Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
At the beginning of 2008, the Sri Lankan government unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire agreement that it had signed with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers) in February 2002 with the mediation of Norway. It is now pursuing a brutal military strategy of bombing Tamil areas previously under the Tigers’ control from land, air and sea. On 6 September 2008 it ordered UN humanitarian organisations such as Unicef and UNHCR to vacate the Vanni area, leaving the people living there unprotected and vulnerable to abuse by the Sri Lankan armed forces, who are occupying the ancestral Tamil areas in the north east of Sri Lanka.
Currently 350,000 Tamil civilians are being held in what the Sri Lankan government has described as a ‘safe area’. In an interview with the BBC on 2 February, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse said that everything was a legitimate target if it was not within this area. The only hospital in the region is not in the ‘safe area’.
Last November, Rajapakse went on record stating that 14.4 million kilos of explosives had been dropped in the Vanni area and that the government had bombed Tamil areas on 6,000 occasions. Since the beginning of 2009, more than 2,000 Tamil civilians have been killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, including by the use of cluster bombs.
The former UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, has compared the situation in Sri Lanka to that in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was quoted by the Inner City Press at the UN in New York on 20 February as saying: ‘We diminish the value of life … if we don’t question the disproportionate use of force.’ The same news article, referring to the death toll in Sri Lanka, and underlining the lack of international concern, suggests that: ‘One thousand was deemed too much in Gaza, but 2,000 for now seems deemed okay in Sri Lanka.’
Some historians have asserted that the ancestors of the present-day Tamils were among the original inhabitants of the island of Sri Lanka. Tamil people have certainly lived for more than 2,500 years in the northern and eastern parts of the country. In pre-colonial days there existed a Tamil kingdom in the north-east (Jaffna) and two Sinhalese kingdoms in the south, called Kotte and Kandy. Drawings and maps from the time of the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, and later from the period when the British came to the island, show how the areas of the Tamils and the Sinhalese were recorded separately from antiquity.
The Tamils are predominantly Saivites, Hindus who revere Shiva as the supreme being, whose religion and written language date back more than 2,500 years. There are also Christian Tamils, who converted from Saivism during the colonial era, and Muslims, who share much of the Tamil culture, including the language. The Sinhalese people are predominantly Buddhists but there are also Christians.
The Portuguese (from 1505) and the Dutch (from 1658) colonial powers ruled the kingdoms of the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples separately, in recognition of the two peoples having a distinct culture, religion and language. In 1796, though, Britain conquered the island and in 1815 captured the Kandyan kingdom, until then unconquered by the two previous colonial powers.
For administrative convenience, the British amalgamated the Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms in 1833, creating a ‘unitary state’, later named Ceylon. Britain acknowledged the concept of a Tamil homeland, using the distribution of Tamil and Sinhala place names as the basis to demarcate the boundaries of two Tamil provinces in 1873. The British also brought around a million Tamils from south India to work mainly on tea plantations in the central hill country. They are known as the plantation, or ‘up-country’ Tamils.
The island’s total current population is about 20 million. According to the most recent island-wide census, conducted in 1981, nearly three-quarters of the population were Sinhalese, whereas Tamils, including Muslim Tamils, comprised about one-quarter of the population. There are also Burghers (dual-heritage descendents of the Europeans), Malays and the Vedas.
Attempts by the British to create a homogeneous single Ceylonese nation failed. Proportional representation was agreed between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in an attempt to defuse the gathering ethnic conflict, and measures were put forward to ensure that no single community would be able to outvote all other communities combined, but they were eventually dropped. Although section 29(c) of the Soulbury constitution of 1946, which provided the basis for independence in 1948, prohibited parliament from introducing discriminatory legislation, laws that discriminated against Tamils were nonetheless introduced and implemented. In any case this constitutional safeguard was abolished in the new constitution of 1972.
Given Buddhism’s presumed nonviolent philosophy, the question arises: how could committed Buddhist monks and their wider community in Sri Lanka actively take part in the political violence against the Tamils?
The nature of the participation of monks in national politics became increasingly volatile from the 1940s. Some Buddhist monk ideologues have been seeking to establish an ‘ideal Buddhist-administered society’. In this, they refer to and rely on the ‘Myth of Reconquest’ (Mahavamsa), which eulogises the ancient victories of the Sinhalese Prince Dutugemunu over the Tamil King Ellalan, in which thousands of Tamils were killed, and makes a virtue of killing in defence of Buddhism. It also inculcates the belief that Sinhala Buddhists are racially superior to the Tamils.
