At the 2019 Marxism Conference held in Melbourne I joined a panel on “Ten years on from Tamil genocide: still standing, still fighting”. Below is my speech.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay tribute to their history, their culture and their ongoing struggle for justice for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across this nation.
I also acknowledge that in a few weeks it will be the tenth anniversary of the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils in the closing stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
In my talk I will consider the ongoing persecution and suffering of Tamil people in the context of centuries of colonialism in Sri Lanka and the role of international solidarity in supporting communities such as the Tamils.
The colonial occupation of Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British inflicted centuries of suffering, mass murder and extreme exploitation on local Sri Lankans and Tamil immigrants brought to this island nation to garner wealth for the British colonisers and for a few upper class Sri Lankan collaborators.
Before we delve into this ugly history I do wish to explain that I am not saying peace and justice reigned across Sri Lanka before the arrival of the European colonisers. Various Buddhist and Hindu leaders imposed feudal relations that also brought great misery.
But the divide and rule strategy of successive European colonisers of Sri Lanka massively increased the suffering of local populations, created a culture of brutality that is still impacting on this region and laid the basis for the crimes that continue to be perpetrated against the Tamil community.
An article in the Conversation in 2017, “Colonialism was a disaster and the facts prove it”, sets out the facts of how colonial power inflicted political, psychological and economic harm.
A few figures to illustrate this reality. For the entire period of British colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent from the 1750s to 1947 there was no increase in per capita income within the Indian subcontinent.
In India from 1872 to 1921 life expectancy dropped by 20 per cent. This contrasts with the 70 years since independence which has seen life expectancy in India and Pakistan increase by about 65 per cent, about 27 years. I apologise I do not have data for Sri Lanka but thought it was worth including this information on life expectancy as I understand the trends are the same.
The caste system, still seen by many as central to the culture and demographics of this region, was shaped by colonial practices. A 2002 article in Foreign Affairs online website sets out how the Portuguese first suggested caste identities to try and manage the many communal groupings that provided a basis for social identity. The British expanded on this idea to promote what they called order but it was essentially about control through divide and rule tactics. This damaging hierarchical structure was codified into law by the British.
We need to understand that the impact of colonialism goes far beyond human right abuses and economic exploitation. The ruthless, manipulative, exploitative culture of the colonial power too often permeates local politics and the impact is seen for many decades after independence. When we read about newly liberated countries grappling with coups, nepotism, mass murders and in Sri Lanka’s case shocking war crimes and crimes against humanity we need to remember the impact of their colonial past.
A quick sketch of the colonial occupation of Sri Lanka. The Portuguese arrived in1505, establishing control around the port of Colombo. The port region was chosen as the colonisers initial attraction to Sri Lanka was because of its strategic significance as it was a stop off to and from the Far East. The Portuguese exercised their control through a policy of aggressive conversion of locals to Catholicism, which included forcing Hindus and Buddhists to adopt Christian names.
The 1600s see the Dutch forcibly take over from the Portuguese. By 1660 the Dutch East India Company controlled most of Sri Lanka. The Protestant Dutch persecuted the Catholic converts and imposed heavy taxes.
In the 1700 and 1800s the suffering of the people of Sri Lanka was exacerbated by the European maritime powers going to war over trade routes and colonies. The British emerge as the victor and now it is the British East India Company that rules Sri Lanka. In 1802 Sri Lanka became the British Crown’s first colony.
In the first two decades of the 1800s Britain waged a number of ruthless and deadly wars in Sri Lanka to control opposition to their occupation. A pattern of barbarity was established.
What was inflicted on Sri Lankans at this time is sickening. I’ll detail just one example from Uva, in the southern half of the island. This is what happened because the locals fought back against the British occupiers.
The British massacred all the male population of Uva above the age of 18 years. They confiscated the properties of the people involved in the uprising, they killed all cattle and other animals, burnt homes and other property. Paddy fields and the famous irrigation systems of this region were destroyed.
Following these crimes the colonial Governor ordered that the locals be stripped of their land. This land was then consolidated under the process of enclosure, a legal measure in England, that allowed the crown to consolidate small landholdings into larger farms. This system favoured rich land owners and alienated land that was once for communal use. The result – extreme poverty spread across Sri Lanka, as the Tamils and other poorer sections of society no longer had common land where they could grow crops and run their stock.
Throughout the 1800s tea and coffee plantations expanded across Sri Lanka, which drove the development of the island’s infrastructure. Thousands more Tamils were imported from India to build the roads and railways.
The development of plantations displaced the traditional subsistence farming in many areas. This meant basic foods had to be imported and by the end of the 1800 famine was common. Tamils suffered great hardships.
The mid 1800s saw the tensions and contradictions between feudal and capital relations in Sri Lanka intensify. The worldwide economic depression of 1846 hit Sri Lanka hard which meant peasants and other working people shouldering the burden. The British imposed new taxes and reintroduced compulsory labour which forced many to work for free or small cash handouts on infrastructure projects.
The numbers of Tamil labourers working on plantations continued to increase. By 1911 half a million Tamils, 12 per cent of the total Sri Lanka population where working on plantations. In the main these people were indentured labourers. Many now settled permanently on the tea and coffee estates, usually living in appalling poverty.
