5.28.2009

Guest Post: Ashok Kumar on the Situation in Sri Lanka

Recently, I contacted UW-Madison alum Ashok Kumar regarding the "defeat" of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Mr. Kumar condensed and reworked a few of my questions, but I think his responses are worth considering to get a better idea of the Sri Lankan political situation from someone on the ground in-country.

Even if you disagree with Mr. Kumar's particular take on the situation, I hope you find it useful as a springboard to additional consideration of a long-standing conflict often underreported in the Western media.

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What are the fundamental grievances of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka?

We have to recognize that ethnic identification in Sri Lanka has historically preceded people’s identification as “Sri Lankan”. The major divisions are amongst the Singhalese (the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority), Muslims (Tamil speaking Muslims), Tamils (Tamil-speaking Hindhu and Christians), Veddha (indigenous community), Burghers (English-speaking descendants of colonialist rulers of the past), etc. These groups are close-knit and strongly tied to historic class formations, exploited and further institutionalized under British colonialism.

The primary struggle of the Tamil people is about access to state power. With the lack of any real power and as a minority community have effectively placed Tamils in second-class status. Originally, the Tamil grievances stemmed from a language, education, and job discrimination. The Tamil liberation struggle continues today as a fight for basic human and civil rights. The LTTE is simply and ultra-militant element of the larger struggle, which has existed in one form or another since the 1920’s.

When you arrived in Sri Lanka, what was the general status of the long running conflict between the island's Sinahalese majority and the Tamil minority? What did you expect as far as how the feud might impact your stay? How have you witnessed the Tamil or Singhalese communities impacted?

I arrived in mid-October of last year. The ceasefire had officially ended in January of 2008, and when I arrived the government was nearly three months into its heavy “shock and awe”-style bombardment campaign of Tamil controlled areas. I didn’t expect it to interfere in my research, which focused on the labor struggles Singhalese and Tamil working class communities.

However, it is difficult to remain focused on research when you come to the realization that the Sri Lankan government is pursuing a campaign nothing short of ethnic cleansing on its Tamil minority community. Since the primary target of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or “tamil tigers, suicide attacks have been in Colombo, there was a general fear of the potential fallout from the renewed fighting in the north. Only weeks after I arrived there was an air raid by the “air tigers”, the air-wing of the LTTE, near the place I was staying. There were a few more incidents of plane suicide attacks on major infrastructure and government buildings but beyond that there was little to no impact on Colombo throughout my time here. The impact on Tamil communities in the city was far greater. 

Having lived in the Tamil district in Colombo I can attest to the severe repression members have undergone on a daily basis by government military officials. Suspected Tamils, journalists, and those critical of the government are abducted by the infamous “white-vans” and tortured. In mid-January, a week after the military entered the de-facto Tamil capital of Kilinochi, an article by Lasantha Wickrematunga, one of Sri Lanka’s most renowned journalists, was published posthumously in which he foresees his own murder at the hands of the government. I witnessed how these events had a dramatic effect for the communities on the ground as well as the way the international community began to look at Sri Lanka. I think it was around this time that international leaders began to take notice. 

Since the death of LTTE leader Villupillai Prabhakaran a few days ago Colombo has erupted with an almost continues cracking of fireworks, music from every corner of the city, and drunken people dancing in the streets. It’s pretty well known that much of the celebrations are government orchestrated and funded as a show to the international community and media.

Recently, reports announced that the Tamil Tigers, a Tamil resistance group, were defeated. That's a strong statement. Do you believe that this episode marks actual, permanent defeat?

First off, I think it’s important to distinguish between the LTTE and the Tamil peoples’ struggle for self-determination. Do I think that the LTTE is defeated? Without a doubt, and I believe Sri Lanka is the better for it. However I think some form of resistance will continue. The LTTE was defeated due to, not only the complacency, but active support for the Sri Lankan government’s campaign by the international community, namely US, Britain, India, etc. Since this same world community now realizes that the tigers have been wiped out (by a completely racist and genocidal government) they may push the Sri Lankan government to recognize some ostensible form of Tamil autonomy. 

Another response by the Tamils may be a non-violent struggle accompanied by a very low-intensity guerrilla movement. It may also be the case that the Tamils may use their minimal electoral power to win over nominal concessions for autonomy from the Sri Lankan government. I believe the third option would be the least fruitful of the three for the Tamils, and the one the Sri Lankan government is praying for. 

I also believe that the Tamil community and those in the Tamil diaspora will not easily forget the estimated 25,000 Tamil civilians that have been massacred by Sri Lankan armed forces in the last month. The Sri Lankan president and his thugs may also be brought to justice at the Hague but I doubt it. Then again, Prabhakaran might still be alive, and President Mahinda Rajapakse might be a closet Tamil nationalist, so who can really tell what’s going to happen?