In the early 20th century, the leading proponent of these ideas was Anagaraka Dharmapala. In his view, the Tamils and other non-Sinhalese did not belong on the island. It is this ideology that influences the policies and actions of the Sinhalese government today.
In the 61 years since independence, Sri Lanka has implemented regular waves of anti-Tamil legislation, starting with the disenfranchisement of the one million plantation Tamils in 1948. Barely eight years later, a single language act (Sinhala Only Act) discriminated linguistically, culturally and economically against the Tamils. In the 1970s, discrimination in education (requiring, among other things, Tamils to gain more marks than Sinhalese to gain university entrance) and the new constitution (which as well as abolishing section 29(c) gave precedence to the religion of the Sinhalese Buddhists) further advantaged the position of Sinhalese over the Tamils.
Tamils objected to the suppression of their language and their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s they used satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) to no avail. Military suppression was the response from the authorities, and peaceful protesters were slaughtered.
Alongside the nonviolent resistance movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Tamil politicians proposed political solutions. However, peace agreements, based on a quasi-federal system devolving certain powers to the Tamils in the north-eastern province, which were signed between the Sinhalese leaders (prime ministers) and the Tamil leaders (parliamentarians) to resolve the political turmoil in the country, were unilaterally abrogated by the governments of the day. This became a continuing pattern, accompanied by increasing violence against Tamils – which occurred long before the birth of the armed resistance movement.
In the 1977 general election Tamils voted overwhelmingly in support of their right to self-determination. And international outrage followed ‘Black July’, the horrific pogroms in 1983, when thousands of Tamils were burnt alive. But no mechanisms were put in place to prevent what was clearly genocide, and documented as such by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.
Instead, after 1983, there began the next phase of persecution: torture, rape and extra-judicial killings on a genocidal scale, under the pretext of counter-insurgency and later counter-terrorism. This phase is continuing now, with total impunity. More than 80,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in the past 25 years. 12,000 Tamil women have been raped by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Some 2,300 Tamil places of worship – Churches and temples – have been destroyed. Not one perpetrator has been brought to book.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and 29 years of emergency regulations have given unlimited powers to the Sri Lankan security forces, who arrest, detain, torture, rape, kill and dispose of the bodies of Tamils with impunity. Tamil detainees are forced to sign confession documents written in Sinhala, a language that the vast majority of them do not understand.
Media ban and killings of journalists
The media, both local and international, has consistently been banned from the conflict areas by the government. Instead, military-guided press trips are used to disseminate the government’s propaganda. Assassinations of eminent Tamil journalists have become systematic, and now Sinhala journalists too are being killed, as a result of their attempts to report on the conflict in a balanced way. Early this year, the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, was assassinated by unknown gunmen in the capital Colombo. There has been no independent inquiry into this or any other killing. He wrote his own obituary before he was killed.
Former foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera stated in January 2007 that there was one abduction taking place every five hours in Sri Lanka. According to the UN, the country has the highest number of ‘disappearances’ in the world. Given the population and size of the island, this is a shocking fact.
Nobel laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has compared the routine torture and the hundreds of ‘disappearances’ and extra-judicial killings committed by government forces to the ‘dirty wars’ waged by various Latin American governments against their own citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. He says: ‘As Latin Americans know all too well, there are few crimes more horrible for a government to commit than summarily removing its own citizens from their homes and families, often late at night, never to be heard from again.’
Arms to Sri Lanka
There has been increasing concern at the support given to the Sri Lankan government by other countries. In 2007, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, quoting Foreign Office figures, Britain exported £1 million worth of armaments to the military there. The items sold include components for heavy machine guns, communications and ground equipment for military aircraft, small arms ammunition, components for military helicopters, military sonar equipment, parachutes and ejector seats.
Andrew Love, chair of the parliamentary all party committee on Sri Lanka, stated on BBC Radio 4 on 6 February 2009: ‘The (UK) government of course tell us that they don’t sell arms that can be used against civilian populations. But clearly as we can see from what is unfolding now, this is happening, and whilst much of those arms are coming from other countries it is a real concern that Britain may be contributing towards the humanitarian disaster that we are seeing.’
The Tamils of the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka deserve better than yet more brutality. They deserve our solidarity.
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency