Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Sri Lankan crisis

Last night I went to an extraordinary and packed meeting at a Tamil Hindu Temple on the crisis in Sri Lanka. I hadn't intended to post on the situation because I know so little about it, but attending such a moving and informative meeting convinced me that I really should say a few words.

The latest episode in the Sri Lankan government's war against the Tamils is the one more brutal chapter in a history of ethnic cleansing and violent racism that the Tamils have faced. This time though there has been an incredible upsurge from the Tamil diaspora across the world. Thousands have been demonstrating in Britain outside Parliament and, when they decided to sit down and block the bridge the main strsam news even reported it.

Many are concerned that this offensive is the last installment of a genocidal war designed to finally break the resistance of the Tamil people. A speaker from the British Tamil Forum was particularly useful and considering it was such an emotive subject for him he was very measured and calm.

From civil rights to war

Over 61 years 125,000 Tamils have been killed, 900,000 internal refugees have been created and around 1.3 million Tamils have fled the country. However, what I didn't know was that for many years the Tamil movement was a dedicated non-violent civil rights movement, greatly influenced by Gandhian philosophy.

Organising marches, non-violent actions and electoral work the movement for Tamil civil rights tried to work within the system against the injustices that were being meted out against them. In 1977 82% of the popular Tamil vote went to this movement and the Sri Lankan government had finally had enough and launched another bloody offensive.

It brought to my mind the parallels with Ireland where the burgeoning civil rights movement was gunned off the streets by the British and PIRA became the natural response of those who wanted to fight back because there no longer seemed to be a space for non-violent means. Similarly with the Tigers, if the government will kill your Parliamentarians, journalists and activists eventually people will feel that using force in return is the only available response.

Without democracy, without equality, without respect there can't be any peace - and for the Tamil people that means self determination. When the Tigers (LTTE) were put on the international terror list in 1996 it became a massive barrier to peace, because the government could then turn round and say, we don't negotiate with terrorists. But for there to be a peace process there needs to be partners, and the LTTE legitimately represent a large proportion of the Tamil population, there could be no process even without the LTTE at the table.

The murders continue

The Sri Lankan government don't want peace and can use the war on terror as a cover for their murderous actions. As the papers have begun to report the civilian casualties of the conflict are mounting, with the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) seemingly uncaring about those they kill. Jean Lambert, who had been invited to speak at the meeting described how MEPs had organised a resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire and the need for access to the area - and that even this small gesture had meant they were denounced as "apologists for terrorism"

Aerial bombing and shelling including hospitals, schools, orphanages, the use of chemical weapons and other atrocities continue whilst no outside witnesses are allowed into the area. When the Sri Lankan government claim Tamils are doing this to themselves, or that these things are not happening they do so in the full knowledge that it is they who prevent journalists reporting from the area, or aid operations preventing a humanitarian crisis.

Fears of a new round of ethnic cleansing even after the shelling has ended seem well founded given the Sri Lankan government's history. Journalists, NGO workers, and parliamentarians have been killed, jailed and suppressed.

The meeting was clear on their demands;
  • we have to stop arming the Sri Lankan Army.
  • we have to stop financing the Sri Lankan government
  • we need public statements condemning these actions (eg from Lewisham council (point e))
  • we need to foster diplomacy by taking the LTTE off the terror list
And because of the historic racism that Tamils have faced the aid cannot be administered by the government but this must be done by independent NGOs unhindered by the Sri Lankan regime.

I don't want to go on too long but there was an interesting discussion about the role of the British Empire and partition which highlighted the difficulty of politicians from the UK where we have a historic obligation but can't still be a colonial hand and must seek out a wide range of those from elsewhere - which is how MEPs like Jean Lambert have been able to be a powerful advocate by drawing in others from across Europe who's voices are seen as less tainted by historic colonialism.

As the EU considers harsher measures, like ensuring the GSP Plus trade agreement doesn't go ahead Sri Lanka has started to look to other partners who aren't as concerned about human rights like China, Libya and Iran and it raised the difficulty of what the international community can do in the face of an intransigent criminal state. Sanctions? War? Harsh words?

More than anything what struck me was that the Tamils in this meeting wanted to know that people were listening. This was the first time I've been thanked by name for simply attending a meeting and it really brought home how much Tamils feel that no one has heard the plight they are in. I'm sure that this at least is something we can do, to show that we have heard what is happening to the Tamil people.

1 comment:

Benjamin Solah said...

At the May Day Rally in Melbourne there was a large Tamil contingent and they were, by far, the most lively and passionate lot on the whole march.

I get that sense too, that they really want to be heard and that their chanting resonated with me as they seemed to be chanting for something that really mattered.