brad brace

4/13/2007

Sri Lanka: A Dark Paradise – The Genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils

Filed under: global islands,sri lanka — admin @ 7:31 pm

The antagonism between Tamils and Sinhalese is rooted in the country’s history but has been exacerbated into interethnic violence only since 1956. The old file photos of the particularly vicious anti-Tamil riots in 1983, recorded in stark images of gutted buildings and burnt Tamilian bodies, is a poignant reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. The brutality was unbelievable, homes and shops were burnt, cars were doused with gasoline and lit, sometimes with the occupant inside; some people were hacked to death, others burnt alive. Another gruesome eyewitness account of the anti-Tamil pogrom lays bare the brutality of riots: ‘Mobs of Sinhala youth rampaged through the streets, ransacking homes, shops and offices, looting them and setting them ablaze, as they sought out members of the Tamil ethnic minority.’ Some ‘motorists were dragged from their cars to be stoned and beaten with sticks… Others were cut down with knives and axes.’ Conservative estimate place the figure of about 3000 Tamils killed in the riots.

In order to fathom the roots of the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils, one has to turn the historical clock back to 1948 when Sri Lanka gained independence from the British. The first act of the independent Sri Lankan government was to strip the Tamil plantation workers of the citizenship rights. These workers were descended from people brought to Sri Lanka from India by the British in the 19th century to work on coffee and tea plantations. As a result, at least a million Tamil workers were deprived of Sri Lankan citizenship. This hostile act did not completely disenfranchise the other Tamils living in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka for thousands of years. But soon other laws were pressed into service, which adversely affected the prospects of all Tamils living Sri Lanka. The government made Sinhalese the sole official language rendering people speaking Tamil as second-class citizens. The Tamils were excluded from most government jobs and access to education was denied to them.

At first the Tamils began their peaceful protests against the repression by staging demonstrations, sit-ins and by fighting elections. These demonstrations were met with mob attacks of incited by Buddhist monks and politicians. As no progress could be made to roll back the anti-Tamil policies of the government, the youths increasingly took to violent means to make the government. ‘The LTTE was formed in 1972, and carried out its first major armed action in 1978. After the 1983 pogrom, the LTTE gained increased support from the Tamil community and dramatically stepped up its war against the SLA.’

The failure of moderate Tamil political parties to improve the plight of Tamils living in Sri Lanka saw the growth of LTTE as a fighting force. This fact should be borne in mind to understand that LTTE is a product of Tamil Nationalism. ‘The Tamil Tigers (LTTE),’ observes A. J. Wilson, a noted authority on Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, ‘today appear to hold the key to their people’s future. While they have suffered setbacks, including the loss of the Tamil capital, Jaffna, they remain a potent guerrilla force, able to strike with impunity at both military and civilian targets.’ The Tigers’ grip on the Tamil population seems secure, as does their overseas support and funding from Tamil exiles in Britain, Canada, and Australia.

The inability of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) to quell Tamil Nationalism led to large-scale repression against civilian Tamil population. This terrible fact could be gleaned from Human Rights reports on SLA atrocities committed on Tamils. A statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reports: ‘in recent decades, Sri Lanka has had one of the worst records in the world concerning forced disappearances. In 1971, around 10,000 persons disappeared in the south of the country. Between 1987 and 1991, over 30,000 disappeared in the south, and since the early 1980s there have been constant disappearances in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The exact number of such disappearances remains unknown.’ The Tamil militants also unleashed its brand of terror by killing service personnel and indulged in disfiguring the bodies and desecrating corpses.

In 2002 the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.), as the rebels call themselves, signed a cease-fire designed to lead to a political agreement. While the rebels want a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka’s north and east, the government wants to keep the island whole. A federation seemed a possible compromise. But peace talks sputtered and then collapsed (both sides accused the other of being insincere), and since December 2005, Sri Lanka has again been at undeclared war with itself. The latest round of bloodletting is much like previous ones—bombings (including a Tuesday blast that killed 15, mostly women and children, in a bus), shellings, suicide attacks against political leaders, government air raids on rebel-held areas, abductions and disappearances of anyone believed to be aiding the other side. In the past 16 months, more than 4,000 people have been killed, and 220,000 people forced from their homes; a total of half a million Sri Lankans are now displaced in their own country. Nordic peacekeepers who are supposed to be monitoring peace have “gone from reporting single shots as [cease-fire] violations to reporting whole battles,” according to one international observer who did not want his name used.

Government forces have pushed the Tigers out of much of the east, in part because a breakaway faction of Tamil fighters that fell out with the main rebel group has joined with government troops against their old comrades. The Sri Lankan military is now opening up a new front in the northwest. But there are few signs that the military is on the verge of victory. The L.T.T.E. has used tactical withdrawals to regroup following defeats in the past and is still able to spring surprises. In late February a group of foreign diplomats, including the U.S. and Italian ambassadors, had just helicoptered into Batticaloa, an area the government had assured them was safe, when they came under rebel mortar fire. (Both ambassadors were slightly hurt.) Two weeks ago, in one of its most audacious attacks so far, the Tigers used two small planes (the government says it was just one), which the group had smuggled onto the island piece by piece over the past few years, to bomb an airfield adjacent to the country’s international airport outside Colombo. The attack killed three and wounded 16, but officials say government planes weren’t damaged. The air attack was so unexpected that the improvised bombers were able to make it back to rebel territory unharmed. The Tigers sent journalists photographs of its new “air wing,” including close-ups of an airplane fitted with small bombs and a group shot showing Tiger pilots surrounding a beaming Velupillai Prabhakaran, the group’s charismatic but ruthless leader.

Sri Lanka has been in ceaseless turmoil for more than three decades. During the 1970s and ’80s, Marxist radicals in the south engaged in a fierce campaign against the government and were just as brutally put down. The conflict with the L.T.T.E. was sparked in 1975 when the Tigers assassinated the mayor of Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, and intensified after the killing of 13 soldiers in 1983. Fighting has gone on for so long now that it has brutalized an entire society, creating a culture of violence that haunts the country whether there is fighting or not. In his exquisitely written novel Anil’s Ghost, set in an earlier phase of the conflict, Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje describes the unnatural horrors that grip this tropical South Asian island of 21 million people. In Sri Lanka, Ondaatje writes, “the reason for war was war.”

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