Sri Lanka: An Unfolding Catastrophe

Few people in the U.S. have paid attention to the island nation of Sri Lanka and to the decades-long struggle for self-determination by the Tamil-speaking minority community.  As the conflict has begun to intensify and make headlines in recent weeks, the Sri Lankan government has done its utmost to control the story being told by the international media.  Just as the Israelis did during their most recent invasion of Gaza, the Sri Lankan military too has prevented journalists from entering war zones.  The international media have consequently largely followed official Sri Lankan pronouncements and have encouraged us to view this decades-old conflict through the relatively new lens of the “war on terror.”

Meanwhile, human rights organizations, various NGOs, and diasporic Tamil organizations have produced evidence of a brutal military campaign by the Sri Lankan state directed against the Tamil population at large.

A recent Amnesty International press release about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka, titled “Government and Tamil Tigers Violating Laws of War” (28 Jan 2009), reads as follows:

“Recent fighting has placed more than a quarter of a million civilians at great risk.  People displaced by the conflict are experiencing acute shortages of humanitarian aid, especially food, shelter and medical care.  There has been no food convoy in the area since 16 January,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher.

The Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out military operations in areas with a civilian population.  The aerial and artillery bombardment has reportedly led to civilian deaths, injuries, the destruction of property and mass displacement.

Sri Lankan government forces have pushed the Tamil Tigers out of all major urban areas they had held for nearly a decade and into a small pocket of land.  More than 300,000 civilians who have fled the oncoming government troops are also trapped in this small area.  They have been displaced multiple times and are increasingly vulnerable as fighting moves closer.

Hundreds of people have been killed or injured and such medical care as has been available is threatened due to danger to the few health workers and damage to hospitals.

The government had declared “safe zones” to allow civilians to seek shelter, but information made available to Amnesty International indicates that several civilians in the so-called safe zone have been killed or sustained injuries as a result of artillery bombardment.

A doctor working in a hospital in a “safe zone” says that about 1,000 shells fell around the hospital.

Then, we are told that “in at least one instance,” the rebel Tamil Tigers blocked the movement of a Red Cross convoy of injured and at-risk people out of the “war zone.”  The AI press statement ends by quoting Yolanda Foster again:

“The immediate priority is medical attention for the seriously wounded.  The Tamil Tigers must let injured civilians go” says Yolanda Foster, “Preventing civilians from accessing medical care constitutes a war crime.”

The Amnesty International statement thus lists the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military only to end by suggesting that the obstacle to meeting the most “immediate priority” is the “war crime” being committed by the rebel LTTE group.  Nowhere in the statement are the words “war crime” associated with the government’s actions, which are instead referred to as “a military campaign.”

On the other hand, many Tamil activists and organizations have urged the international community to recognize the Sri Lankan government’s latest military assault on the Tamils as constituting, at a minimum, “acts of genocide” as defined by the Geneva Conventions.


On the streets of the capital Colombo, roving gangs of political thugs have waged a campaign of terror designed to intimidate any and all opposition to the Sri Lankan state.  On January 28, human rights lawyer and activist Amitha Ariyaratne received death threats from police officers at a police station just north of Colombo.   Three days later, his office was burned down by an unknown arsonist.

This came on the heels of the sensational assassination on January 8 of a leading journalist and critic of the government and editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper.  Lasantha Wickramatunga was assassinated by unidentified assailants during his morning commute in rush-hour traffic.  His car window was smashed in, and he was shot in the head, the chest, and the stomach.  He died on the way to the hospital.

Wickramatunga’s last article, “And Then They Came for Me,” was a moving and passionate letter to his readers predicting his own death at the hands of his government.  Not surprisingly, Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 165th (out of 173 countries) in its index of press freedom around the world.

The Sri Lankan government has turned a deaf ear to international human rights organizations and Tamil NGOs who have complained about innumerable human rights violations and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the northeast.  Using “war on terror” rhetoric, Sri Lankan state propaganda has instead deflected international media attention towards war crimes allegedly committed by the LTTE.

However, the Sri Lankan government has absolved itself of its own obligation to respect human rights.  In 2006 the Supreme Court declared that “[T] the Human Rights Committee at Geneva . . . is not reposed with judicial power under our Constitution” (see the text of the ruling here), providing a legal fig leaf for the government’s draconian crackdown on the Tamils.  The Asian Human Rights Commission has declared that “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka is a part of the human rights violation mechanism.”


