Sri Lanka: A crises overlooked-James Naish

by James Naish

Between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka was engulfed by the raging civil war between the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The World Health Organisation estimates that there have been more than 215,000 deaths, overwhelmingly affecting the Tamil population, as a result of the civil war. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 1.3 million people were displaced. There are numerous documented extrajudicial killings and cases of rape of Tamil people, although only one individual has ever been prosecuted.

In 2008-2009, the SLA launched a full-scale military assault against the LTTE in the north. The first five months of this assault saw the deaths of more than 20,000 Tamil civilians, with a further 30,000 being severely disabled. As the SLA stormed through the Tamil-populated Northern Province, more than 250,000 Tamil people were detained in prison camps, where one fifth of children have been separated from their parents. The death toll due to disease and malnutrition reached 1,400 weekly in July 2009. Basic sanitation and healthcare are severely lacking, and food is scarce. Today, the camps remain open with hundreds of thousands still detained.

The British government has been complicit in these operations, and has provided more than £13.7 million of military aid to the SLA. Des Browne, appointed as special envoy to Sri Lanka, has stated that “it is now safe to return people, including Tamils, to Sri Lanka”. David Miliband has merely issued repeated calls for ceasefires. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, directly contradicted the line taken by the British government, however, when he stated in 2009 that the situation in Sri Lanka was “by far the most appalling scenes [he had] seen [in his diplomatic missions]”.

Many of those who have escaped Sri Lanka have been hampered by the failure of governments to come to their aid. In October 2009, Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, demanded that Indonesia detain a fishing boat 250 Tamil refugees towards Australia. Since then, these refugees have been detained on the boat near Merak, Indonesia. Disease and poor sanitation are major problems on the boat, and one man has already died. Rudd has left Indonesia to deal with the problem, despite Indonesia’s poor record in handling asylum seekers.

The plight of the Tamil people has received widespread international condemnation, in particular from Amnesty International’s ‘Unlock the Camps’ campaign, the Students Against the Genocide of Tamils campaign and from Tamil Solidarity. Tamil Solidarity campaigns to raise awareness of the plight of Tamil people and also for the immediate closure of the prison camps, the right to self-determination and the immediate withdrawal of troops from Tamil-populated regions.

In January, the national co-ordinator of Tamil Solidarity debated the Sri Lankan ambassador at the European Parliament. The EU subsequently decided to impose a six month deadline on the Sri Lankan government to improve its human rights record, or lose GSP+ status. Tamil Solidarity has also organised mass demonstrations internationally, in London and Manchester, Ireland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Indonesia.

Tamil Solidarity does not condone the guerrilla tactics of the LTTE, but puts the emergence of the LTTE in the context of the desperation that many Tamil people felt. Since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1947, Tamil people have been subject to state oppression, including the murder of hundreds of Tamils in anti-Tamil pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983. In 1949, the state revoked the citizenships of more than 800,000 Indian Tamils (brought to Sri Lanka under British rule); in 1956, the Sinhala Only Act established Sinhala as the sole official language, ignoring the Tamil language. It was only in the aftermath of the 1977 elections that guerrilla tactics began to gain support amongst Tamil workers.

Despite the actions of the Sri Lankan state, it is important to note that ordinary Sinhalese workers have often stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tamil people to oppose the chauvinist policies of the government and to hide and defend Tamils from attacks by the police, the military and right-wing paramilitary groups. Workers on both sides of the ethnic divide have been forced to live daily with concrete effects of the brutal and nightmarish civil war.

At this Wednesday’s General Meeting (1.30pm) a motion is being put forward which calls on our Union to recognise and to oppose the oppression of Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka, to support the rights of ALL people in the country, and to back the Tamil Solidarity campaign. All students who support human rights should come and vote for this motion. Visit for more information.