Occasionally in the world section of the NZ Herald you might see
a headline like ‘Rebels Clash’ or ‘Sri Lanka Force bombards rebels’, usually
accompanied by a couple of sentences of reporting that explain nothing. We learn
nothing other than the Sri Lankan Armed Forces or the Tamil liberation movement,
the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), have shot at each other. Few New
Zealanders, even the well read, know much about the brutal civil war between the
Sri Lankan elite, made up of members of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, and
the LTTE, who demand a separate state for the minority Tamil people in the North
and East of the country.
Those who have heard of the war could probably tell you about
the bad things done by the LTTE, such as recruiting child soldiers, but they
would most likely be totally unaware of the
widespread racism and state terror that has been directed at the Tamil people
since Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948.
In August I was fortunate enough to go along to a public talk in Auckland by,
Dr Brian Senewiratne,
a 74 year old Sinhalese peace activist. He was originally from Sri Lanka but now
lives in Australia because he fears for his life. “I can’t go back because my
body would come back in a bag” he says. He hasn’t been back since 1984. A friend
of his, a Member of Parliament, who was going to give Dr Senewiratne a list of
ex-Mossad and British Special Air Service (SAS) mercenaries working in Sri
Lanka, was killed in an ‘accident’ when a truck ran his car off the road. The
newspapers said he was intoxicated but Dr Senewiratne says he never ever drank.
“If I had stayed in Colombo I wouldn’t have been shot. I would have had an
He supports the right of the Tamil people to maintain their language and
culture. At the start of his talk he warns the audience that the view he holds
“are anything but mainstream Sinhalese views” because to be “mainstream
Sinhalese means to define your nationalism by opposing the Tamil people”. He
continues “I’m a medical doctor. I do not support the killing of people. I’ve
been called a ‘Tamil Tiger terrorist’. I’m not a Tamil, not a Tiger and not a
Had Dr Senewiratne not spoken out against the conflict it seems he could well
have become part of Sri Lanka’s political elite, due to his family’s
connections. His father’s first cousin, SWRD Bandaranike, was the nation’s first
Prime Minister until he was shot by a fundamentalist Buddhist monk. Chandrika
Kumaratunga, who was Sri Lankan President from 1994 to 2005, is Dr Senewiratne’s
He goes into quite some detail explaining Sri Lanka’s history.
“The Sinhalese came in 300 BC and they claim they are an
Aryan race. That is a bunch of crap. Sri Lankan Tamils came at least at the
same stage as the Sinhalese – possibly even before”.
In 1769 the British arrived and absorbed the island into its
huge empire. It’s important to know about this period of Sri Lanka’s history
because as he points out “The Sri Lankan conflict has more to do with structures
put in place by Britain than problems created by Sinhalese or Tamil people”. In
the 1830s Britain brought over a large population of ‘plantation Tamils’ from
Tamil Nādu, a state in India, to work on tea and coffee plantations. He says
“Tamils are the ones who built this nation”. Britain ran Sri Lanka (then known
as Ceylon) centrally from the capital city, Colombo. There was developmental
neglect in the South, where many poor Sinhalese live, and in the North, largely
populated by Tamils.
When imperialist Britain was finally kicked out in 1947 they left a friendly
Sinhalese government in power to ensure tea exports continued unhindered. This
government then committed, in Dr Senewiratne’s words, “the first major act of
discrimination” against the Tamil people.
One million plantation Tamils were stripped of their citizenship and the
right to vote. This was done “because they [Tamils] voted against the
government. These Tamils were considered non-people until just a few years ago”.
As a 15 year old, Dr Senewiratne, went to his first protest ever against the
disenfranchisement of the Tamils. He spoke at a large political rally. He
remembers that there was “huge applause at this 15 year old school boy
speaking”. The government then made the
Sinhalese language the nation’s only official language. Tamils in the civil
service lost their jobs if they could not pass a proficiency test.
