‘Why do the army drive those jeeps Uppa?’ A young Tamil asked his father in the 1980s. ‘They got them from Northern Ireland’, his da said. The family soon fled Sri Lanka as refugees. The jeeps still patrol their Tamil homeland, or Tamil Eelam. Just one British export from the Conflict.
The Irish people are well placed to understand Britain’s role in Sri Lanka and its terrible consequences for the Eelam Tamils. Just as loyalism served to internalise British interests within Ireland, Sinhala supremacism was groomed by the British to assist their colonial control of the Indian subcontinent. Britain’s terrible legacy is not limited to their actions several centuries ago. Its interference in Sri Lanka continues to this day – as it does in Ireland. At every consecutive stage in history, Britain’s involvement exacerbated the conflict and the suffering of the Tamil people in the island.
It is particularly significant that those who struggle for freedom and social progress in Ireland are commemorating – in both Belfast and Derry – the day that marked the most terrible crescendo of the slaughter of the Tamil people – May 18th 2009. A UN team appointed by Ban Ki Moon estimate that, during several months leading up to this day, over 70,000 Tamils were killed by the Sri Lankan Armed forces. The Rome based ‘Permanent Peoples Tribunal’ ruled that the actions of the Sinhala armed forces had been carried out with the complicity of the UK and the US.
On the 18th of May this year, Eelam Tamils from the homeland and from the Diaspora will join their Irish hosts to remember and examine the common source of their problems and discuss how practical solidarity can be built. We invite you to participate in the discussions on how the methods of repression that were perfected against the Irish, were used in Sri Lanka against the Tamils. Soon after the ‘shoot-to-kill’ scandal in Armagh in 1982, Sri Lanka set up its own police commando unit with British help. Britain taught RUC tactics to the Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) to use against the Eelam Tamils. Trained by former SAS soldiers, the STF became the cutting edge in implementing the policy to eliminate what the British counter insurgency expert Frank Kitson called the ‘genuine subversive element’.
The Eelam Tamils could only survive several decades of intense pressure from the US/UK backed Sinhala forces by comprehensively involving the whole population into the resistance struggle. The liberation movement did this mobilising the oppressed strata of Tamil society, the women, the poor and the lower castes to leading the struggle. The resulting social achievements, which could be clearly observed during the time of the Sri Lankan peace process, constitute the very character of the risen Eelam Tamil people. This will not be allowed to be extinguished by physical force and psychological pressure. The Eelam Tamils are inspired that the Irish have sustained the idea of independence for so long. This invitation to commemorate May 18th, in Belfast and Derry will be a historic step in a long-lasting relationship.
Hope you can join us!
Programme of events
Notes on Massacre of Tamils and Resistance
A brief history
As Ireland was colonized by the British and used as a strategic asset against other imperial powers in Europe the island of Lanka was colonized by the British and was used as a strategic asset against the imperial powers competing in the Indian subcontinent. In achieving strategic usability of the island the entire island was carved into a unitary political structure, which laid the basis for later discrimination, oppression, repression and massacre of Tamils on the Island by the Sinhala supremacist state.
As the settler community in the north of Ireland was groomed by the British and portrayed as religiously and racially superior to the Irish the Sinhala community was groomed by the British as opposed to the ‘inferior’ Tamils on the Island. As the settler community was made to believe that the whole of of Ireland is theirs the Sinhala community was made to believe that the entire island is theirs. Even though the Sinhalese were not a settler community in the sense of the Loyalist in the north of Ireland Sinhala settlements were encouraged by the colonial government in border regions of the Tamil region which continued as a ‘postcolonial’ policy after independence. Like the Protestant Parliament for the Protestant people, it was a Sinhala government for the Sinhala people.
As the Tamil nonviolent resistance increased in the face of many moves of discrimination in the areas of language, land, education, etc. all these protests were brutally crushed killing Tamils by Sinhala racist gangs for decades since the 1950s. As the militant phase of the Tamil resistance emerged in the 1970s (during the same period of Republican resistance) the British government through the RUC trained the Sri Lankan Special Police Commandoes to repress Tamil resistance.
During this period as Bobby Sands and many other hunger strikers fasted unto death the LTTE’s political leader, Theleepan also fasted unto death demanding political recognition.
Parity of Esteem and the Peace Process
As the parity of esteem was established in the north of Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement there arose space for political recognition of the Republican struggle. Similarly in 2002 with the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government parity of esteem was established and the political recognition was accorded to the Tamil struggle, generating possibilities for shared sovereignty. This was the first opportunity that arose in the whole of modern history of Sri Lanka to transform the British-made unitary political structure which would reduce its strategic usability.
