A Rejoinder to Ron Ridenour’s series on Sri Lanka

I fear that the attitude of supporters of the Tamil cause towards Latin America is rather subjective, and that their approach is still sentimental. I will come to that later in my response, but, before that, the Tamil nationalist, especially pro-LTTE, claims need to be studied with care.

Firstly, accepting the right of Tamils in Sri Lanka to self-determination is correct. But the national question is far more complex than supporters of the Tamil cause in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India are made to understand. I have elaborated on this in my long essay which Radical Notes published as a book. Secession is still not the answer and the call for secession in 1976 was thoroughly ill-considered.

Secondly, the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka is being wilfully distorted. A most objective version of ancient history exists in the recent work of Dr K Indrapala, a Tamil, now in Australia. The point that comes out is that there is evidence of Tamil settlements in the island much earlier than acknowledged in the past. But that does not mean that the present-day Tamils are their descendants. The Jaffna Kingdom on which Tamil nationalists lay their claim to Tamil statehood is something of the Second Millennium A.D. which ceased to be nearly 5 centuries ago. There were, however, Tamil chieftains and despotic rulers in the Vanni who survived until the British moved in early in the 19th Century. Part of the Vanni was under the ‘Sinhalese’ Kandyan Kingdom.

The Sinhalese have had a longer history in terms of kingdoms ruled by ‘Sinhalese’. (Not all rulers were really Sinhalese. At least one was from Kalinga. Several were Tamils or Telugus). But what does all of this prove? Not a lot.

The reality is that in the course of modern history, two Sinhala-speaking polities that had a separate existence for 450 years merged into one to serve certain class interests. Tamil-speaking polities ended up as three nationalities with distinctions in many ways and with problems for which Eelam was not an answer. The attitude of the Tamil elite in early 1900s alienated the fisherfolk of the west coast of the island and let them accept a Sinhala identity. In course of time the Tamil identity of the Colombo Chetties and the Paravar communities was lost. The main reason for these was that the Tamil leadership (of Jaffna mainly to which the Vanni and the East got added much later) was dominated by the Vellala Saivaites (equivalent of the Pillai/Mudaliyar etc. of Tamil Nadu, Nayar/Pillai/Menon of Kerala, Patels of Gujarat etc.)

To talk of a Tamil nation comprising 25% of the population is incorrect. The Tamil nationalists nominally represent about 10%, but they truly represent the interests of a fraction of it. When the armed conflict escalated in the 1980s, the elite fled and it was the oppressed who bore the brunt of intensifying chauvinist oppression and war. The elite are abroad, living in comfort, and want to prolong the conflict to pursue their pet project of ‘Tamil Eelam’. The vast majority of the Tamil diaspora have been misled by a few nationalists (pro-LTTE and now the vociferous pro-government groups). What I like to stress is that history has been successfully distorted on all sides to serve narrow interests and to divide the people.

Thirdly, the LTTE was on the one hand the only remaining armed resistance to state oppression. But on the other they systematically failed the people. Their dominance of Tamil politics came about mainly by brutal repression of all opposition, rivals and potential rivals. That continued until their ultimate fall. The genuine left still treated them with some deference for being the only defence that the Tamil people had against state repression; but the LTTE was undemocratic, acted to please imperialism (especially since antagonising India), never believed in people’s struggle, and relied on military victory led by their army. They recruited children by force especially as their fortunes faded. They let the rich get away by paying off while the poor had to send heir children to join the LTTE ranks. All these are factors that contributed to their defeat. But that does not in any way justify any of the cruel and at times barbaric acts of the state.

Yet, failure to criticise the LTTE for its attacks on civilians (not just Sinhalese) has done a lot of harm. Rivals of the LTTE with Indian and Sri Lankan state patrons have been just as guilty. A section of the genuine left criticised the LTTE’s faults while defending the struggle and denouncing state oppression.

Fourthly, leaving alone the anti-democratic and even terrorist acts against civilians, the LTTE and its supporters among the Diaspora have much to answer for the failure of the peace talks (although the government is the main culprit); its reliance on the US (which used the peace talks to get the better of India in Sri Lanka while undermining the LTTE in collaboration with the UNP leadership); and its failure to protect the people.

The LTTE cannot escape the charge that it led 30,000 to the slaughterhouse and 300,000 to what are open prison camps. That tragedy could have been averted had the LTTE let the people go after the fall of Kilinochchi in December 2008. If they did not drag along with them the 100,000 or so from the Kilinochchi District, the government forces could not have advanced fast without clearing the District, and that would have allowed the LTTE leadership to change their strategy. Also there would have been political issues that would have arisen preventing the government from taking people out of their homes. That was water under the bridge when the people were taken to Mullaitivu and compelled to live a life of misery, with the government curtailing if not blocking the supply of essentials. But what justification was there to forcibly prevent the people from leaving when they could not bear the agony anymore? I have heard from people who escaped before the fall of the LTTE about the anti-people methods used by the LTTE to keep the people with them?

