Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Freedom Denied

The Crushing of Sri Lanka's Tamils

by Michael Cowie, Vancouver, Canada, May 22, 2009

The fact is that a people who have had their own homeland for the past two decades have just had it stolen away—all largely due to our unnecessary and unjust involvement.

Freedom once won is now once more denied. And this fact makes the whole brutal war even more tragic. For anyone who believes in justice and self-determination, this is a truly sad outcome indeed.

"Terrorism doesn't just blow up buildings; it blasts every other issue off the political map. The spectre of terrorism - real and exaggerated - has become a shield of impunity, protecting governments around the world from scrutiny for their human rights abuses."

—Naomi Klein

"If you listen to the politicians, you might think we are all terrorists."

—Loesje (international—originally Dutch—free speech organization)

"Our position is clear and frank...We consider the military occupation of our land a terrorist act."

—Yasser Arafat

So, with the war in Sri Lanka now over and the Tamils having been crushed and brought to their knees, I'd like to ask just one question: Are we happy now? With the Tamils' decades-long struggle for self-determination quashed and their dreams of an independent homeland shattered, are we fully satisfied? Should we give ourselves a pat on the back?

Because there's no denying that this result is largely due to us here in the freedom-loving West. Specifically, I'm referring to how the governments of Canada, America, Australia, and the European Union all decided to take sides in this civil war—this brutal ethnic civil war.

Not only did we impose an embargo on one side—the Tamil minority—while fully supporting the other - the Sinhalese majority - but we even went as far as to label the Tamils as "terrorists", while actively working to shut down all of their overseas funding and their ability to arm themselves. Both sides may have clearly been guilty of committing some pretty heinous atrocities, but for some reason we decided that the best thing to do was to condemn the one side, while cheering on and supporting the other.

Worst of all, we sided with the wrong side.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

I'm not about to try and argue that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, were/are a cuddly democratic bunch (few liberation movements are), nor am I about to defend their use of suicide bombings against civilian targets or their forced recruitment of child soldiers. However, I will most definitely argue that the Tamils have every right to a homeland of their own on the island of Sri Lanka.

Casualties of 9/11

The truth is that by the beginning of this decade the Tamils had, in fact, already won a homeland for themselves in the north and east of the island. The two sides had fought to a stalemate, signed a ceasefire and entered into peace talks. But one very significant event on the other side of the world changed all of this—an event that had absolutely nothing to do with Sri Lanka. I'm talking about 9/11.

In the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington and in the rush to launch an all-out "Global War On Terror", Western countries, under intense pressure from America, took specific aim at the Tamil Tigers.

How they figured their so-called war on terror had anything to do with a civil war on a small island in the Indian Ocean is beyond me, but the consequences were devastating to the Tamil's cause. With one side in this conflict now fully armed and the other embargoed and isolated—with all of their overseas fundraising shut down—the eventual result was inevitable.

Now, 9/11 or no 9/11, picking the Sri Lankan government as "the good guys" and labeling the Tamils alone as "terrorists" was not only ridiculous when you consider the historical causes of the war (that is, that the Tamils rose up after years of oppression, persecution and some outright massacres), but it was also quite ridiculous when you consider the war crimes carried out by the Sri Lankan military during the course of the war: the mass slaughter of civilians, particularly in the early stages of the conflict; the death squads; the killing of aid workers; etc. All of this is well documented, yet somehow we in the West decided to label the Tamils alone as terrorists. Truly incomprehensible nonsense.

Then there's the fact that the Tamils—living largely in a concentrated area of the island and making up about 15 percent of the total population - obviously have as much of a right to self-determination as the people of France, Germany, Portugal, Holland, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, or Greece.

Or the people of Kosovo, East Timor, Tibet, Palestine, Chechnya, or Kurdistan, for that matter.

An Inalienable Right—For Some

Which raises an obvious question: Why do we here in the West pick and choose who has an inalienable right to self-determination (the people of Kosovo, East Timor, Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovenia, Croatia, etc.) and who doesn't (the Chechens, the Kurds, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, etc.)? And where do we get off labeling those who we've deemed undeserving of their own homeland as "terrorists"?

