Thirty years of war in Sri Lanka came to a brutal end on 18 May 2009. In its final act of barbarity, Sri Lankan government forces surrounded over 300,000 people fleeing the war, forced them into a tiny lagoon called Mullivaikkal and bombarded them. Over 140,000 perished in a few days and tens of thousands are still “missing”.
The scale of destruction and death had a shocking and enduring impact among the approximately three million Tamils, the main minority population in the island nation. All the key leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – a separatist organisation that waged an armed war against the Sri Lankan government for decades – were also killed in the last phase of the war.
While the armed clashes ceased, the conditions that gave rise to the war have not been overcome and in fact have worsened.
The government has shown no interest in satisfying either the basic demands in relation to the daily life of the Tamil population nor those arising from the horrific war itself – adequate compensation for victims; return of occupied land; information about the forcefully ‘disappeared’; release of all political prisoners. Bringing justice to the victims or taking action against the war criminals and those responsible for the killings remain a far cry falling on deaf ears.
While tens of thousands of Tamils across the world are still mourning their dead, the Sri Lankan government celebrates the event as a victory. In a statement released on social media, the 2009 defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, says he watched the end in Mullivaikkal with “a sense of quiet joy” and brags about “annihilating terrorism”.
These days, war criminals are paraded as “war heroes” and many have been promoted. Even those actually named in United Nations (UN) reports as war criminals have been allocated to organise ‘war hero days’. The current president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, opened a new monument to mark the celebration of the “war heroes” on the special remembrance day.
In the last ten years there have been major factional struggles and constant manoeuvring in the government each time engendering renewed hope among the population that changes in the regime would bring justice. But their hopes have been dashed by experience. Now many Tamils cannot see a solution via any Sri Lankan government.
The hopes that the main Tamil parties, such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), would fight for their interests have also been crushed as they continue to collaborate with and protect the Sri Lankan government. The TNA and the majority of the self-proclaimed Tamil leaders continue this failed method with the promise of winning concessions.
But, in the seven decades of Sri Lankan independence, a pattern has emerged. Unstable capitalist governments have whipped up hatred against the Tamil minority in a bid to secure and consolidate their power. (This is nothing more than the old colonialist powers’ tactic of divide and rule.) They base themselves on Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to woo support among the majority Sinhala population.
On the other side, in opposition to the Sinhala nationalist oppression, the Tamils’ demand for equal rights and better conditions have fed into the national aspirations of the Tamil masses.
The demand for self-determination, even separation, remains strong. In fact the brutal war and the ongoing oppression have further increased the polarisation that exists among the Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim populations.
Sinhala workers, youth, and poor people have also seen none of the ‘peace dividend’ promised them during the war. Now International Monetary Fund-led privatisation measures are threatening the free education and health services that have been the proud possession of the masses – won through intense class struggle in the past. The government whips up hatred against the minority to justify the ongoing attacks on living standards.
Clearly, on a capitalist basis, the outstanding ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka cannot be resolved. Only the development of mass struggle among the working class of all population groups against the capitalist system can offer a way forward.
Such struggles could facilitate the rapid building of a mass socialist party to break with capitalism and implement democratically agreed measures to achieve peace, increased living standards, redistribution of land, and self-determination. In other words, a struggle modelled on the successful October 1917 revolution in Russia led by the Bolsheviks.
The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Sri Lanka – the United Socialist Party – fights for such a perspective.
The fragility of the present peace in the country was revealed in the massive terrorist bombing that took place on Easter Sunday. The government declared a state of emergency and introduced a number of repressive measures against the Muslim population who are mostly Tamil-speaking. Attacks by organised mobs of reactionary Buddhist extremists on the Muslim population take place right under the ‘watchful’ eyes of the armed authorities.
Out of desperation, there is a widespread illusion that western governments and international institutions such as the United Nations will deliver justice. This is mainly due to the propaganda of the majority of Tamil leaders that ‘the only credible path’ to achieve justice is through a so-called independent international investigation.