74 percent of the Sri Lankan population consist of Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, while the rest are Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims.  Since the 1980s, a brutal civil war between the government forces and the Tamil Tigers has claimed over 70,000 lives, with hundreds of thousands more injured and displaced, the majority of them Tamils.

Most media reports date the origins of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese to the founding of the LTTE in the 1980s, but the Tamils have faced discrimination and repression at the hands of Colombo’s Sinhala-dominated government ever since Sri Lanka achieved its independence from Britain in 1948.

One of the first acts of the newly independent state in 1949 was to disenfranchise, at the stroke of a pen, some one million Tamils who had arrived in Sri Lanka in the twentieth century.  They were declared non-citizens and told to return to India.  Many of these “Indian Tamils” had been brought in by the British from India to not only labor in the tea plantations but to serve in the colonial administrative bureaucracy.  British divide-and-rule policies resulted in special privileges for middle-class Tamils who had been educated in English in India.  This bred resentment among sections of the Sinhala majority, and right-wing Sinhalese chauvinism began to gain ground during the waning years of British rule.

By disenfranchising the “Indian Tamils,” the newly-independent Sri Lankan state had resorted to a despicably ethnic-chauvinist policy and encouraged the growth of the far right.  In 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rode this wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism to come to power and unleashed the first anti-Tamil pogrom, leaving some one hundred Tamils dead and thousands displaced from their homes.  The pogroms were led, and egged on, by militant and fascistic Buddhist monks.

Another wave of anti-Tamil hysteria in the 1960s resulted in the declaration of Sinhala as the only official language of the state.  More pogroms followed in the early 1970s, with the monks and their allies periodically terrorizing and intimidating the Tamil population, while their political patrons reaped the rewards of a ready-made majority at the polls.  In 1981, in an act that many Tamils refer to as “cultural genocide,” rioting policemen burned down the Jaffna Library, which housed much of the cultural memory of the Tamil population.


In response to the disenfranchisement and the pogroms, the Tamils at first sought to negotiate with the government, but to no avail.  The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which led the political negotiations, soon lost its credibility, particularly amongst radicalizing Tamil youth in the early 1970s.  A new round of anti-Tamil pogroms in 1972 spurred the formation of various revolutionary organizations among Tamils in the northeast, particularly in the city of Jaffna.  United in demanding self-determination for the Tamils, the groups differed on the end goal.  Some demanded autonomy within a federal system, while others called for a separate state, called Eelam.  As Tamil refugees fleeing pogroms began to flock to the shores of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamils in India demanded that their state and local politicians back the struggle of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil New Tigers (TNT), which later morphed and developed into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was formed in 1972.  Over the following years, the Tigers emerged as the leading Tamil nationalist organization, but they did so by a series of targeted killings and assassinations that all but wiped out other competing organizations.  They have since been waging an armed struggle against the Sinhalese state, with armed cadres estimated to be in the high thousands.  The Tigers have operated a small but effective naval force and recently shocked the world with a surprise aerial bombing of a Sri Lankan Air Force base.

Taking on the mantle of a national liberation struggle for Tamil self-determination, the LTTE have certainly fought for Tamil rights against a brutally unyielding State, but they have been just as ruthless in quelling dissent, both within their own ranks and in Tamil society at large, by murdering reformist-oriented and moderate Tamil leaders.  It was the LTTE that invented the suicide bomber, and its cadres are known for wearing a cyanide capsule around their necks, to kill themselves if they were arrested.

Politically, the Tamil Tigers have much in common with Maoist-inspired guerilla movements like the Naxalites of India, the IRA, and the FARC in Colombia.  On the one hand, they say they are fighting for self-determination against a well-armed and ruthless state.  Their terror tactics, however, have alienated many people, including amongst the Tamils themselves.  Using violence to smash any opposition to their dominance in Tamil politics, they have unscrupulously, and with impunity, killed hundreds of Tamils over the years.