The use of indentured labourers is possibly the most ruthless aspect of British colonialism.
Indentured Tamil labourers were transported to British colonies and other nations to assist British companies boost their profits. From 1834 to the end of the WWI, Britain transported over three million indentured workers from India and Sri Lanka to 19 of their colonies.
These workers suffered shocking hardships. They were made to work under harsh working conditions, for very long hours, with few if any breaks and with little sustenance provided. Many never saw their families again.
Tensions between Sri Lankans and Tamils is a clear by-product of British colonialism. Just eight years after independence was won in 1948 ethnic riots occurred. The brutal treatment of protesters, unfair laws, and occasional killings increased community tensions and resulted in protests and riots. The inequality, suffering and discrimination that Tamils were expected to live with strengthened the stance of various militant groups advocating independence for Tamils.
In the 2000s these developments culminated in the civil war between ruling class Sri Lankans and various Tamil groupings. The loss of life was extreme with more than 100,000 people killed and the forced disappearance of thousands of others.
The civil war ended in 2009 but there has been no satisfactory resolution. If you are not acquainted with what happened in May 2009 I urge that you read about it and view the film “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka“. The Sri Lankan government ordered up to 400,000 civilians to gather on beaches that they said were “no fire zones”. Once corralled on the beaches Tamil – civilians and Tamil Tigers were bombed and shot at for days. A United Nations panel found that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the civil war. A Guardian investigation in 2013 put the number as up to 70,000. Whatever the numbers were clearly shocking crimes were committed but there has been no investigation and western countries have been largely silent.
The end of the civil war has not improved conditions in Sri Lanka – poverty has not been reduced, press freedom has not been restored and the judiciary are now under political control.
In November 2013 I visited Sri Lanka as part of an MP fact finding mission about the civil war and to hear from Tamils about their demands for an international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after the civil war. I was joined by New Zealand Greens MP Jan Logie. The Malaysian MP who was to join us was refused a visa.
The visit reinforced for me that Australia should not be sending asylum seekers back to Sri Lanka – we heard shocking stories about what had occurred when this happened. A strong memory of the trip is how the crimes against Tamil people continue. Women are raped, people disappear and land and homes of Tamil people are being confiscated.
We saw the land theft most graphically as we travelled down the east coast. We would regularly come across new army bases where once there were Tamil fishing villages. New Buddhist shrines marked the entry to these bases. We visited the homes where villagers were displaced to. They now lived in wrought iron shacks far away from the coast where they use to fish and farm. They were impoverished.
On the last day of our trip, while we were meeting with representatives of human rights groups and other NGOs security police arrived and we were detained. Our detention was only for a few hours but the fear I saw among the people we were meeting with was intense. This event for me was very telling. Jan and I were able to return home. So many Tamils and their supporters in Sri Lanka live with this harassment every day.
Back in Australia when I was an MP I spoke in parliament a number of times about Tamil issues, met with Tamil groups and their support organisations and attended events. There are only a few voices for Tamil issues in parliament. I mention that not to fly my flag but to highlight that while we want to win more MPs standing up for Tamil demands our main quest must be to build strong public support. Demonstrable public support for the Tamil cause is what will win over more MPs to add their voice to the demands for an international investigation.
Some further observations about the importance of international solidarity.
Over the year’s a critical factor in nation’s oppressed by past and neo-colonisers obtaining their independence has been international solidarity – that is the action of people in other countries taking a stand with people fighting against occupation and exploitation in all its forms.
Nelson Mandela when he visited Australia paid tribute to the role of Australian unions and the anti-apartheid movement in helping to build the international campaign to end the racist apartheid system.
I remember hearing Vietnamese who fought against the US invasion of their country saying how much it meant to them to know that people in other countries were protesting, occupying US government buildings, and staging sit-ins in support of the Vietnamese.
When it comes to the struggle of the Tamil people there has been international support but let’s be frank it has not been huge and I think that is largely because Tamil Tigers were labelled terrorists.
This requires consideration of the role of armed struggle. In making these comments I wish to emphasise that I am not promoting armed struggle, but I am also not promoting a pacifist approach. People fighting colonisers have rights.
People, like the Tamils, the Kashmiris, the Palestinians, the Aborigines in Australia, like Jewish people who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto, like the people who fought in the French revolution – have a legal right to resist occupation. This legal right is set out in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and the Fourth Geneva Convention and its subsequent protocols. The United Nations resolution 37/43, dated 3 December 1982, sets out this right.
Again I emphasise I am not advocating armed struggle – that is a decision for those who are occupied. But we need to recognise and respect that armed struggle against occupying forces is a legal right.
I mention these facts which I think are relevant to the status of the Tamil Tigers, as they are still classified by some countries and some international bodies as a terrorist organisation.
Disagreeing with a group because they engage in armed struggle does not mean that they are automatically a terrorist group. We need to be able to discuss what are the appropriate tactics to advance struggles for a nation’s independence.
The international Left has a responsibility to support the call by Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora for the war crimes and the crime against humanity committed in the civil war and subsequently to be investigated. We also need to support the Tamil demands for justice and recognition within Sri Lanka.
If these demands are not achieved it means that the destructive reach of 500 years of colonialism is still bringing havoc and hardship to Tamil communities around the world.