Thursday, 9 April 2009

The oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka – where are the lion hearts?

On April 7 2009 UK residents of Tamil origin with relatives in Sri Lanka demonstrated in London. They called for intervention to stop Sri Lanka’s civil war, which has recently escalated. Sri Lankan Tamils have been fighting the majority Sinhalese for fair and equal treatment for almost 100 years.(1) The latest crisis may see the destruction of their primary fighting force, the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE).

I first became aware of the crisis in Sri Lanka in 1991, when India’s then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in protest against the presence of Indian peacekeeping forces.

Mr Gandhi was giving a speech in Sriperumbudur, around 30 miles from Madras (now Chennai) where I was living. The bomber was a woman. I remember the newspaper and magazine photographs, and the extensive television coverage that followed; the ghastly pictures of bloody dismembered limbs and the dishevelled, deserted podium.

The April 7 demonstration was held by supporters of the LTTE - a terror group proscribed under the UK’s 2000 Terror Act.(2) Many red flags baring the roaring tiger insignia of the LTTE were flown, and one arrest for the same was made under the anti-terror law.

In July 2008, a different group, the Sri Lankans Against Terrorism (SLAT UK) demonstrated in front of No 10 Downing Street to protest against the government’s protection of ministers Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma who, it claimed, were supporting the LTTE. One of the protesters’ banners read: “LTTE is not sole rep of Tamils”.(3)

Whether the LTTE is right or wrong in its approach to justice, an immediate intervention to abate the crisis is required.

The most recent tragedy is that thousands of Tamils are fatally trapped in the current war zone (Kilinochchi, a northern town and the administrative head quarters of the LTTE). They are being killed, tortured, losing their homes and being separated from their families.

Ethnic struggle
The history of the ethnic struggle between the minority Hindu Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority is peppered with failed ceasefires, failed peace talks, army massacres and suicide bombings.

The tensions stem from the fact that the Tamils used to be favoured by the British when the latter ruled the island. So, when the country gained independence from Britain in 1949, the Sinhalese majority marginalised the Tamils.(1)

Some of the discriminatory measures included refusing to recognise Tamil as a national language, setting up discriminatory laws against Tamils, Tamil plantation workers getting disenfranchised and being refused citizenship, and in 1972 Buddhism was made the national religion (most Tamils are Hindu).(1)

The Tamil people first responded by non-violent resistance in the Gandhian tradition, but the government repressed these peaceful protests, and violence against Tamil activists increased. Soon, a demand arose from the Tamil population for an independent state. The first party to drive this idea forward was the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). However, its resolutions gradually became compromised and it lost much of its popular support.(4)

It took a group of angry young Tamils to form the LTTE in 1976. Moved to action by the economic marginalization caused by negative discrimination against them in the workplace and in higher education, (4) they did what all young people do – they imitated the nature of the authority that had power over them. Mirroring the government’s approach, they returned violence for violence, deploying relentless violent attacks, including suicide bombings and air raids.(5)

What comes after the LTTE?
The Sri Lankan government believes that the recent atrocities in Kilinochchi are the LTTE’s last stand and that the LTTE is nearly destroyed.

It is a very big question as to whether or not it would be a good thing for the LTTE to be defeated, given the history of discrimination and intolerance the Tamils have suffered at the hands of the authorities. (6)

However, what is clear is that hundreds of people on both sides of the divide are dying violently, their children are being brought up in a situation that is likely to brutalise them, and the Tamils say they are now facing nothing less than genocide.

The meaning of the word Sinhalese is “perfect lion people” (Sinha = lion; Hela = pristine) and originates from stories surrounding the founder of the Sinhalese people, Prince Vijaya.

So isn’t it high time the Sri Lankan government came to its senses and showed some lionhearted leadership? Because right now, the country is in peril and has been dubbed a “failed state”.(7)

But the leaders on both sides, Sinhalese and Tamil, have the highest humanitarian responsibility to procrastinate no longer. They must take the road of political discussion and diplomacy, and in this they must transcend petty ethnic egoism in order to achieve success. This alone can take Sri Lanka – the “Sacred Island” - into a dignified, unified and prosperous future.

1) See “Timeline: Sri Lanka, a chronology of key events”, BBC online
2) The LTTE is proscribed by around 32 countries worldwide
3) “Sri Lankan Against Terrorism reprimanded two Labour MPs for participating in the LTTE sponsored event”,
4) “Self-determination: a Ceylon Tamil perspective”, Conciliation Resources
5) The LTTE offensive includes what it called its first, second and third “Eelam wars”. Among their numerous assaults are included the assassination or injuring of several state leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi and President Kumaratunga; assaults on air and navy bases; and the bombing and destruction in 2001 of nearly half the country’s Sri Lankan Airlines fleet in an attack on Colombo international airport.
6) After writing this piece, I came across an interesting analysis of the crisis by Arundhati Roy on April 3:
7) Wikipedia: “Sri Lanka was considered one of the "world's most politically unstable countries" by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in 2004. The Economist labels Sri Lanka a "flawed democracy" in its 2006 rankings (ranking 57 and positioned among 54 other flawed ranked ones), and Foreign Policy ranks Sri Lanka 25th (Alert Category) in its Failed States Index for 2007. However, Sri Lanka, according to the US State Department in 2005, was classified a "stable democracy" amidst a ceasefire period of the long running civil war.”