Did they seriously think that they could reverse their military fortunes? Did they expect meaningful foreign intervention? If so, in what form? There is substantial circumstantial evidence that they were given false hopes by a section of the Tamil elite among the diaspora about some form US/UN led intervention (to save the LTTE leadership even if not to save the Tamils). Many such questions are being carefully avoided by the Tamil nationalists.

Thus the blame lies with firstly the Government, secondly with the Tamil nationalists as a whole and the LTTE in particular, and thirdly the forces of foreign intervention (the US and India especially) for the tragedy of 2009.

To turn to Latin America:
Objectively, Latin America is increasingly facing US-led threats (The Honduras coup and the Colombian bases are additions to an existing threat). Human rights have consistently been used by the West to undermine defiant states. The US, which uses one set of rules for the Palestinians, a different set of rules for the Kurds of Turkey, and a slightly different one for the Kurds of Iraq, also encourages secessionist forces in the wealthy parts of Bolivia and Venezuela). Latin America sees the issues in terms of a global reality that it faces.

The UNHRC resolution was a pre-emptive response to an anticipated resolution that the US, UK, Germany and Mexico (of all countries!) were planning. Why did Sri Lanka become an issue to them? It was to punish Sri Lanka, not for killing Tamils or denying Tamils their basic rights, but because the government was drifting out of US control. (Indo-US rivalry too has been a factor). USSR and China even during their socialist days had steered clear of UN intervention (and have hopefully learnt from their mistake of allowing meddling in Afghanistan and let the invasion of Iraq pass).

The basic guideline for countries confronting US imperialism is to do what is possible to prevent US meddling in any form. To imagine that a resolution denouncing the Sri Lankan government would have brought relief to the Tamils is fantasy.

Then there are subjective reasons, which cannot be ignored.

Leading Tamil nationalists of all shades have cared little for struggles for justice internationally. (Anton Balasingham, the LTTE ‘theoretician’ had even denounced the struggle in Kashmir as trouble making as he did the resistance in eastern India). The LTTE has not denounced the oppression of the Palestinians or US aggression anywhere, much in line with their political forebears in the Federal Party who denounced the Vietnam struggle as communist trouble making. The SLFP had an anti-imperialist past, but had been dodgy after the 1980s. Of late, the government has occasionally stood up for the Third World on important issues; the role of Dayan Jayatilleka (whose politics is not necessarily genuine) during his short spell as Sri Lanka’s UN ambassador has made an impression in Latin America. I do not think that the Tamil nationalists have had a moral right to ask for support from any country outside the imperialist world and India whom they loyally served. The tragedy is that they have left the Tamil people badly isolated.

By isolating themselves from the left governments, the Indian, especially Tamil, friends of Latin America will achieve nothing. They should have sought to discuss the matter with some of the Latin American embassies before jumping to conclusions. Taking decisions one-sidedly without reference to their friends is not healthy practice. It will be the progressive forces of India who will lose most by such kneejerk action.

Response to S Sivasegaram’s Rejoinder

By Ron Ridenour

S Sivasegaram’s rejoinder to my series [First Article, Second Article, Third Article, Fourth Article, and Fifth Article] on the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and the role of Cuba – ALBA in this tragedy is an excellent, well-thought and balanced piece. He, much more than I, knows the history and the peoples.

Without knowing anything about that part of the world until the end of the civil war, I was moved to conduct research because of the treatment the Sri Lankan government and military conducted against Tamils. I was also moved by what I believe essential for revolutionary morality: one does not side with a brutal government which practices discrimination (genocide even) against an entire people regardless of errors or incorrect attitudes by members of that people. I did not write to support elitism on any side, nor the Tigers, who, as I understand it, did act as Sivasegaram described they did. I wrote, in part, to admonish my comrades, the governments of ALBA countries whose resolution in the Human Rights Council is abhorrent in its applause for such a government and in its lack of solidarity for the interned Tamil people.

The fact that Sri Lanka has become a pawn in the hands of imperialism and authoritarian governments sometimes in opposition to US-led imperialism (China and Iran) in no way justifies an immoral stance by revolutionaries. The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. So, if ALBA must trade with the authoritarian-anti-democratic-anti-revolutionary governments of China and Iran that is for them to decide, but that must not make them dependent upon them politically. We certainly should have learned that, after all those years with the Soviet Union, which did not always conduct foreign policy in the interests of the people at hand.

We revolutionaries must not act cynically. Even if the Tamil nationalists should support other peoples and should have discussed matters with Latin Americans, this failure cannot justify abandoning a tortured people and applauding the torturers.

