Sri Lanka's rulers seek 'final solution' to Tamil resistance

By Kerry Vernon

Government troops were still advancing into the so-called no-fire zone in the north-east of Sri Lanka on April 29, adding to what the Australian Tamil Information Service calls “an unprecedented humanitarian crisis”. In the guise of suppressing the remaining fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime is waging war on the Tamil people. The regime launched a massive military assault on LTTE-controlled territory in 2006 and in less than three years has captured almost all of the 15,000 sq km previously held by the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan government has denied for months that its operations against the LTTE were killing civilians and ignored appeals by UN officials and others to stop attacks in the government-declared no-fire zone, where it had encouraged Tamil non-combatants to take shelter. The UN estimates that 6500 Tamil civilians have been killed and 14,000 wounded in the last three months. The US, UK and international human rights organisations have called for an immediate ceasefire to protect civilians. The LTTE agreed, announcing a unilateral ceasefire on April 27. But the government in Colombo has continued its offensive. The advancing Sri Lankan army has also failed to observe Rajapaka’s April 27 pledge to stop using heavy weapons in and around the no-fire zone, launching a ferocious assault on the zone on the evening of April 27.

At the end of a three-day visit to Sri Lanka on April 29, John Holmes, the UN coordinator for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said he was unable to persuade Rajapaksa to allow a humanitarian pause in the army offensive. The government also rejected a UN proposal to send a humanitarian relief team to the war zone, where 60,000 to 100,000 civilians are at risk. The April 28 London Telegraph quoted Holmes as saying he had received reliable reports of continued artillery attacks on the no-fire zone despite government assurances that they would stop. His comments were supported by Western diplomatic sources in Colombo, who confirmed continuing army shelling in the no-fire zone.

The roots of the war lie in the Sinhalese-speaking capitalist rulers’ escalating discrimination and repression of the island’s minority Tamil-speaking population. In 1956, Sinhalese was declared the country’s sole official language, denying many Tamils access to education and jobs. In the 1970s, Buddhism was proclaimed the state religion — the Tamils are mainly Hindus, Christians and Muslims. In 1978 discriminatory quotas were introduced to limit Tamils’ access to universities. Other discriminatory measures enacted by the Sinhalese political elite have included the banning of Tamil-language media and literature imports and the destruction of the Jaffna public library.

Tamils opposed discrimination through street protests and sit-ins, but this was met by anti-Tamil pogroms by national-chauvinist Sinhalese mobs, culminating in Black July in 1983, when 3000 Tamils were killed. In 1972 some Tamil youths decided that an armed struggle was the only way to defend the Tamil population from Sinhalese pogroms, and the LTTE militia was formed. After nearly three decades of brutal suppression of Tamil protests for basic democratic rights and against repression and discrimination, the Tamil struggle became a full-blown insurgency for an independent Tamil state (Tamil Eelam) in the north and east of the island.

Government broke truce

A Norwegian-brokered truce from 2002 collapsed almost as soon as Rajapaksa took office on November 17, 2005. His government scrapped the ceasefire and ruled out any devolution of power to the Tamils after forging an alliance with the Sinhalese nationalist parties, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya. Rajapaksa’s coalition government also ended aid to the tsunami-struck LTTE areas and sidelined the Norwegian peace facilitators, whom it accused of bias. Cynically, the government claimed that the LTTE had violated the truce.

The government has been attempting to restrict information about its offensive and has banned media, UN officials and non-government organisations (NGOs) from the war zone. According to a April 28 report in the weekly news bulletin of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist): “Conservative estimates, trickling through, put civilian deaths at a minimum of 5000, including at least 500 children, since January. At least 10,000 civilians are estimated wounded. The [Sri] Lankan army is using cluster bombs and chemical warfare in blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Tens of thousands of innocent Tamils are caught up in the war zone, starved of food, water and medicine. Some 100,000 others, fleeing in desperation are being rounded up behind barbed wire fences in ‘camps’, where by all accounts they will be kept under detention for three years. Sri Lankan journalists questioning their government’s brutal policy have been silenced by assassination and arrest. International journalists reporting on the detention camps for Tamil civilians have been detained and deported.”

The government offensive has sparked large protests by Tamils and their supporters around the world. Up to 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets of major cities in Canada, and there have been large protests in Paris, London, Australia and elsewhere. The protests have called for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the genocidal campaign of the Sri Lankan government and a boycott of Sri Lankan goods.

The government’s war against the Tamil people has created a massive refugee crisis. More than 100,000 civilians in northern Sri Lanka had fled the fighting, the April 23 Sydney Morning Herald reported. Tens of thousands of refugees were reported to have been transported to temporary camps.

According to the April 26 edition of India’s national Hindu daily, since April 20 the Sri Lankan government has forced more than a million Tamils into the no-fire zone, yet the government had no immediate plans to provide this massive influx of refugees with shelter or other basic facilities. On April 21 the International Red Cross described the situation facing the Tamil population in the war zone as “catastrophic”. Several hundred thousand internally displaced persons face shortages of food, water, shelter and sanitation as they await government screening and registration before being transferred and detained in closed government detention camps, which the government calls “welfare centres”.

Imperialist support

The Sri Lankan government’s attempt at a “final solution” to the LTTE’s 26-year armed struggle could not have been unleashed without the support of the imperialist powers that are now bemoaning the resulting humanitarian crisis. In the last quarter of 2008, British arms exports worth £1.4 million were approved for Sri Lanka. This compares with less than £1 million of British arms exports to the country for the whole of 2007. At least 16 Israeli Kfir jets were supplied to the Sri Lankan air force, which used them to bomb Tamil areas.

The Pentagon has provided “counter-insurgency” training to Sri Lankan troops, as well as intelligence and “non-lethal” weapons. In January 2006, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka warned the LTTE that if it did not quickly agree to a settlement on Colombo’s terms it would face “a stronger, more capable and more determined Sri Lankan military”, adding: “Through our military training and assistance programs, including efforts to help with counter-terrorism initiatives and block illegal financial transactions, we are helping to shape the ability of the Sri Lankan government to protect its people and defend its interests.” In January this year, the US embassy in Colombo issued a statement urging the government to press forward with its military offensive against the LTTE, declaring that the “United States does not advocate that the Government of Sri Lanka negotiate with the LTTE, a group designated by America as a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997.”

The government has used the “the war on terror” to cover its offensive against the LTTE, claiming that the LTTE is a “terrorist organisation”, despite the fact that this organisation has mass support among Sri Lanka’s 1.8 million indigenous Tamils and, following a ceasefire agreement in 2001, ran a de facto government administration in most of the island’s Northern Province. The LTTE’s use of suicide bombings against Sinhalese civilians has made the government’s task all the easier, politically marginalising opponents of the war among the island’s majority Sinhalese population. The LTTE has not sought to win support for the Tamil cause among Sinhalese workers and peasants. It has pursued a policy of “ethnic cleaning” against Sinhalese and against Tamil-speaking Muslims in the areas under its control.