However, the British government had already banned the LTTE before 2002 as they had become militarily formidable and gained ground amongst the Tamils as the main representative with a massive popular support. In the wake of the invasion of Iraq and in encircling China’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean, both USA and UK fully supported the Sri Lankan unitary state structure and continued to prescribe the political solution, meaning the unitary state structure to the national question.
Immediately after the signing of the ceasefire agreement the US Pacific Command sent a 27 member high profile naval team to Trincomalee harbor in Sri Lanka, which is in the Tamil areas, to design the master plan of the future war. As the peace talks were becoming promising the US government decided to hold a key meeting associated with the peace process in Washington and thereby excluding the LTTE from the table. It was the first breach of parity of esteem, which led to the collapse of the peace talks. The US government also declined to allocate funds to the joint mechanism between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state to rehabilitate the Tsunami-affected areas.
The EU acted in a constructive way by promoting a negotiated settlement. Ireland welcomed the LTTE delegation and also gave training to the LTTE police in areas of human rights and civilian policing. Martin McGuinness travelled to Sri Lanka to encourage both parties towards a negotiated settlement. However, when the British government was holding the EU chair, under pressure from the US government, the LTTE was banned by the EU giving an upper hand to the Sinhala supremacists who were demanding a military solution.
The war and the massacre
The war started from the Trincomallee harbor area in the east in 2007 as prescribed by the US Pacific Command displacing and killing thousands of Tamils. It moved to the northern region and maximum firepower was used from all four corners expecting total subjugation. Nevertheless, the decades long resistance could not be subdued easily. At the time of the signing of the 2002 ceasefire agreement there were half a million people who had voluntarily decided to live in the Tamil Eelam state working in full force in many sectors such as fishing, agriculture, healthcare, education, childcare, policing, military, media in building new country. In that, the social achievements were remarkable. The gender balance was very high. Domestic violence and petty crimes were very low. The level of political awareness in the society was very high. Care for the disabled people were exemplary. This area was around 15,000 square kilometers, which was around 70 % of the Tamil region. The more the Sri Lankan security forces attacked the more the Tamil people moved interior to be with the LTTE. Due to unbearable firepower some were forced to move to the Sri Lankan military controlled areas. In the last few months the area was reduced to 1.5 square kilometers where 350,000 people lived. This shows the power of resistance of the Tamil people. It is therefore not only a story of repression and war, but also story of collective resistance and hope.
The internationally acclaimed well-researched documentary No Fire Zone: Killing Fields of Sri Lanka shows how the Sri Lankan state deliberately targeted this densely populated area including the No Fire Zone which the state itself declared. Hospitals were bombed many times. Food convoys were directly targeted. The figures were deliberately deflated to give the impression that there were a very few who live with the LTTE. Amidst all these no international pressure on the Sri Lankan state could be seen. Not a single Security Council Meeting was held. Wikileaks reveals how the US Ambassador to Colombo showed satellite images of heavy weapons being used by the Sri Lankan security forces against the civilians to the Sri Lanka President. The President seems to have said, ‘yes, you people know better than I do’! On the 18 May the Sri Lankan state declared that it has officially won the war. A day or two before this the Tamil political leaders who surrendered waving white flags to the Sri Lankan military with the assurance of the SL president and the UN were massacred. Some of these leaders had travelled to Ireland during the peace process.
Aftermath of Massacre
The government called its military operation a rescue operation or a humanitarian operation. They named the refugee camps that kept over 350,000 people welfare centers, which were funded by the UN agencies. In the immediate aftermath of the war the UN Secretary General visited these camps. These were really concentration camps where there were daily arrests, disappearances, torture and rape. One of the victims of these concentration camps, Tamilvani, who worked as a humanitarian worker in the state of Tamil Eelam will speak in Belfast on 18 May. These camps were there for nearly 2 years. What happened to the people who lived in the Tamil Eelam state and those who were later forced to flee to the concentration camps?
- According to the first UN report there were at least 40,000 who were massacred in the last phase of the war. The second UN report reveals that there were 70,000 who were massacred. However, the Bishop of Mannar stated that at least over 140,000 people have been unaccounted for.
- What happened to the people in concentration camps? Many were arrested as LTTE suspects. At the initial stage there were at least 12,000 political prisoners who were never called with that name as Bobby Sands and others were not called with that name. There was no independent body that monitored their detention and they were kept incommunicado. Most of them have disappeared. Today there are thousands of loved ones who are demanding and answer from the Sri Lankan state about these disappearances. Some of these men and women were handed over to the Sri Lankan military by their families on the last phase of the war
- Many of those who were resettled were not given their own land. They were given land in uninhabitable areas infested with mosquitos and snakes, which also lack basic facilities like water.
- In addition to large scale military camps every single small village has got a military camp which engages in intimidating the civilian population, particularly the ex-combatants. Female ex-combatants have become the most vulnerable group.
- The entire civil administration is being controlled by the military.
