by Satya Sagar, Substack, December 6, 2023
The daily death and destruction in Gaza has evoked painful memories for Tamils everywhere of a similar carnage half a world away in Mullivaikal, the coastal village that became the scene of mass slaughter at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.
The parallels between the two are striking, almost uncanny.
Both involved disproportionate state violence against a besieged civilian population packed into a small territory and lacking escape routes. Both witnessed attacks on hospitals, shelters, and infrastructure vital for basic survival, dubbed as “collective punishment” by rights groups.
The root cause of conflict in both Gaza and Sri Lanka has been the non-recognition of the Right to Self Determination – to free the traditional homelands of the Palestinians and the Tamils, respectively. And, in both instances, the chief perpetrators of the violence have been apartheid-like regimes – one Jewish and the other Buddhist – subjecting all those who don’t belong to their faith or race as ‘lesser beings’.
Regimes, which openly pursue ‘Final Solution’ doctrines, with no ethical qualms, by dubbing resistance to decades of systematic oppression as ‘terrorism’ devoid of legitimate political grievances, history or context.
The Geography of Genocide
In early 2009, the Sri Lankan military had pushed LTTE rebels to retreat alongside over 3,30,000 Tamil civilians in their control to a 12 km long narrow sand bank between the Nandikadal Lagoon and Indian Ocean. International attempts to negotiate safe passage for the trapped population failed. Food, medicine and supplies were barred in the siege even for the sick and wounded.
Like in Gaza, where over 50 years of occupation and repression by Israel have rendered regular flareups almost inevitable in Mullivaikal too decades of violent persecution by Sinhala chauvinists had culminated in the Tamil insurgency’s last stand on this narrow strip of land.
With coastal access blocked, for several months the so-called ‘No Fire Zone’ witnessed intense shelling by banned cluster munitions as well as indiscriminate fire on makeshift hospitals and refugee shelters. Thousands got cut down fleeing the unfolding horror before the government brutally snuffed out remaining pockets of resistance to claim victory, leaving allegation of mass atrocities in its wake.
Though the Gaza strip, measuring 365 square kilometres, is nearly thrice the size of Mullivaikal its over 2 million residents make it among the most crowded habitations anywhere on the planet. The traumatic images streaming out of Gaza today – dead infants pulled out of rubble, wailing relatives over wrapped bodies, people taking cover from artillery barrages – mirror the horrific visuals seared into Tamil consciousness from Mullivaikal.
The metrics of recent death and devastation inflicted on Palestinians have shocked the world but still fall short of the threshold – where words fail and numbness sets in – that was breached in Mullivaikal. Conservative UN estimates from the time placed the Tamil civilian death toll in 2009 at over 70,000 – others suggest twice as many perished.
Geopolitics and Global Institutions
There is no doubt that killing of civilians on this scale by national armies in both Sri Lanka then and by Israel right now would be impossible if not for the fact that geopolitics seems to have trumped all legal and moral arguments in our times.
In 2009 the Sri Lankan regime was actively supported in its policy of ethnic cleansing by an improbable coalition of countries that included India, Pakistan, China, Iran – each of them in it for all kinds of regional power calculations. Israel is shored up financially and militarily by the United States, which sees it as a useful guard dog protecting its interests in the oil-rich Middle East.
The partisan approach of global and regional powers has resulted in the abject failure of global institutions to intervene and stop the obvious breaches of humanitarian law and Geneva Conventions by both Sri Lanka and Israel.
A UN Panel of Experts set up to investigate the 2009 massacre of Tamil women and children by Sri Lankan forces called it “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”. The findings of the ‘UN Internal Review Panel’ in 2012 headed by Charles Petrie exposed the colossal failure of the UN to stop the killings at Mullivaikal.
“…events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings and to the evolving situation during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath…. in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities of the UN.”
Though subsequently Sri Lanka has been censured repeatedly by the UN Human Rights Council its leaders have used ‘national sovereignty’ as a shield to evade international calls for impartial war crimes probes against military commanders or political decision makers. Despite several changes in regime, these perpetrators continue to occupy top positions, some receiving diplomatic postings abroad or partnering with global corporates for public relations rehabilitation.
We see a similar failure today of global bodies with regard to Israel as it commits war crimes, crimes against humanity and its leaders make open threats of genocide against the Palestinians.
Perhaps the only big difference between Mullaivaikal and Gaza has been the extent of media coverage the two events of mass murder have received.
In Gaza graphic visuals have streamed relentlessly into homes across the world, helping turn the tide of global opinion steadily against Israel, its crude attempts to justify hits on residential towers and hospitals faltering in the face of intense public scrutiny.
In the case of Sri Lanka in 2009 no journalists were allowed anywhere in the vicinity preventing the world from seeing the horrors inflicted on both civilians and prisoners of war. Soon after the civil war Mullivaikal’s wounded landscape was also swiftly razed and internal refugees prevented from returning – erasing material markers of suffering from scrutiny.
So, where does one go from here?
It is doubtful if either Sri Lanka or Israel would be able to act so brazenly if not for the fact that the rules-based global system that emerged after the two World Wars -which saw over a 100 million killed- has been severely undermined by the ‘big players’ themselves.
During the Cold War it was the US savaging Vietnam as part of their anti-Communist crusade while the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in an open war of aggression to save a client regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989, instead of ushering in an era of peace and global cooperation, the US – as the ‘sole Superpower’ – has arrogantly brought back the barbaric principle of ‘might is right’ in global affairs
Whether it be the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1998 or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the subsequent armed interventions in Syria and Libya the US has behaved like a colonial regime from the 18th or 19th century. Not to be left behind, the Russians too, after brutally putting down a separatist movement in Chechnya in 1999 at great human cost, took Crimea in 2014 and invaded Ukraine with impunity in early 2022.
With the referees of the global game themselves playing foul other nations – both big and small – have resorted to similar methods in the name of ‘national security’ or to achieve strategic goals. And it is not only Sri Lanka or Israel but also Indian armed forces in Kashmir, the Turkish military against its Kurdish population, Ethiopian government troops butchering the Tigrayan people – genocidal violence is becoming the new norm everywhere.
As the old Kikuyu proverb from Africa goes, ‘When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers’. In this case the ‘grass’ happens to be civilian populations who pay a very heavy price every time elephant-like nation-states or opposing armed militant groups clash with each other.
The question is whether the grass will continue to allow itself to be perpetually trampled to dust or someday shrug off the elephants to create a better global order where the meek can truly inherit the Earth? One continues to live in hope.
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at