Earlier this year, the Australian media began to report on horrors endured by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. We watched military forces invading the tiny northeastern “safety zone,” where hundreds of thousands of Tamils had been trapped and bombarded for months. The government’s objective was to force the surrender of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and remove the Tamil population from their homeland.
The capitalist press presented this as a humanitarian gesture by the Sri Lankan government to free people used as “human shields” by the LTTE. This kind of spin recalls the disinformation to justify going into Iraq, Gaza and Australia’s Northern Territory.
By April 2009, the genocidal nature of the invasion was still hidden from the public by a heavily censored media. Radical Women held a public forum so people could hear from the Tamil community, get an understanding of what the bloodshed was really about and discuss what we could do.
The meeting brought to light a struggle dating from Great Britain’s rule of Sri Lanka 176 years ago. Britain laid the ground for conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations, who once lived autonomously and cooperatively for over 2,000 years. From the time the British left 60 years ago, the Tamils have had to struggle not only for their civil rights but their right to exist.
National liberation struggle. Chairing the gathering, Debbie Brennan explained the key purpose: if the Sri Lankan government is to be exposed and defeated, its atrocities must be understood as a war of conquest against a Tamil nation. Tamils are an ancient people with their own language — which they say is one of the five oldest living languages in the world. They have a distinct culture, religion, economy and political structure. For two millennia, they have had their own territory in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. They are therefore a distinct people whose right to determine their own destiny — to the extent of creating their own independent state, if that is their choice — must be defended. For this reason, RW also unconditionally supports the recognition of sovereignty and full democratic rights of Aboriginal Australians, Palestinians and all first nations throughout the world.
Tamil speaker, Pratheepan, explained the history behind this year’s events. He told how the genocidal war is being conducted by a ruling elite in Sri Lanka that is using Sinhalese privilege and chauvinism to crush the aspirations of the Tamil people in order to secure total control over the country and its people – Sinhalese and Tamil alike.
To consolidate colonial control, the British forcefully amalgamated the Sinhalese and Tamils under one administrative system — laying the foundation for future conflict between the two previously independent peoples. Playing Tamils and Sinhalese against each other for favours was a hallmark of British rule over the island for more than a century.
As soon as the British left in 1948, the Sinhalese majority quickly moved to establish its dominance. It immediately tied citizenship to descent, disenfranchising Tamils who had been imported from India by the British to work as indentured labourers on the plantations. In 1956, a law made Sinhalese the official language. Most Tamils who worked for the government lost their jobs. Government administration was conducted in Sinhalese only, even in areas where 99% of the population was Tamil literate.
Need to take up arms. From 1949 until the 1970s, Tamil nationalism followed the non-violent tactics of Gandhi’s movement in India. The consequence was repeated bloody repression by the Sinhalese-controlled state. By 1972, Tamil militancy had grown among young Tamils and students, and the Tamil New Tigers was formed, later to become the LTTE. So after 25 years, armed struggle took root.
The huge turnout of Tamils voting for the secessionist Tamil United Liberation Front in the 1977 elections showed widespread support for an independent state. For the first time, the TULF became the leading opposition. The Sinhalese-dominated government responded with the Terrorism Prevention Act of 1979. In language similar to apartheid South Africa’s 1967 legislation, the new law targeted not only armed organisations but the political freedom of Tamils, whose “words” and “signs” could be construed by the Sinhalese as creating “communal disharmony.”
In 1983, the Sri Lankan state unleashed its armed forces in the Tamil-populated cities of Trincomalee and Vavuniya, shooting civilians and setting shops, churches and homes on fire. When the LTTE responded, killing 13 Sinhalese soldiers, a Sinhalese rampage followed. Three thousand Tamils were murdered and 150,000 left homeless in Colombo. These events, known as “Black July,” resulted in the growth of the LTTE and other Tamil guerrilla organisations.
The Sri Lankan government’s war on the Tamil nation has been backed by international powers, including India, the United States, Israel, China and Pakistan. The island’s location, and its large naval port of Trincomalee, makes it strategically important. All have provided weapons and training to Sri Lanka’s armed forces. Israel has also advised and assisted the government in creating Sinhalese settlements in Tamil areas. To demonise and isolate the Tamils’ just resistance, the U.S. and European Union listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation.
2009 marks a crossroads. All this is behind the catastrophe that unfolded early this year — 2,600 Tamils, including 700 children, savagely killed and 7,000 wounded; more than 250,000 trapped, without drinking water, inside a barren and shadeless 12-kilometre strip of land; a “safety zone” bombarded by chemical weapons and cluster bombs; food and medicines not allowed in; forced hysterectomies and abortions of Tamil women, and rapes.
Ramini movingly told of its impact on Tamil women. Inside Tamil Eelam, women absorb the shocks and hold their communities together. Those whose husbands are killed, detained or disappeared, become the heads of their families; they bury and mourn for sons, fathers, brothers, daughters, sisters and their people. Being of the large Tamil diaspora is to feel powerless about the unspeakable violence.
Forum participants expressed their anger at the Rudd government for its despicable role. Canberra was silent to Tamils’ calls to condemn the atrocity. It failed to support community demands for a ceasefire, while telling the LTTE to disarm! Many made the connection between the Tamil and Palestinian struggles and discussed how to link the two campaigns.
Attendees signed a letter to Victorian Trades Hall Council. It called on Trades Hall to assist the Tamil community in taking the struggle into the unions and to approach the Australian Trade Council of Unions for national union movement support. This would include pressuring the Rudd government to recognise the right of Tamil Eelam to self-determination and demand that Sri Lanka ends its war.
Less than three weeks after the forum, on May 18, the LTTE surrendered. The intensification of the military onslaught drove the remaining, traumatised Tamil population into the ever-shrinking LTTE-held land. Not even the most compliant media could hide the fact that it was a bloodbath.
Three hundred thousand Tamils are now behind barbed wire, interned in concentration camps, facing starvation, disease, rape, torture, disappearance and execution. They have no access to anyone outside. The media is not allowed in.
But the struggle continues. In June, central London was awash with red and yellow Tamil flags as over 100,000 protested the criminal inaction of governments during the massacre. Said a speaker for the British Tamil Forum, which organised the event, “Our struggle has now shifted to the hands of the Diaspora. We have gathered here today to begin the next chapter of our long struggle to come.” A young woman member of the Tamil Youth Organisation stated, “We are witnessing a global uprising of Tamils.” Contingents of Columbians, Kurds, Palestinians, Indians and social justice groups marched.
Needed now is solidarity, wherever we are. The Australian Tamil diaspora has tenaciously mobilised in cities around the country. Supporting organised actions and collaborating through our unions, communities and coalitions can turn the tables on the injustice and carnage we’ve just witnessed. Now, more than ever, it’s time to act.
If you’ve got ideas and want to talk about this, contact Radical Women:
03-9388-0062 or firstname.lastname@example.org