ASHOK KUMAR IS a 2008-2009 Fulbright Research Scholar in Sri Lanka. He was interviewed by email for Against the Current by Dianne Feeley and David Finkel shortly after the crushing of the “Tamil Tigers” by the Sri Lankan military offensive.
Against the Current: What are the fundamental grievances of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka?
Ashok Kumar: The escalation of Tamil demands directly correlates with an increase in state terror and repression against the Tamil population. Ethnic self-identification in Sri Lanka has historically preceded peoples’ identification as “Sri Lankan.”
The Singhalese (the Buddhist Sinhala speaking majority) and Tamil (the Hindu and Christian Tamil speaking minority) are the primary actors in the conflict, while Tamil-speaking Muslims and English-speaking Burghers have played tertiary roles in the Sri Lankan civil war. Their divisions, formed along ethno-linguistic lines, are strongly tied to historic class formations, exploited and further institutionalized by 400 years of successive Portuguese, Dutch, and finally British occupations.
The current manifestation of the conflict is rooted in policies instituted immediately following Sri Lankan independence in 1948. One of the first acts by the Singhalese government was the denial of citizenship rights to over a million Tamil estate workers who were descendants of South Indian Tamil “coolies,” indentured slaves brought to Sri Lanka by the British to work the tea and coffee plantations.
Today many estate workers continue to be denied citizenship rights and are the lowest-paid workers in the country. Although this sector is heavily unionized, almost all are either employer unions or “yellow unions” controlled by the government.
The denial of citizenship was the first of many laws that would target the “up country” Tamils of the central highlands. Many laws were aimed at the “Ceylon” Tamils of the northern and eastern parts of the country, who arrived in Sri Lanka thousands of years ago.
The “Sinhala-only Law” of 1956 was another policy that relegated Tamils to permanent second-class citizens by effectively denying most Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers the right to hold government jobs.
In 1971 the government introduced the “policy of standardization,” which established regional education quotas for university and strongly hindered education opportunities for the Tamils.
The Tamils spent the next few decades resisting these policies through nonviolent civil disobedience, which was met with the full brutality of the Singhalese police and military. Government-backed mobs organized anti-Tamil pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977, and “Black July” of 1983 in which at least 3,000 Tamil civilians were killed and over 800,000 Tamils fled the country.
Eventually this repression led some Tamil youth to seek out other means of resistance. In 1972, the year that Buddhism was declared the state religion, the militant Tamil struggle was formed. With a new found militancy, what began as minimal demand of basic Tamil rights in the 1950s graduated to a broader fight for self-determination, governance, and by the mid-1970s, a struggle for an independent Tamil state, Eelam.
Tamils today continue to suffer under the Sinhalese state with wide-ranging grievances such as forced abductions, arbitrary arrests, torture, lack of freedom of movement, inferior education, and language rights violations, to name a few.
ATC: Are there any possible points of connection with issues confronting Singhalese and Tamil working people?
AK: The Singhalese state has promoted populism and nationalism amongst Singhalese workers in order to create the illusion that they must depend on the state in order to survive against an inflated Tamil threat. By selling the Tamil threat as an existential one, the state has successfully built a consensus amongst the Singhalese working class that the Tamil is the primary obstacle to their freedom.
This wasn’t always the case. The primary Singhalese socialist and communist parties advocated some form of regional devolution of power in the 1950s, but that position weakened with each successive coalition government.
The reactionary leftist parties, which spent two decades after independence working with the ultra-nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), joined the coalition government under the banner of the “United Front” in 1968 and incorporated a nationalist position regarding Tamil rights.
The divide-and-rule policy of the British government had promoted Tamils, giving some of them preferential treatment with jobs and educational opportunities. The Singhalese left argued that the primary beneficiaries of colonialism in Sri Lanka were the Tamils; so denying them equal rights was a form of reparations for the Singhalese.
In doing so, however, they ignored the experiences of the Tamil working class who had been equally oppressed by imperialism. Leftist sloganeering and cheap truisms that were incorporated into Singhalese left ideology failed to account for working people of both ethnicities.
Much of the Tamil left believes that an ethnic minority of 18% can never free themselves without the support of the Singhalese working class. Originally, the Tamil militant organizations EPRLF (Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front), PLOTE (Peoples’ Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam), and EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students) were all revolutionary left organizations that subscribed to the philosophy that uniting with the Muslim and Singhalese working class was crucial to the broader struggle.
