Victims of decades of racist pogroms, state violence, and military occupation, the Tamil minority has long fought for liberation in Sri Lanka. We should not ignore their struggle.
Book review by Lee Rhiannon, Jacobin Magazine, October 20, 2019
Review of Losing Santhia: Life and Loss in the Struggle for Tamil Eelam, by Ben Hillier (Interventions, 2019).
The annihilation of an ethnic or national group is inevitably accompanied by rape, sexual humiliation, disappearances, mass murder, and torture. Victims’ suffering is acute, and survivors’ trauma lasts generations. Few crimes are more shocking or abhorrent. But if we are to eradicate these injustices and help survivors rebuild their lives and their societies, genocide needs to be examined not in terms of individual evil but in terms of the historical and structural evil of colonization.
Ben Hillier’s Losing Santhia, which details the Tamil national struggle in Sri Lanka, explores this colonial backstory and the deeply personal stories entwined with genocide. Santhia was a leading member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). She joined when she was a teenager, like thousands of other Tamils born in the 1970s and 1980s. Santhia’s short life (she died in 2017 at the age of forty-two, a refugee stranded in Indonesia) has a direct link with the colonialism that divided the island between its two main linguistic-national groups. The Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhist, make up about 75 percent of the population, while the Tamils, predominantly Hindu, make up about 15 percent. Muslims and Christians comprise most of the remaining 10 percent.
Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known prior to 1972) suffered almost three centuries of colonial domination at the hands of Portugal and the Netherlands. Yet it was the British who sowed the seeds of the disaster to come. Unlike their predecessors, the British Empire took control of the whole island beginning in 1796. In order to formally unify Ceylon, they divided its inhabitants along national, linguistic, and religious lines — laying the basis for Sri Lanka’s eventual metamorphosis into an exclusivist, chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhist state.
In 1956, eight years after Sri Lanka won its independence from Britain, government authorities made Sinhala the sole official language. Despite years of extensive work by the Tamil political leadership, including parliamentary campaigning and an emphasis on nonviolent, Gandhian tactics, the national oppression of Tamils grew ever more burdensome. In the early 1970s, the Tamil youth took up arms in self-defense, first engaging in guerrilla struggle and later launching a full-blown war of national liberation. The conflict ended in 2009 with the military defeat of the Tigers and the murder of tens of thousands of civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
I visited Sri Lanka in the aftermath, in 2013, as a federal senator. I saw extensive occupation of Tamil lands by Sri Lankan authorities. Military bases were scattered along the east coast where there once sat fishing villages, Hindu temples, schools, and other public facilities. In the north, the occupation was more intense. Forced Sinhalization has seen the military running preschools. Thousands of Tamils have been pushed from their traditional lands in the north and east of the island to make way for state-aided Sinhalese colonization. In Losing Santhia, Hillier labels this process the “silent genocide” of the Tamil people.
Neocolonialism comes in many guises, some more discreet than historical antecedents. Many Western nations sold the Sri Lankan government weaponry and provided war intelligence and training to its army. Once the reports of genocidal acts against the Tamil nation made headlines around the world, leaders from some of the same Western nations decried the “excesses” of the Sri Lankan government (while leaving their own foreign policy effectively unchanged).
How, then, has the Left approached this national liberation struggle? For the latter half of the twentieth century, solidarity work with national liberation movements was central to the Left. Leftists lent support to South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, the mobilization to end the Vietnam War, and numerous other campaigns for South American revolutions. Left organizations in the West played a key role in building mass movements that raised awareness, contributing as best they could to the eventual victory of many of those struggles.
But when it comes to the Tamil cause, the Left is remembered for its silence. Many factors contributed to this failure. In Losing Santhia Hillier explores the role of national liberation in the Left’s broader program, playing close attention to how the issue was handled by the Sri Lankan left, which, in the period after the country’s independence, was increasingly influenced by Sinhalese chauvinism. According to the late Anton Balasingham, the Tamil Tigers’ chief theorist and negotiator, the Sri Lankan left viewed the Tamil national struggle as “reactionary bourgeois nationalism.”
Yet many of the liberation struggle’s demands were revolutionary for Sri Lankan society. The Tamil Tigers were committed to eliminating the caste system, ending gendered violence, and consolidating women’s equality. Hillier writes: “The Tigers resolved to abolish the dowry system, opening the way for greater freedoms for individuals, particularly women, to enter relationships on their own terms.” I have not found a word of support for this significant development from Western feminists (among whom I include myself). At best, we plead collective ignorance. Thanks to Losing Santhia, we now know the women’s rights policy and practices of the LTTE. What an opportunity we lost then — hopefully, a mistake we will not repeat.
Another explanation for the Left’s failure to back the Tamil struggle is that after 1975, the LTTE included suicide bombings among their tactical repertoire. Perhaps a sizeable international solidarity campaign may have dissuaded the Tigers from adopting such tactics. More importantly, however, we need to recognize the right of all peoples who are colonized to engage in armed struggle, even if we find certain tactics unsavory. This right is guaranteed under international law: United Nations Resolution 37/43 declares that all peoples — Tamils, Kashmiris, Palestinians, people who fought in the French Revolution — have a legal right to resist occupation.
