We are sickeningly familiar with the arrogant, cruel statements of Sri Lankan prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his cronies. They dismiss any criticism of their brutal war against Tamil-speaking people and the horrific aftermath of mass internment camps, militarised zones and a clampdown on media freedoms and democratic rights. But how can Rajapaksa & Company get away with it?
The reality is that Sri Lanka is in demand. One of the reasons that quiet, diplomatic appeals to establishment governments and political parties have practically no impact is that all of these governments have their fingers in the Sri Lankan pie. They want a piece of the action. So, they cannot be too critical for fear of being frozen out of lucrative economic and strategic deals. The only time governments act in the interests of workers and poor people is when they are put under massive pressure.
The major regional powers, China and India, are jostling for position in the Indian Ocean, where the US administration also has strategic economic and military interests. There can be no doubt that the provision of weapons by the Chinese regime, streaming into Sri Lanka from 2007, played a big part in the defeat of the LTTE. China increased its bilateral aid fivefold in a year to $1bn in 2008 to become Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. In return, it has been awarded the project to develop the important deep-sea port of Hambantota. This fits with China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy, whereby it seeks to control the Indian Ocean seaway, which carries nearly half of all global seaborne trade.
The Indian government opened up unlimited military credit for Sri Lanka. It also extended naval and intelligence cooperation and other support. The Malaysian operator, Dialog Telecom, is moving in to profit out of the war-ravaged north and east.
Australia has pledged $1bn, its representatives say, to help with Tamil resettlement. But one of the main concerns of the Australian government is to stop Tamil refugees leaving Sri Lanka for Australia. This money will go to Rajapaksa’s administration and will be used to control Tamil-speaking people. Aid should be in the hands of those it is intended to help. It should be administered by elected representatives accountable to the communities they serve.
As for the western powers, they are playing a particularly hypocritical role. At one time or another they have all issued statements mildly critical of the Rajapaska regime. But trade and military links are more important to these powers than the rights of workers and poor people.
The US, for example, uses Sri Lankan ports as naval bases. The US is the only country with a veto in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet, in July, the US abstained in the vote to agree a $2.8bn loan. If the US administration really cared about the Tamil-speaking people it could have stopped the money going through. The IMF loan is supposed to go towards the post-war ‘reconstruction effort’. One of the developments under way is for a string of luxury hotels along the east coast near Nilaveli – luxury hotels for the rich, prison camps with open sewers for the Tamil-speaking people.
Meanwhile, the British government – having supplied military equipment to Sri Lanka throughout the war – turns its back on the hundreds of thousands in the camps. It, too, is more worried about contracts for British companies, including military goods. So Des Browne, Britain’s special envoy to Sri Lanka, said: “We take the view that it is safe to return people, including Tamils, to Sri Lanka”. This was said in connection with the Tamil boat people stranded off the coast of Indonesia who have been refused entry into Australia. These powers stick together when they see it is in their own vested interests – and humanitarian concerns are quickly dropped.
Rajapaksa seems able to act with impunity. Last year, John Holmes, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, was accused of being in the pay of the LTTE after he stated the simple fact that Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. The UN Children’s Fund communications chief was ordered to leave Sri Lanka after he raised the plight of children caught up in the conflict. Sadly, it matters little how well-meaning many in agencies such as the United Nations are, there is, in reality, little they can do when blocked by the major powers.
On top of this, the clampdown on reporting in Sri Lanka continues. Around 20 journalists have been murdered there over the last few years. Lawyers taking up sensitive cases have been threatened, public meetings cannot be held without advance government permission, and emergency regulations remain in place, including wide-ranging powers of search, arrest and seizure of property. Individuals can be arrested and held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.
But the promise by Rajapaksa to the Sinhalese workers and poor that the declared end of the war will bring some kind of peace dividend is a rotten lie. Military spending in Sri Lanka swallows 5% of gross domestic product – one of the largest in the world. The regular army is five times bigger than it was in the late 1980s – now 200,000 strong, larger than the British (with three times the population) and Israeli armed forces. The Sri Lankan regime plans further increases to 300,000 – more troops than France, Japan or Germany.
Having crushed the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government has set up militarised zones throughout the north and east. It now occupies that area and will proceed to subjugate a whole people. This humanitarian catastrophe for Tamil-speaking people will also prove to be a massive financial drain. The living standards of all working class and poor people will be driven down even further. In time, this will lead to increasing resistance from Sinhalese workers. The oppression and poverty will also provide fertile ground for a new generation of Tamils raised on bitterness and hatred.
The Rajapaksa regime is not in the interests of the workers and poor in Sri Lanka, including the Sinhalese majority. It is a defender of the rich and powerful, aiming to keep itself in power as long as possible. That is why Tamil Solidarity supports united struggle by and in the interests of the working class and poor against this vicious regime, regardless of ethnic or religious background.