Eventually members of these organizations were absorbed or killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or “Tigers,” the least ideological and most violent of the Tamil groups. In the years to follow, the LTTE not only refused to reach out to the Singhalese working class and Muslims, but also alienated the Eastern Tamils, who were of second-class status within the North-East Tamil hierarchy.
ATC: Does the defeat of the LTTE mean the end of the Tamil national autonomy struggle? If not, what new forms might it take?
AK: It’s hard to say at this point what new forms the struggle will take. I don’t believe that the survival of the Tamil struggle is contingent on the LTTE. There was a movement for Tamil liberation before the LTTE and there will be one after. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but some important factors are a committed Tamil diaspora to re-energize the struggle (particularly second-generation Tamil youth), the collective memories of the hundreds of thousands detained in the refugee camps and the international spotlight on the situation.
The recent crisis has infuriated South Indians and many in the international community, who may begin to support the movement for Tamil autonomy. The fact that “Sri Lanka” is now irrevocably connected with “genocide” can only further legitimize the struggle for Tamil self-determination in the international community — although I acknowledge this might be too optimistic.
Some with whom I have spoken in the Tamil community are of the belief that Western nations may now push the Sri Lankan government to recognize a nominal form of Tamil autonomy. Current President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently indicated that he would begin the process of instituting the 1987 peace agreement brokered by India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
This agreement, however, was established without the consultation of rebel groups and led to a battle between the LTTE and Indian forces that resulted in the death of over 1,000 Indian soldiers and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. The agreement includes devolution of power to the provinces as established in the 13th amendment of the constitution, a merger of the northern and eastern provinces, and granting official language status to Tamil. Fulfilling that promise remains to be seen.
Given the current sentiment of many in the Tamil community, many Tamils may resort back to the pre-1983 tactics of nonviolent struggle, accompanied by a low-intensity guerrilla movement.
The government is hoping that the Tamils use their minimal electoral power to win minor concessions from the Sri Lankan government. However, the government recently rejected an offer by the LTTE to join the political process. Shortly after their surrender, the LTTE spokesperson stated their intention to reject violence and seek only peaceful means to achieve the goals of the Tamil people.
Nonetheless, in the foreseeable future Tamils will be negotiating any power-sharing agreement from a position of considerable weakness.
ATC: Is the level of civilian deaths as high as is being reported (something like 10,000 in the last months, 70,000 in the last 27 years)?
AK: Given the information available, those are the numbers that are generally agreed upon, but it is difficult to estimate since journalists and aid workers are barred from the area. However, we do know that there are roughly 300,000 refugees in the military-run Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps under conditions described by UN’s Ban Ki-Moon on a recent visit as “the most appalling” in the world.
Journalists and international aid agencies have been barred from the camps and the government has not been clear as to when the refugees will be allowed to leave. The UN Human Rights Council scheduled a special session to discuss conditions in the IDP camps.
The only independent information on casualty counts came from doctors who worked in the conflict zone. Those doctors have now been taken into custody by the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the umbrella group for Tamil nationalist parties, estimated that, as of May 12th, more than 10,000 had been killed and 20,000 injured in the past five months.
The UN confirmed those numbers putting it at 6,500 civilians in the last three months. In what the UN decried as a “bloodbath,” the shellings on May 10th and 11th alone killed 1,000 civilians, including 100 children, according to UN estimates. The LTTE released a statement putting that number closer to 3,200.
The London Times has just released an estimate that those who died in the last two months as “no less than 20,000.”
ATC: Did the government deliberately target the civilian population as we know the Israeli military forces did in Gaza?
AK: Yes. On May 1st satellite images of the government designated “no-fire zones” were released by the United Nations. The UN attests and witnesses confirm that government forces deliberately called desperate and starving refugees to the zones with promises of safety, only to bombard them with heavy artillery and air strikes. The accusations themselves have not been fully repudiated by the government, although some government officials have suggested that the bomb marks could be the work of the LTTE.
Currently, some Latin American and European Union countries are seeking to establish an investigation of Sri Lanka’s war crimes. Presumably, in an attempt to deflect attention from its own crimes, Israel has called for a comprehensive investigation into Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses.
It is doubtful that those efforts will go very far due in large part to Sri Lanka’s intense lobbying campaign to the non-aligned countries as well strong support from China, India, and Russia. Since Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, it does not have jurisdiction to prosecute without prior UN approval.