- The force density in the northern district of Jaffna is ¼ which means there is a soldier for one Tamil family. This ratio exceeds the military-civilian ratio in Chechnya, Kashmir and Baghdad (just after the US invasion) (A Correspondent 2012, 35-36). By 2012, out of 19 divisions of the Sri Lankan Army 14 had been stationed in the north. Even after the post-war regime change in 2015 this number remains the same. The new regime of 2015 has categorically stated that it will not scale down the military presence in the region.Out of 18,000 square kilometers of the Tamil region at least 7,000 have been acquiring by the Sri Lankan security forces. Today there are thousands of displaced families who enaged in continuous protest demand their lands back.
- In these lands, in addition to maintaining military structures the security forces engage in farming, food processing, providing houses for the local tourists, etc. It has to be noted that some of these lands have been full of residential areas. Moreover, the only and the most fertile swath of land covering 4, 589 acres in Valikamam North in Jaffna peninsula, has been occupied by the military for decades (Tamilnet 2017). The navy also engages in fishing. Mullikulam and Mayliddi are such rich fishing villages whose original inhabitants are barred from entry. The security forces engage in tourist industry and have built holiday resorts in Kankasanthurai and in Chundikum. It also runs a range of restaurants, mini-supermarkets and barber saloons across the region. Some of these are located adjoining the A9 main road that connects the north and south. This is the road that is being frequently used by thousands of local and foreign tourists daily. In addition to these, the military runs large-scale farms and war museums. Permanent structures have been built as part of this business-military complex. It has been publicly acknowledged by the government that in the Kilinochchi district alone there are 12 military-run farms where pulses, maize and groundnut are grown using modern technology. According to the above report around 2,500 people are employed in these farms. Some of them are political prisoners. A majority of the farm workers are women.
- Kilinochchi district is an agrarian region, which has very good soil and water resources. It is also a region, which was severally affected by war displacing and destroying all most all the villages. As the military has engaged in farming and many other businesses the Tamils who have been resettled have little access to means of income. Even the small number of Tamil farmers who have started cultivating cannot compete with the low prices of products of the military farms. The military can give these products at a low cost due to cheap labor and large-scale farming. It is a military cooperatism that has been formed as part of post-war reconstruction, which makes the military an integral component of the north and east. The impact of this integration is destruction of the essential economic foundation of the Tamils as a nation.
- There are large numbers of Buddhist shrins that are being erected in the Tamil areas which are predominantly Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Buddhist monasteries have been built to accommodate Buddhist monks. Tamil names have been replaced with Sinhala names. New Sinhala settlements have been built in the Tamil areas destroying the contiguity of the Tamil region
The International Complicity
As the material basis of the Tamil nation is being rapidly destroyed the Sri Lankan state has been mandated by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to probe into the last phase of the war. Through the UNHRC resolution political justice has been traded off with criminal justice. Tamil victims have been told to seek criminal justice under the unitary state structure.
In fact, the new regime has not officially accepted that crimes were committed. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State in a press release issued on the UNHRC resolution in 2015 stated that transitional justice should be sought ‘while safeguarding the reputation of those, including within the military, who conducted themselves with honor and professionalism’ (Kerry 2015). If at all there is an acceptance of crimes these are classified as aberrations or deviations which are isolated individual cases, but not as systemic and coordinated crimes committed against the Tamil people by the Sri Lankan state and its allies in protecting the unitary state structure and its geo-strategic complex in Asia. Under the implementation of UNHRC resolution a countrywide consultation for establishment of mechanisms for rule of law has started aided by donor countries. In this process, it is the human rights of all that have been reiterated, in general, meaning Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.
The distinct collective historical oppression and massacres experienced by Tamils under the unitary state structure and its accompanying discriminatory ideology and practices have not be been treated in particular. Furthermore, the government has categorically rejected any participation of international judges in investigation of human rights abuses.
The Irish peace activists have given a great lead in highlighting the mass atrocities committed against the Tamil people. They under the leadership of the Irish Forum for Peade in Sri Lanka and International Human Rights Association-Bremen organized two Tribunals on Sri Lanka, The Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka, one in 2010 in Trinity College Dublin and the other in 2013 in St Paul’s Church, Bremen, Germany. These Tribunals have found the Sri Lankan state guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and Genocide whilst holding UK and USA governments complicit in these crimes. The Tribunal demands that an international independent investigation should be held excluding the parties who are complicit in the crimes committed against the Tamils people. The Tribunal also recommends that the 18 May should be declared an international day to remember the Tamil massacre. In fact as it was mentioned it is not simply a story of repression, but also of great resistance. As the Republican movement continues so should the Tamil movement for freedom. That is why the Tamil activists want to commemorate their day on the graveyards of Bobby Sands and others. We remember the dead, but we do so with hope of a liberated future.