No-one can fail to be moved at the plight of people in Northern Sri Lanka as the government army advances on the Tamil Tigers.
In London this January an estimated 100,000 people attended a rally to protest against the Sri Lankan government's military offence against the remaining stronghold of the Tamil Tigers. In April there was another demonstration on a similar scale and a vigil has been held with one participant going on hunger strike as part of an attempt to persuade the British government to intervene.
In Sri Lanka itself the Tamil Tigers have been driven into an enclave in the north-eastern coast of the country, their efforts to create a separate state apparently near defeat. The last few months have been defined by the brutality and barbarism of the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers, whose callous disregard for human life and suffering has only been matched by their cynicism in blatantly contradicting reality. The Tigers deny holding 150,000 people in the enclave as a human shield and shooting those who attempt to escape; they deny forcing children to fight and of firing from within civilian crowds; the government denies using aircraft and heavy artillery to rain indiscriminate destruction on those trapped inside, and also denies of depriving them of food and water. By the end of April, according to the UN, some 6,500 people had been killed, including several hundred children, while many thousands have been injured, overwhelming the few medical centres still functioning. A week previously thousands escaped the clutches of the Tigers after government forces opened a breach in the enclave, only to fall into the clutches of the army and to be immediately thrown into detention camps. The Tigers have called for a truce and, as things got worse, declared a unilateral ceasefire but insisted on keeping their weapons and continuing the ‘liberation' struggle. The government declared it had stopped using heavy weapons and then carried on using them within its self-proclaimed ‘no-fire' zone. With the scent of victory in its nostrils and blood dripping from its hands, the government rejected the Tigers' ceasefire and called for unconditional surrender.
Nationalism in Ceylon and Sri Lanka
The events of the last few months are wholly in keeping not only with the history of the Tamil Tigers' struggle for ‘national liberation' but with the history of the state in Sri Lanka. As in many countries around the world, the last decades of colonial rule in Ceylon (as the country was then known) saw the rise of nationalist movements expressing the aspirations of the emerging indigenous bourgeoisie. The British imperialists, who controlled the country, showed their usual skill in using the existing structures and divisions in the country to strengthen their rule, such as by managing the balance of Sinhalese (the dominant ethnic group in the country) and Tamil representatives in the Ceylon Legislative Council in the 1920s. At the same time the British tended to favour Tamils when filling administrative posts because a larger proportion were English speaking.
After independence was granted in 1948 the Sinhalese bourgeoisie dominated the new parliament and introduced legislation that discriminated against and disenfranchised the Tamils. With fluctuations under different governments this has been a theme in Sri Lanka that has united the left and right, Buddhist monks and supposedly ‘marxist' revolutionaries. There have been intermittent anti-Tamil riots as well as the deportation of many thousands of Tamils who came from India. The two armed uprisings in the early 1970s and mid 1980 by the alleged ‘revolutionaries' of the Sinalese JVP (Peoples Liberation Front), for all their anti-capitalist rhetoric, were more notable for their racism and nationalism. While these uprisings were ruthlessly crushed by the state with many thousands killed, and while they showed the fragility of the Sri Lankan state and its propensity to violence, the members of the JVP were reabsorbed some years later and took their seats in parliament.
The Tamil nationalist movement also has its roots in the dying years of colonialism. It was born a movement of the bourgeoisie and has remained so, whether constitutional and non-violent or ‘revolutionary' and violent. The Tamil Tigers (or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, to give the organisation's full name) emerged from the failure of its non-violent predecessors to gain any significant or lasting power in the country. The Tigers were formed in 1975 and spent much of their first years murdering and torturing their rival Tamil groups until they had supremacy. In 1983, following the massacre of hundreds if not thousands of Tamils in anti-Tamil riots, the Tigers launched an offensive that eventually saw them gain control over large areas of the northern and eastern coastal regions with the establishment of proto-government institutions such as taxation and policing. The Tigers became notorious for their ruthlessness and brutality: they have persistently forced children to fight, were one of the first organisations to use suicide bombers and had no qualms about harming civilians, on one occasion shutting off the water supply to tens of thousands of people. In 1995 they adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing by driving out Sinhalese villagers on the border of the area they controlled. The following year, faced with a counter-offensive from the government that took control of the city of Jaffna, they drove a substantial part of the population into the countryside with them. In all, the ‘liberation struggle' over the last 30 years is estimated to have cost in excess of 70,000 lives.
The current government offensive began in 2006, following the collapse of the most recent talks between the two sides. The government was aided by information from a former senior commander of the Tigers whose defection also seems to have reduced the number of new recruits to the Tigers. The result was that the government began to push the Tigers back; and from January of this year it gradually captured all of their strongholds, forcing them to retreat to the enclave in which they and the civilians held with them are now being massacred.
The imperialist framework
In the early years after independence Sri Lanka was firmly within India's sphere of influence. It did not then have a significant role in the rivalry between the main imperialist powers but, given its closeness to India's southern shore, it always could pose a threat either in the hands of an external power or as a result of internal instability. There have been population movements between the countries resulting in numerous links, in particular between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and those in the state of Tamil Nadu in India.
Although India's aim has been to maintain the stability and integrity of the country and it has intervened to do this in different ways over the years, in the late 1970s it gave support to some of the Tamil separatist groups. This was in part to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government, which was possibly looking to develop links with powers that India disproved of, and in part as an alternative and counter-balance to the Tigers, presumably because the effectiveness of the latter threatened to destabilise Sri Lanka. In 1987 India intervened directly to stop a government offensive against Jaffna, which was then held by the Tigers, and to try and impose a settlement. A ‘peace-keeping' force was sent to the country but it fairly rapidly became engaged in fights with the Tigers and matched them in the brutality of its ‘counter-insurgency' methods. India once again promoted other Tamil groups as an alternative to the Tigers. The latter then agreed to a ceasefire and Indian troops withdrew in March 1990. However, a year later a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Ghandi and India retaliated by outlawing the Tigers.
Alongside the influence of India the intervention of Chinese imperialism has become crucial. The Chinese state is currently building a massive $1 billion port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. It will be used as a refuelling and docking station for its navy as one of a number of ports protecting its oil supplies from Saudi Arabia. It will also be invaluable to have such a resource at the southern tip of India, as part of its strategy against a major regional rival. Ever since March 2007, when Sri Lanka agreed to the Chinese plan, "China has given it all the aid, arms and diplomatic support it needs to defeat the Tigers" (Times 2/5/9).
Indeed, a spokesman for the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi has suggested that "China's arms sales have been the decisive factor in ending the military stalemate" (ibid). Indian security sources have suggested that "Since 2007 China has encouraged Pakistan to sell weapons to Sri Lanka and to train Sri Lankan pilots to fly .. Chinese fighters".
This can't all be dismissed as Indian propaganda as "China has also provided crucial diplomatic support in the UN Security Council, blocking efforts to put Sri Lanka on the Agenda" (ibid).
A victory for the Sri Lankan state will not only, therefore, result in the imposition and reinforcement of repression in the north of the country, it will have the effect of further exacerbating tensions between India and China. In contemporary capitalism there is never an end to war, each ‘victory' is only another step towards the next war, never towards any lasting peace.