Their armed-struggle strategy produced a militarization of their organizational structure and operational thinking.  Thus, while the TNT in the 1970s had mass support among the Tamil population, and while they, together with several other revolutionary organizations were often referred to, affectionately, as “the boys,” the Tamil Tigers soon left many progressives disillusioned, despite their rhetorical gestures towards Marxism.  The LTTE is viewed by many Tamils today with ambivalence, if not outright hostility.  Nevertheless, during any military escalation, the state’s indiscriminate targeting of Tamil-populated areas pushes the Tamil population into the arms of the LTTE.

The LTTE receives substantial support from Tamils in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and set up training bases there in its early years with a wink and a nudge from the state government.  The LTTE reportedly also receives its funding from a fairly large and active Tamil diaspora, despite being proscribed as a “terrorist organization” by the U.S., India, and many other countries.

In 1987, the Indian military was called upon, at first by the government and the LTTE, to help broker a peace deal.  It was not long before the peacemakers became an occupying force in Tamil territory and turned their guns on the rebels.  Now colluding with the Sri Lankan state, the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) launched a brutal military campaign to “disarm” (wipe out) the LTTE.  When they finally withdrew in defeat, an Indian military commander said that this had been “India’s Vietnam.”

The LTTE soon exacted its revenge in the most notorious suicide-bombing in history: the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.  The Indian government’s crackdown on LTTE support bases in India was almost immediate.


In 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE agreed to a ceasefire and to a peace process mediated by Norway.  The United National Party (UNP), headed by Ranil Wickramasinghe had hoped to achieve a power-sharing arrangement with the LTTE.  The centrist UNP was the leading partner of the ruling center-right coalition.  The big business backers of the UNP hoped that by ending the civil war, they could attract foreign capital and take advantage of Sri Lanka’s cheap labor costs to compete on the world market, and thereby produce their own version of the Indian economic “miracle.”

The LTTE, for its part, demanded the creation of an Interim Self-Governing Authority in the Tamil-dominated areas in the north and east of the country, which the Tamils would govern for five years, and the UNP seemed, on the eve of the negotiations, willing to consider a “broad devolution of powers.”

On the other hand, the more hardline Sinhala factions of Sri Lanka’s rulers, such as then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s SLFP, the Janatha Vimukti Perumana (JVP), and the Buddhist clergy, wanted no truce with the LTTE and insisted on maintaining Sinhala dominance over the country’s affairs.

When, on October 31, 2003, the LTTE announced its plans to set up an Interim Self-Governing Administration in the Tamil-majority regions in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the SLFP and JVP forces in the government bared their teeth.  On November 4, Kumaratunga imposed a state of emergency across the country, and stripped key parliamentary officials of their authority.  The BBC reported: “[S]he accused Mr Wickramasinghe of giving too many concessions to the Tamil Tigers.  By then dissolving parliament in early 2004, Mrs Kumaratunga effectively scuttled Mr Wickramasinghe’s peace process with the Tigers, argues Mr Senaratna [a former Kumaratunga associate ‘who later crossed over to the UNP’].”

The Sri Lankan political establishment had once again proved themselves to be unrelentingly chauvinist in their outlook.  The peace process was now in shreds, as was the tenuous ceasefire that the government and LTTE forces had signed.

The 2005 elections saw the Sinhala-chauvinist SLFP-JVP alliance, headed by Mahinda Rajapakse, eke out a narrow victory.  Rajapakse’s margin of victory was a mere 180,000 votes.  Moreover, Tamils stayed away from the polls, and according to the BBC, “the boycott in Tamil-dominated areas was almost total.”

In January 2006, Norwegian diplomats brokered what appeared to be a resumption of peace talks, but the Sri Lankan government refused to enter into the talks unless the LTTE agreed to renegotiate the ceasefire agreement they had earlier signed.  The LTTE refused, demanding instead the implementation of the ceasefire and cessation of military attacks on Tamil areas.

The still-born peace negotiations were soon forgotten in the wake of a series of bomb blasts at various Sri Lankan army bases, culminating in yet another spectacular suicide-bomb attack by the LTTE, this time on no less a target than the Sri Lankan Army Headquarters, killing a senior army commander.  The low-intensity war began to escalate rapidly following the LTTE’s surprise air attack on a Sri Lankan air force base in March 2007.  The LTTE already had a fairly large artillery, but now it boasted of being the only guerilla organization in the world with an air force.