Although Hillier raises some criticisms of the Tigers, he also lets them speak for themselves by including Balasingham’s seminal essay, “Liberation Tigers and Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle,” written on behalf of the Tigers’ political committee in 1983. The essay outlines the Tiger case for launching a national liberation war and features a Marxist analysis of national liberation, self-determination, and movement-building.
While Hillier’s book offers important lessons for the international left, it also argues that the immediate task is to mobilize behind Tamil causes — for their own homeland, for the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to be brought to justice, and for Tamils who do not feel safe in Sri Lanka to be granted asylum. These issues are connected. If self-determination were won in Tamil Eelam and Tamils were safe there, they would not have to risk their future and their lives fleeing to other countries.
Hillier alerts us to the betrayals Tamils continue to experience a decade after the genocidal end to the national liberation war. Following a mighty international campaign waged by Tamils and their supporters, the war crimes committed in 2009 came before the United Nations. But with Western nations out to appease the Sri Lankan regime for their own strategic interests, the UN agreed to the regime’s push to postpone consideration of the resolution for at least six years. This has also frustrated the hopes of Tamils around the world that an independent international investigation into war crimes would be established. A silent genocide indeed.
The continued militarization of the northeast of Sri Lanka is a major obstacle to both ending human rights violations and rebuilding Tamil communities in heavily war-affected areas. This militarization is tied to the Sri Lankan government’s failure to swiftly return illegally occupied land it seized ten years ago.
These developments and their background are deeply relevant for Hillier’s immediate audience, Australians. At present, there are thousands of Tamils living in Australia under temporary protection visas — and thanks to the conservative government’s cynical use of racism and xenophobia to win votes and consolidate power, these refugees of genocide are in immediate danger of deportation.
One Tamil asylum-seeking family, for instance, is in an offshore detention center fighting an Australian government deportation order. About eighteen months ago, officers from the Australian immigration policing agency Border Force conducted a dawn raid on the family’s home in Biloela, in rural central Queensland. Although the family’s children were born in Australia and the parents have been living and working in the community for three years and are well respected, they face deportation back to Sri Lanka if the family’s appeal to the Federal Court fails.
Such expulsions are not uncommon. The Australian government justifies its actions by parroting the Sri Lankan government’s assertions that it is safe for all Tamil refugees to return to the country. This is a lie.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which Sri Lankan authorities use to detain and arrest Tamils suspected of links with the LTTE, has never been repealed, despite the government’s promises. In 2017 the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism said: “All the evidence points to the conclusion that the use of torture has been, and remains today, endemic and routine for those arrested on national security grounds.” As of last year, more than one hundred unconvicted prisoners reportedly remained in detention under the act. Some have been held for over twelve years.
Other minority groups in Sri Lanka have also been subjected to threats and physical violence. Christians and Muslims are being targeted by supporters of a hard-line fundamentalist Sinhala-Buddhist political group that the Sri Lankan government relies on for political support and enforcement. Muslims have been killed, and their mosques, homes, and businesses have been vandalized with impunity.
Progressive groups in Sri Lanka continue to show enormous courage in their sustained resistance to the government’s inaction, with numerous sit-ins and protests asking for land hand-backs, information on the disappeared, and resolution of other ongoing injustices. As collective action multiplies — and hopefully mass movements as well — there is much to feel positive about. That Tamils and their supporters have remained committed to their cause in such dark times is truly inspiring.
Hillier’s remarkable book has contributed to this hope by interviewing survivors of the events of 2009. But it also raises difficult questions for the official narrative. When did the genocide of May 2009 stop? What happened to the bodies, to the survivors, to the soldiers? As Hillier reports, there were — understandably — some people who would not talk to him, fearing reprisals. Others spoke of differences among the soldiers of the Sri Lankan military: some threatened their victims with death to the very end while others helped carry the injured to camps and “treated us well.”
Hillier reserves some of his final comments for the Left: “It remains the island’s greatest political catastrophe,” he writes, “that the once powerful Sinhalese left failed to stand with the Tamils and launch . . . a united fight for the liberation of all exploited and oppressed people in Ceylon.” The absence of international progressive forces also needs to figure into such an assessment.
So much was lost — for Tamils and for the international left. The setback for Tamil women remains immense. Yet no campaign sits in isolation while the heroism of the defeated lives in our memory. So Hillier writes: “The glimpses of equality forged in struggle portended a new world. While they remained glimpses, they nevertheless were real.”
The specter of mass carnage still haunts Tamil Eelam. Strong forces in Sri Lanka, determined to finish the genocide of the Tamil people, remain pervasive. Their threat can be felt in the concluding pages of Losing Santhia.
While the destructive reach of five hundred years of colonial brutality is not over, the great hope Hillier leaves us with is that of the endurance of struggle, collective action, and commitment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Rhiannon served as a federal senator for The Australian Greens between 2011 and 2018. She has a long history of activism, dating back to the peace and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s. She is presently a committee member of the SEARCH Foundation.