ATC: Did the LTTE fail because it ultimately developed illusions about “total victory through armed struggle” over the Sri Lankan state?
AK: There may be a differing of opinions on how the armed struggle was conducted, but few would disagree that, realistically, armed Tamil resistance to Sinhala hegemony was historically inevitable. In this regard the LTTE didn’t fail, rather the Sri Lankan government is simply too brutal. How can you combat a government that is willing and able to commit genocide?
The real question is whether the LTTE could have prevented the government from committing genocide by engaging international actors. They couldn’t because their methodology was ethically flawed and their ideology and intellectual views mirrored the Sri Lankan state.
The LTTE were the least intellectual, and most brutal, of the Tamil liberation groups. This ultimately alienated many within the Tamil community and completely removed Tamil-speaking Muslims from the equation.
ATC: Many governments are expressing their concern over the “humanitarian catastrophe” of the civilian population, but what are the real-life policies of the major powers (USA, Europe, Russia and China) toward the Sri Lankan conflict and state?
AK: China and Russia have a strong alliance with the current Sri Lankan government. Both provide military support, with China’s assistance to Sri Lanka being the widest reaching of all foreign actors.
With material support of over $1 billion last year alone, China provides arms, aid, and makes sure that UN agencies are unable to hold Sri Lanka accountable for human rights violations.
China looks at Sri Lanka as an ally in strengthening its strategic position in the Indian Ocean. Its so-called “string of pearls” strategy relies on their control of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port.
With strategic ports in Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and others, China has unobstructed transport of minerals and oil from the Middle East and Africa in case future conflicts arise with India or the West.
The United States and other Western nations have recently taken a more critical public position of the Sri Lankan government’s actions. However, Sri Lanka has historically enjoyed military and economic support from the West. The United States has been heavily involved in the East of Sri Lanka. The renowned Tamil journalist Sivaram believed this a desire to control the geo-strategic Trinchomalee Harbor, one of the largest in the world.
In 2008, the United States supported the government-orchestrated Eastern province elections with full knowledge that the elections were rigged. As a result the government-backed LTTE dissident Karuna and his armed paramilitary group, Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), were installed.
U.S. support not only gave the elections more international legitimacy, but also pumped millions into the government’s program of Sinhalisation, i.e. confiscation of Muslim and Tamil lands for Singhalese interests, including “recovering ancient Buddhist sites,” establishing resettlement plots for Singhalese in the East, and the creation of “security zones” that have forced thousands of Tamils off their land. Government-aided colonialism schemes have consistently attempted to change the demographics of Tamil areas and these methods in the East are economically backed by the United States under the guise of development.
ATC: Is there an independent Sri Lankan left? What are its roots and its perspectives?
AK: The Singhalese left has fought long, hard and admirably for class equity. Although under-funded, Sri Lanka can boast free universal healthcare and university education, with thriving and often radicalized trade unions despite successive pro-neoliberal governments. However, these same left parties and unions, while supporting anti-capitalist economic policy, tend to hold dramatically different views on the national question.
The most prominent of these parties is the Maoist-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front – JVP), one of the primary coalition partners in the current Rajapakse government.
The JVP split from the Communist Party in mid-1960 and gained popularity amongst rural Singhalese students. After failed armed insurrections in the early 1970s and ‘80s, they entered the democratic process in 1994, and renounced violence (except against Tamils). The JVP and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), a party of Buddhist monks, are the main advocates of exclusivist Singhalese nationalism and have been one of the driving forces behind the aggressive military strategy.
Although the JVP still controls the Singhalese-majority unions, their political power has dramatically diminished due to the poor showing in the most recent provincial elections. It is this declining support amongst the Singhalese working class that led to a recent JVP split. The majority faction’s stated goal was to refocus efforts on issues affecting working people and broader economic policies. The minority faction, the National Freedom Front, remained close to President Rajapaksa and committed to the current prioritization of the war.
Other major players in Rajapaksa’s coalition include the formerly Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Ceylon Equal Society Party), the Leftist Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Front), and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka all of whom explicitly reject Tamil self-determination and remain committed to the current strategy of the Rajapaksa regime.
There remains a small minority on the Singhalese left, namely the New Left Front, which promotes Tamil self-determination and has not degenerated into Singhalese-nationalists but remains politically insignificant.
ATC 141, July/August 2009>