As I argued in an earlier piece, "The Blame The Victims Rant (Up with the strong, down with the weak)" , the armies of the nations we in the West have decided to support are often guilty of committing much worse atrocities than the rebel groups we've arbitrarily decided to label as "terrorists". It is government forces that carpet bomb rebel-held areas. It is government forces that often wage scorched-earth policies, killing thousands—or tens of thousands—of innocents. But for some strange reason, we're totally fixated upon any and all rebel bombings.

Now if these rebel attacks are aimed at innocent civilians then there's no denying that we're talking about war crimes, but my point is that the government forces are usually far more guilty of these crimes. What's up with the hypocrisy? That's what I really want to know.

Some will say: "But the government forces never intentionally kill innocent civilians". To which I say: What a load of naive, simple-minded bullshit. From Dresden to Hiroshima, and from Vietnam to Chechnya, military forces know damn well who they're targeting when they carpet bomb, or nuke, civilian areas from above.

Or, as we've watched in recent months in Sri Lanka, government forces know exactly what they're doing when they rain down rockets and mortars on civilian areas, causing horrific civilian casualties. The UN now believes that nearly 7,000 civilians may have been killed, and another 13,000 injured, in just the past four to five months of the Sri Lankan army's all-out push for victory.

Twisted and Absurd

If the West's decision to pick one side in a civil war seems quite arbitrary and more than a little farcical, that's because it is. But this is nothing new and of course it's hardly limited to just us here in the West.

The Russians slaughtered at least 200,000 Chechen civilians in a few short years in a scorched-earth campaign, but—according to them, and some here in the West—it was the Chechens who were, by some bizarre form of twisted logic, the actual "terrorists" for wanting an independent homeland.

The Indonesians caused the deaths of 200,000 people over a 20-year period in East Timor, yet, according to the Indonesians, it was the Timorese who were in fact the real "terrorists".

The Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan back in 1979, but when the Afghans decided to resist the Russians labeled them as, you guessed it, "terrorists".

Further back, when the Irish fought a guerrilla war for their independence, between 1919-1921, they were written off as nothing but "murdering terrorists" by the occupying British, who themselves most certainly could have been tagged with that label.

And, let's not forget that, in more recent times the Americans invaded and occupied Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, but, of course, it was those who fought back in defense of their country who were labeled the "evil terrorists".

It's really quite absurd when you stop to think about it. And this list could go on and on and...

A Job Well Done?

So, again I ask, with the Tamils of Sri Lanka losing their de facto independence of the past two decades and the Sinhalese majority once more in absolute control of the whole island, are we happy? Are we satisfied? Are we proud of ourselves for helping put the Tamils back in their place?

Just because we deserve our liberty and freedom, that doesn't mean the Tamils deserve theirs, right? Again, the situation leading up to the civil war there may be well-documented and few (outside of Sri Lankan) would disagree that the Tamils had just cause in rising up, but as long as we can continue convincing ourselves that they were nothing more than sinister "terrorists" then we can go on fantasizing that justice has been done. Right?

And the fate of the Tamils be damned.

Island Paradise

I should mention that during our three-year backpacking trip across Asia earlier this decade, my wife, Sonoko, and I spent three incredible months in Sri Lanka and, while there, we made some really good friends.

Our time there on the island was unequivocally one of the greatest experiences of my life. In all the years I've spent traveling, few places have come close to Sri Lanka for sincere warmth and hospitality. The people of that tropical paradise are simply among the friendliest in the world. And that goes for both the Sinhalese and the Tamils we got to know.

Of course, every one of our Sinhalese friends would strongly oppose just about everything I've said above, but that is to be expected. As in most war zones, they have been bombarded with years of government propaganda and nationalistic claptrap and have predictably become convinced of their own righteousness and victimhood, à la America in the years following 9/11.


Finally, let me just state the obvious: that, with over 80,000 people losing their lives, this war has been absolutely tragic. However, that doesn't mean its conclusion is any reason for celebration. The fact is that a people who have had their own homeland for the past two decades have just had it stolen away—all largely due to our unnecessary and unjust involvement.

Freedom once won is now once more denied. And this fact makes the whole brutal war even more tragic. For anyone who believes in justice and self-determination, this is a truly sad outcome indeed.

Mike Cowie is a freelance writer who writes about politics, music, film, travel, and much more. You can read more of Mike’s views on his Web site


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