Over the past year, however, the Sri Lankan military has pushed back with an all-out assault on the Tigers.  They have mined the waters in the north to cripple the LTTE’s naval force, the Sea Tigers.  Relentless heavy-artillery bombardment of Tamil areas has gradually pushed the LTTE into a smaller and smaller enclave, and hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been displaced as a result of the fighting.

The LTTE have been accused by many international aid organizations of preventing civilians from leaving the war zone and of using civilians as human shields.  Given the LTTE’s unscrupulous record, this is quite plausible.  But the LTTE are also calling on the government to stop the shelling of Tamil territories (including so-called “safe zones” and hospitals), raising the question: is the greater war crime an unrelenting bombardment of large, populated areas by a powerful, sophisticated military machine, or a rebel force refusing to allow civilians to leave the war zone?


By all accounts the LTTE forces have been all but defeated, and their military capability severely diminished.  From controlling some 18,000 sq. km. of territory, the LTTE find themselves hemmed into a 200 sq. km. area today.  It might only be a matter of time, we are told, before their leader, V. Prabhakaran, is captured or killed by the Sri Lankan military.  The Rajapakse government’s chest-thumping triumphalism can already be heard in the international media.

But the government has made no friends among the Tamils with its latest campaign.  Nor has it offered any semblance of autonomy or devolution of powers to the Tamil community after its military victory over the LTTE.  As such, its victory celebrations might be premature.

What the LTTE’s defeats reveal most clearly is that the strategy of armed struggle has run its course.  Armed struggle has, furthermore, relied on the passivity of the majority of ordinary Tamils (i.e., civilians), and alienated many, thus discouraging the emergence of a mass-based liberation movement.  The Tamil resistance itself will very likely continue, but in what shape or form, and with what politics, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, there have been several demonstrations in Tamil Nadu, India, demanding a stop to the Sri Lankan military offensive.  Tamil-nationalist politicians in India have variously postured as the spokespersons for the sense of outrage and grief among thousands of Tamil-speaking Indians who share cultural and historical ties with the Sri Lankan Tamils.  The politicians take to the airwaves to periodically accuse one another of betraying the Tamil cause, while hypocritically insisting that they are against self-determination for oppressed minorities within India’s borders, in the northeast and in Kashmir.

Internationally, Tamil human rights organizations are calling upon their supporters to demand an end to the Sri Lankan military’s genocidal campaign.  Many are demanding an arms embargo on Sri Lanka, as well as protests at Indian embassies worldwide to protest India’s support of the Sri Lankan government.  Such demonstrations of solidarity with the Tamils of Sri Lanka must be welcomed.

Others are urging the U.S. and United Nations to intervene to stop the killing.  However, calling on the fox to guard the henhouse is never a good idea.  The U.S. and U.N. are taking their lead from the regional hegemon, India, whose rulers have no desire to see a successful Tamil liberation movement just south of their borders.  After all, they face similar secessionist movements in Kashmir and in the northeast.  Having banned the LTTE as a terrorist organization, the Indian government is today fully behind Rajapakse’s brutal campaign.

A just and lasting solution to the conflict is impossible without the recognition of the right to self-determination of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.  For the millions of ordinary Sri Lankans, Sinhalese and Tamil alike, there is little to choose from among the various establishment parties, on the one hand, and the LTTE on the other.  The parties of the so-called “left,” the Communist Party and the sometime-Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP), have proven their bankruptcy time and again by supporting the state and even SLFP pogromists against the interests of ordinary Sri Lankans, Sinhalese and Tamils alike.  Meanwhile, right-wing Sinhala-chauvinist forces have been used to silence journalists and human-rights activists, intimidate dissenters in the capital, and thereby prop up the belligerent Rajapakse government.

There is a crying need for a mass-based socialist alternative from below that can challenge the priorities of a system which pits Tamils against Sinhalese in the interests of power and profit.  In the stifling political climate created by state-sponsored terror and intimidation, on the one hand, and triumphalist “war on terror” rhetoric on the other, the immediate prospects for the emergence of such an alternative seem bleak.  Nevertheless, the elements of an genuine left alternative do exist, both within Sri Lanka and around the world.  The protests being called by the Tamil diaspora might presage the coming together of some of these forces.

Nagesh Rao is Assistant Professor of English at the College of New Jersey.  A version of this article was published by on 18 February 2009.