However, the failures of western capitalist states and their institutions are very well recorded. In the name of maintaining ‘neutrality’ the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) packed up and abandoned people in the middle of the 2009 attack.
It has also been revealed that the UN was in constant touch with the Sri Lankan government and knew all about the atrocities being carried out. Soon after the mass slaughter at Mullivaikkal, a resolution was passed in the UN Security Council congratulating the Sri Lankan government for ending the war!
Both the Indian government and western governments, including Britain, maintained arms sales to Sri Lanka throughout the war – and to this day. This doesn’t stop right-wing politicians in countries with significant Tamil populations, like Canada and Britain, paying lip service to Tamil rights with the cynical aim of securing their votes.
The foreign policy of these governments has not changed in relation to the Sri Lankan government. Some noises are made in UN reports and meetings attempting to satisfy Tamil activists as well as trying to shift the Sri Lankan government away from China’s increasing influence. This amounts to demanding the Sri Lankan government establishes some sort of “reconciliation mechanism”, and is mainly to avoid any future opposition that may emerge among the Tamil population.
But while the oppression continues, these state forces will not be able to hold back the struggle of the Tamils from emerging again. The success of a fightback, however, depends on what ideas it is organised around. A section of young people and students in Sri Lanka released a statement this year calling for Mullivaikkal to be an “awakening day”. This day should be a mass mobilisation day.
Public discussion on what perspective and strategy should be adopted is needed, starting with rejecting all capitalist governments and instead seeking allies among workers of all nationalities and genuinely socialist organisations to build a successful fightback.
Unfortunately, the current so-called Tamil ‘leaders’ are an obstacle to such an approach. In the diaspora, the majority of the leaders subscribe to right-wing ideas, including support for the Conservative Party in Britain! They try to trick Tamil workers and youth – suffering and also angry at Tory policies – into believing that they are “all conservative”.
At this year’s main remembrance event in London, what was the leading diaspora organisation ten years ago could not muster even 200 supporters – compared to the thousands in previous years. Instead of appealing to working-class people, they attempt to make shortcuts by appealing to the government and inviting a long list of Tory, right-wing Blairite Labour and Lib. Dem. MPs to participate and even playing the British national anthem!
The long-time supporter of the Tamil cause, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, only got in to speak after several Tories who promised nothing. In an interview given to Tamil Solidarity in the past, John McDonnell stated that if Jeremy Corbyn came to power they would stop all military assistance to Sri Lanka. But this year even he stuck to the tune of “delivery of justice” through groups of all political persuasion coming together.
Labour, Conservative and all the other parties were enthusiastic about speaking at this year’s commemoration mainly because they are in the middle of the European election campaign!
The majority of these MPs have voted for cuts in services, for war in Iraq, for the bombing of Syria and many other brutal domestic and foreign policies. Their main aim in appearing at these events is to fight for the ‘Tamil vote’ which they hope the ‘leaders’ can deliver ‘en bloc’.
Almost all of them carried the same message – that they are for “peace and justice”. But they have no explanation of what that means and how, ten years on, it can be achieved when, to date, their annual speeches have achieved precisely nothing for Tamils – either in Britain or Sri Lanka!
On 18 May, Tamil Solidarity – founded in London in 2009 on the basis of the idea that the struggle for Tamil rights must go on – offered an alternative. Words are not enough – we demand action. We should mobilise and build our strength by linking up with the working class in struggle.
The Tamil Solidarity (TS) campaign rejects all capitalist governments and all those who support any form of oppression. Tamil Solidarity instead calls for an alliance with trade unions, socialists and young people.
In the past years, Tamil Solidarity has won the national affiliation of trade unions such as Unison, PCS and Nipsa and the support of many union branches. Tamil Solidarity also joined forces with all the fight-backs of workers and youth that have taken place in Britain.
It is through these actions that we aim to build the struggle of the Tamils. The Socialist Party has assisted the work of TS from its founding meeting and maintains close collaboration on various struggles. SP members from various national backgrounds took part in the Remembrance Day events in London.