The Sri Lankan Army onslaught against the Tamils continues unabated with the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, including in the government declared safe zones.
Human Rights Watch, in a report released on 20 February, estimated that 2,000 civilians had been killed and 5,000 injured since the rapid escalation of the war from the 10 December last year.
The Tamil Tigers have been driven back to a small pocket of land around 50 square kilometres. Anyone attempting to flee risks being shot by the Tigers, who are holding out for an international intervention that would allow them to keep control of some territory and population. The only such intervention on the cards is a US “humanitarian” deployment, perhaps backed up by India, with the Obama administration maintaining the stance of support for the elimination of Tigers making clearly minimal noises about human rights.
Some 37,000 northern Tamils who managed to escape are being forcibly detained in camps by the army, under terrible conditions with totally inadequate medical provision. People are being “disappeared”. In the Tiger controlled area, some 150,000 civilians are beginning to die of starvation and disease.
There doesn’t seem any immediate hope. President Rajapakse’s party was boosted by provincial elections in February, which he managed to turn into a referendum on the war. All the major opposition parties are supporting the war and have lost out to the ruling coalition. Only in the areas of the Tamil plantation workers, the most oppressed workers in the country, did the government lose seats; most of the 60,000 voters deemed ineligible for lack of ID and papers were among these workers.
The political climate in Sri Lanka continues to degenerate everywhere. Media workers face some of the worst repression meted out anywhere in the world. The authorities have recently seized on a dispute between rival (right-wing) student groups to shut down the Kelaniya university, arresting students and lecturers (all now released or bailed). The university of Colombo denied permission for a debate on the capitalist crisis and the prospects of socialism in the 21st century that would have included the general secretary of the Socialist Equality Party, who are among the only consistent socialist opponents of the Tigers.
Across Europe, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Tamil Nadu in south India, the Tamil diaspora has been thoroughly mobilised in solidarity with their people. Most of the activities outside south Asia are being organised by agents and supporters of the Tigers. The ban on the Tigers in all these countries precludes thoroughly open support at the moment, though after the 80,000 strong London Tamil demonstration on 31 January the closing rally (down to a few thousand by the end) saluted Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, several times. The demands across the world are to stop the genocide and recognise the right of self-determination through a political process negotiated with the Tigers.
The political strategy of organisations like the British Tamil Forum (BTF) is to hegemonise political representation of the Tamil diaspora (which they have more or less done here) and to lobby government on the Tigers’ behalf, though under proscription conditions they focus mainly on human rights and self-determination issues. In this regard they have developed an increasingly effective communalist machine. In my area, in north-west London, the Labour Party has responded to this machine with lip service and attendance at big public meetings and pickets. Many of the leading Tamil community figures have found political homes wherever they can, in the Lib Dem and Tory parties. A similar pattern of cross-party communal politicking exists in France.
There were no Sinhala speakers at the big demonstration. One consistent fighter for Tamil rights, who is of mixed ethnicity and Tamil-speaking, a member of the Socialist Party here, had his place on the platform rescinded.
The BTF – and the Tigers – are bourgeois nationalists. They have no interest in working-class unity between Tamil and Sinhala workers. They talk up the inability of the two peoples to live together, denying many ordinary Tamils’ ability to distinguish between the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala people as a whole. In Paris, Socialist Equality Party activists have been threatened for handing out leaflets.
The BTF have championed US attorney Bob Fine’s crusade to impeach three leading figures in the Sri Lankan state who are US citizens for genocidal war crimes. On one level this is a “genocide”, and for sure this war has the overwhelming support of the Sinhala working-class, educated in Sinhala chauvinism.
As a socialist, I think we should see that the Tamils have been rendered a separate people by the actions of the Sri Lankan state over decades and have the right to self-determination. But we can oppose the regime of the Tigers, their cult of martyr bombers, their political alliances, their record of repression of Tamils, and their coercive organisation across the world, even while recognising their defeat is also in an immediate sense a defeat of all Tamil people.
The first question for socialists outside of Sri Lanka is whether they intend to make solidarity with the Tamil people and the Sinhala working-class. Without our politics and solidarity, which has historically had a strong influence in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to see a way of stopping this terrible genocide and degeneration of the whole social fabric of Sri Lanka. What goes on in London, with a Tamil population of perhaps 250,000, is an extension of the conflict in Sri Lanka, yet there were perhaps no more than 30 non-Tamils on the huge London demonstration.
International solidarity, with an appeal for class unity and the defence of Tamil rights, is needed urgently.