Dr Senewiratne says “The
Sinhalese Buddhist Clergy help cause problems. Their only vision of Sri
Lanka is a single Sinhalese Buddhist state”. Despite the fact that the first
government of Sri Lanka had rammed through plenty of clearly discriminatory
policies against the Tamil people, fundamentalist Buddhists weren’t satisfied.
Most historical accounts of the assassination of Sri Lanka’s first PM, Dr
Senewiratne’s father’s first cousin, say it was committed by a ‘deranged monk’
but Dr Senewiratne disagrees. “He wasn’t a deranged monk. He was a totally
racist, anti-Tamil monk!”
In the 1970s Tamils, sick of the abuses and discrimination, started up an armed
struggle against the government. Dr Senewiratne says “the armed struggle showed
a failure of the democratic process in Sri Lanka”. In July 1983 the armed
struggle escalated into full scale civil war after Sinhalese mobs went from
house to house murdering and raping thousands of Tamil civilians. This incident
is now known as ‘Black July’ or the ‘July holocaust’. Since then the war between
the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government has cost an estimated 65,000 lives. In
2002 there was a ceasefire but that has since unravelled.
The conflict’s tentacles have reached this part of the World. Between 2001 and
2005 Major General Janaka Perera was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to both Australia
and New Zealand. He was one of the commanders of military operations on the
Jaffna Peninsula in the mid 1990s where hundreds of Tamil civilians
This year there have been some rather grisly instances of state terror against
innocent Tamils. Dr Senewiratne recounts an example from earlier in the year
where a whole family on an
island off Jaffna, in Sri Lanka’s north, was slaughtered because the Sri
Lankan Navy wanted to use their house. The Navy surrounded the house and then
shot everyone inside.
He says that there are currently 7000 people in the Liberation Tamil Tigers of
Eelam (LTTE), of these 4000 are armed fighters in conflict with 167,000 Sri
Lankan soldiers “and yet the LTTE has still not been defeated. The Sinhalese
have no cause to fight for like the Tamils do”. Some observers have said
granting the Tamils their own federal state will bring peace. He is skeptical of
this option. “A federal state won’t work because federal states need to trust
the central government and Tamils have no trust in Sri Lanka’s central
government for a damn good reason. The only option is for there to be a separate
Tamil state. A
defacto Tamil Eelam
already exists”. The LTTE largely control the North and run it like a
dictatorship. Dr Senewiratne believes that if they do not grant democracy, after
eventually winning an independent state, the Tamil people will revolt.
There is little chance that the Sri Lankan government will ever quell the LTTE
insurgency. He points to the fact that India, one of the World’s largest
military powers, failed to disarm the LTTE when it attempted to intervene in Sri
Lanka in the late 1980s. “If you get a militant army with a cause - A to disarm
them is impossible and - B you can’t fight them forever.”
What on Earth is keeping this destructive conflict going? Plenty of foreign aid
to bankroll the Sri Lankan state comes from the governments of the US, Canada,
Australia, Pakistan and Israel. They give aid to further their own geopolitical
agendas. In August the Sri Lankan Air Force used Israeli-made Kfir jets to bomb
an orphanage, killing 61 Tamil
completing a first aid course. Endless war is profitable.
“The War on Terror is the single biggest event for creating funding for the war
against the Tamils” explains Dr Senewiratne. “It [the War on Terror] started
with 9/11 but has been picked up by all these countries that want to suppress
their own people”. The US government told the Sri Lankan government that it
would receive 500 million dollars if it voted to support military action against
Iran at the UN, he claims. Sri Lanka doesn’t have much trouble convincing
Western powers that it should be an ally in the War on Terror because as Dr
Senewiratne says “When you say Tamil people say terrorist”. Our media has
designated an entire people as terrorists. The terrorism of the Sri Lankan state
doesn’t rate a mention.
“If this country [New Zealand] and others don’t do something there will be fall
out. Refugees from Sri Lanka will flood in. If they go to Australia they will be
locked up on Nauru. The US will put up their shutters but more humane countries
will be flooded”. We should heed Dr Senewiratne’s warning.