical destruction they received at various times by Sinhala kings under the spiritual leadership of the Sanghas.
Believing they have been entrusted by Buddha with the preservation of Sri Lanka from latter day “Yakkas” (a “terrifying demonic race who occupied the island in vast numbers”, whose members are not fit subjects for conversion, as of old), expulsion remains the only option.
Of course, not all congregations of monks are heeding that call and neither do all Sinhalese; but, on the other hand, the call for “genocide”, publicised on Lankaweb (August 7, 2006), is not all that surprising.
The author, a D. Kannangara, declares it is “time that we learn from our history” and notes with approval how the “Mahawamsa describes in great detail how genocide was used effectively”.
He says: “Although brutal, it [genocide] appears the only viable solution to all our ills, as proved time and time again in [Sri Lanka's] history and the contemporary history of many stable countries including Turkey, USA, Canada, Australia, China, Germany, Japan.
“A genocide will solve the terrorist problem for good.
“Without advancing this historically tried and tested solution, there can never be an end to our problems. We can split hairs about peace, devolution, war, dhamma, co-existence, etc., without any achievement.
“Unless all cancer cells are exterminated, the sickness will take over the entire living body. This surgery should be done soon and entirely if we want to save the patient – the nation.”
Whether Tamils are justified in fearing genocide or are merely paranoid may be argued. Current Sinhalese politicians seek to reassure Tamils they have nothing to fear in a unitary state. What is undeniable, however, is that many Tamils have concluded they do face physical and cultural genocide and perceive an armed resistance to be their only option.
The Sinhalese Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People’s Liberation Front, was formed in 1965 and led a widespread uprising against the state in 1971.
Many thousands died, including some 15,000 insurgents, before the uprising was put down by the Government with foreign assistance.
|A “capitalist demon” in the JVP march on May Day, 2003
In 1982, the JVP re-emerged as a political force and won some 275,000 votes in the presidential elections of that year. Although the JVP publicly denounced violence, the Government proscribed and forced the movement underground for its alleged role in the 1983 race riots against the Tamils.
It gained more strength and, during 1987-89, launched another revolution that almost succeeded in crippling the Sinhala state. Possibly as many as 40,000 died in the revolutionary terror and reprisals. The economy was maimed by violent strikes, curfews, the destruction of factories, and the disruption of energy and transport.
Once again, the JVP was crushed militarily, only to flourish politically. Pursuing the parliamentary road with the social force of Sinhala nationalism, but without renouncing any of its ideological roots, the JVP has grown in recent years.
In the 2000 general elections it gained 10 seats; in 2001, 16; and in 2004, 39 seats, including four ministries. It has established itself as a major political force in the governing coalition.
The JVP is at the forefront of rejection of any compromise with Tamil initiatives for any kind of self-government in the Sri Lanka’s north-east.
According to its published theory, “We Marxists, we proletarian revolutionaries, oppose the division of the country and decentralisation …
Our teacher Marx was called a great centralist by his greatest disciple himself, Lenin. Yes, this is correct. We Marxists are centralists.”
Quoting Lenin, the JVP declares “federalism” should only be a transitional step towards a rigid centralisation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and never a step that could weaken that goal.
The JVP campaigns for the proscription of the Tamil Tigers: they should be declared illegal, neither recognised nor consulted, and crushed, if necessary, by the “military option”.
The JVP has campaigned, apparently with success, for the “de-merging” of the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka which had been merged into one region of administration by the Indo-Sri Lankan Accords of 1987 in recognition of the historical habitation of Tamils.
Destruction of this principle of Tamil “autonomy” has been a long-standing goal of Sinhala nationalists. Several members of the JVP who petitioned the Supreme Court against the merger were rewarded, in October 2006, by that court finding in their favour on a technicality. It is most unlikely the current government will try to revive the principle, despite India’s insistence.
Collusion between the Marxist-Leninists and Buddhists.
A common interest in Sinhala nationalism has, itself, encouraged a working alliance between the Marxist-Leninists and Buddhists, but for some the union is much deeper.
In a parallel with Liberation Theology, in which some Christians “contextualised” the Bible to Marxist theory, some Buddhists find theoretical concord with those teachings. Both look back to an imagined communal beginning and perceive progress to an egalitarian future under the leadership of an elite both enlightened and guided by history, on the one hand, and justified in the use of violence, including terror, against opposition to that goal.
Monks, therefore, have been in the front ranks of JVP violence and temples have provided haven for cadres and the hiding for weapons. There was once even a “Bikkhu” (Buddhist monk) branch of the JVP!
There is now a political party of monks, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), whose eight members of parliament have the same program as the JVP for Tamil autonomy: no form of self-government, and proscription and destruction of the Tigers.
|JVP women cadres carrying red flags.
The JVP and the JHU were prominent in the abandonment of an agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE regarding foreign aid for reconstruction of the north-east from the effects of the tsunami. Though disproportionately affected by the tsunami, the north-east remains devastated.
Not coincidentally, the JVP and the JHU have promoted bills for “The Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” which, though pending, could severely restrict the role of the Christian church in Sri Lanka, endangering such social actions as the provision of food, shelter, medical care, orphanages, old people’s homes and education. Some Buddhist monks have been in the mobs intimidating congregations and even destroying church buildings.
Though not reported widely by the Australian media, Sri Lankan Government defence forces in recent months have bombed children in schools, refugees in churches and camps, and civilians at work in the north-east.
Economic blockades remain in force over the entire population of Jaffna in the north, and over thousands of refugees living in the east. A severe shortage of medicines and food has compounded the chronic under-nutrition of mothers and children.
Indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire is wounding civilians, many of whom are forcibly prevented from fleeing. Currently, Sri Lankan armed forces are obstructing convoys of food and medicine to over 15,000 refugees in the east. Notorious “white vans” are abducting Tamils throughout the island and the re-institution of the Prevention of Terrorism Act ensures their vulnerability. People are disappearing and dead bodies are being found.
In January, Sri Lankan forces bombarded a refugee camp, killing 15 children (including seven children under nine), and a pregnant woman, her child and husband. The Bishop of Mannar, the Rt Rev Rayappu Joseph, declared this to be “a crime against humanity” and accused the military of a “barefaced lie” for describing it as an attack against an LTTE installation. He said the only words he could use to describe the attack was “state terror”.
Publicising of Tiger violence is justified, but is best understood in the context of the widespread state force, currently being invoked by the JVP and the JHU, but which has been exerted by the mainstream Sinhalese parties for decades.
A final force for terror
Many millions of dollars are being spent on supplies for the war in Sri Lanka and there is a shadowy network of politicians, military leaders and entrepreneurs for whom the loss of kickbacks would render peace an unprofitable option.
- by a special correspondent.
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