Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has always been a cause for tensions in South Asia. In its war against the Tamil rebellion in the north of the island, the Sri Lankan government has achieved a military victory. But it cannot achieve political stability unless it recognizes the inalienable rights of Tamil minorities and ensures democratic liberties for all its citizens.
The immediate issue to be tackled by the government is the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of about 300,000 Tamils displaced by the battles between the government troops and Tamil rebels. They were forced to leave their homes in the Northern Province and are now housed in government-run welfare centers in the northern districts of Vavuniya and Jaffna.
The Sri Lankan Tamils have had a long history of deprivation of a political solution that genuinely addresses the Tamil grievances and aspirations. Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic state with about 74% of the population being the Sinhala-speaking Buddhists and minorities consisting of Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims. For the past three decades, the small island was caught in the internal war between the military forces and Tamil extremists. The war claimed over 70,000 lives, with hundreds of thousands more injured and displaced.
The Sinhalese-dominated governments, after independence from Britain in 1948, had been discriminating and unleashing repression against the Tamils. The policy of the ruling elites, inspired by the Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism, resulted in anti-Tamil pogroms on many occasions and cultural offensives such as the declaration of Sinhala as the only official language of the state.
The character of the Tamil struggle for equality changed in due course. Replacing the demand for autonomy within a federal system, the demand for a separate Tamil state, called Eelam, was raised. Thousands of Tamil refugees fled to the nearby South Indian State of Tamil Nadu. The Tamils in Tamil Nadu, with their traditional cultural bonds with the Sri Lankan Tamils, were sympathetic to their cause. Since the politics of Tamil Nadu was entangled with the Sri Lankan ethnic affairs, the government of India had always been concerned about the developments in Sri Lanka.
From the early 1980s, the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east. Later, it lost its credibility and support among the Tamil community due to its ruthlessness in eliminating not only the Sinhalese but also the dissenting voices inside the Tamil community. It also lost the long-term sympathy of the Tamils in the neighboring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, through its assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India. Both major political parties, the ruling the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), had long failed to address the root causes of the conflict. The present government headed by the President Mahinda Rajapakse of SLFP is still refusing to address the basic issues.
The separate Tamil homeland, as demanded by certain Tamil organizations, would in no way serve the interests of the working people of Sri Lanka as the old colonial principle of divide and rule is still practiced by the big powers in the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka. That sort of separatism has done enormous damage to the cause of Tamil minority. Also, the separate Tamil Eelam would help foreign powers interfere not only in Sri Lanka but in the whole South Asian region.
The US military base in Diego Garcia, situated in the Indian Ocean, was used to launch bombing missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The US also is interested in the strategically important port of Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka. Driven by the geopolitical strategic importance of this region, the US had always taken keen interest in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
The aggressive NATO expansion in the region as a counterweight to China has already been on the agenda of the imperial players. In the name of the war on terror, the US and NATO undertook many military campaigns to defend their corporate interests in the Asian region and succeeded in obscuring the legitimate grievances of the people. So, within a united Sri Lanka, a lasting political solution based on autonomy for the Tamil areas and the democratic power sharing at the center with the devolution of political power to the provinces that included the Tamil-dominated North and East could only be the right direction. The international community should pressure the Sri Lankan government to take up measures in this direction.
However, the so-called international community would usually pay little attention to the sufferings of the oppressed people in the Third World. The democratic-minded international community has to play a role in this regard. It must ask the Sri Lankan government to choose more humane alternatives to solve the problems of Tamil nationality, instead of taking up military strategies. Otherwise, any peace would be illusory and short-lived.
The international Left has also to realize that, when there is still a large number of people affected by national ethnic oppression in South Asia, its impossible to build up a strong, united fight against the exploitative global corporate capital. The strengthening of moral support to the cause of the federal democratic solution in Sri Lanka would help the working people of Sri Lanka to organize themselves as a responsible left alternative.
N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2009
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