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6 Comments on A Rejoinder to Ron Ridenour’s series on Sri Lanka

  1. I must admit that I have not read all the 5 parts of Ron’s articles though I have made some cooments on part 1 and part 5 and preserving all parts for later reading. I did not have an opportunity to look at Sivasekaram’s thesis in Radical notes. I, like Ron, believe that you do not need to be fully armed with details of all the minute events before making a comment but certainly you need a global understanding and a dialectical approach. Before analysing why the LTTE failed, should not we analyse why the Left (or the progressives or whatever you may call them) with such a vast array of Theory and Practice failed to deliver in the world in general and in Sri Lanka in particular? After all LTTE was only a reaction to the GENOCIDAL POLICY of the Sri Lankan State Terrorism and Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinism thogh they were gradually getting better understanding through mistakes. I know of many Marxists who cannot criticise the Sri Lankan government (GOSL) without first criticising the LTTE as if killing the RESISTANCE is more important before even aiming at the OPPRESSOR. In this these arm chair Marxists were no different from the IC or the imperialists and they along with the GOSL and IC should face the War Crimes in the court of History. First thing these people should learn is that in the struggle between the OPPRESSOR and the OPPRESSED, you have to take the side of the oppressed and those who are RESISTING although you can and should help them to correct mistakes. NO MARXIST, NOT EVEN A HUMANIST, CAN EVER BE AN UMPIRE AND HISTORY WILL THROW THEM TO THE DUSTBIN IF THEY DO NOT TAKE THE SIDE OF THE OPPRESSED AND THOSE RESISTING. I think Ron has done his duty by taking the side of the oppressed in Sri Lanka and criticising his friends for the mistakes by his friends. It is heartening to note that the Indian Maoists also have correctly understood the struggles in Sri Lanka and declared their lot with the Tamils and the LTTE inspite of lack of understanding by the LTTE. That means the liberation of Sri Lankan Tamils will not be delayed beyond the liberation of the many Nations in India. Again it is of no relevance to indulge in ANCIENT HISTORY to know that there are a Tamil speaking Nation and a Sinhala speaking Nation in Sri Lanka and that the Tamils have the right of Self Determination which they can exercise to become separate if the Sinhalese will not let then live. In historical terms, the age of NATIONAL LIBERATION IS NOT OVER and it is time for all Nations without State to be liberated and their right of Self Determination recognised. Without this there is no scope for Socialism and hence it is the prime duty of all Socialists to support National Liberation

  2. It is absurd to argue that “those Tamils”(referring to the Tamils who occupied the island from pre-historic times are ” different” from the Tamils of latter days. Tamils are afterall Tamils and the Tamil language is one of the few languages that has undergone very little change over the centuries.Unlike for instance English of the sixteenth century over even later periods one can easily read and comprehend quite a good portion of Tamil literature composed in the 6th,7th centuries.

    To say that Sinhalese are a single community whereas the Tamil speaking people in the island consist of three national groups is again ridiculous. I wonder whether the author had not heard of the Tri Sinhala peramuna that existed until very recently. What does “tri-Sinhala” imply? Even today the upcountry Sinhalas do not consider the low country Sinhalas to be in par.The govigamas do not consider the karawas as their equals. It is a little strange that the ‘karawa question’ has still not cropped up against Sarath Fonseka and it will be interesting to know whether the JVP gave consideration to the ‘karawa connection’ in extending support to the chosen candidate of its acclaimed arch rival, the UNP!

    The Muslims in Tamilnadu act and behave as Tamils with only the distinction of the religion and a number of Muslims in Sri Lanka have connections with the Muslims in Tamilnadu. It will not be hard to gues that it is the calculated divisive policy of the Sinhalese that prompted the Muslims to claim to belong to a differant etnic group.

  3. HumanFrailty // 1st December 2009 at 1:52 am // Reply

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about, Sengodan. I as a Sinhala person do not (and have not ever) looked at Sinhalese in other areas as different groups. There are NO castes in Sinhala society in the modern era.

    And, there is a major difference between Eastern Tamils and Jaffna Tamils. Note that the Karuna group left the LTTE because they felt that their people were being ignored under the Jaffna Tamil dominated LTTE.

  4. “The Muslims in Tamilnadu act and behave as Tamils with only the distinction of the religion and a number of Muslims in Sri Lanka have connections with the Muslims in Tamilnadu. It will not be hard to gues that it is the calculated divisive policy of the Sinhalese that prompted the Muslims to claim to belong to a differant etnic group.”

    Or it might be the fact that the LTTE ethnically cleansed all Muslims from the Northern Province, forcing them to leave their homes and massacring the ones that did not. (http://www.spur.asn.au/kattankudi_muslim_mosque_massare_by_ltte_1.htm)

    I worked in Puttalam where there are still refugee camps with tens of thousands of Muslims displaced by the LTTE from the Northern province: they have been there since 1990.

    Go visit them and ask why they don’t consider themselves Tamil.

  5. It has been 15 years since Jaffna is occupied by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the authority of the government is forced on the Tamil people in Jaffna under an “Open Prison” condition where the military/paramilitaries commit crimes without interference on the Tamil people.

    It has been 15 years for the government to resettle the Tamil speaking Muslim population and they still haven’t. Why? Divide and Conquer. The Tamil speaking Muslims are pitted against the rest of the Tamils so that the Sinhalese people can benefit from the divide and conquer tactics. The Muslims are a tool for the Sri Lankan imperialist to suppress the Tamils (as well as the Muslims) and the Muslims better realize this and ask the question why they are not allowed back into Jaffna by the government even after the government has absolute control over Jaffna for the last 15 years.

    As for your website, you might want to provide something creditable rather then a website compiled by Sinhalese extremists. The website is pretty low when many of the massacres of the Tamils are done by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and blamed on the LTTE. Many of the Tamils who collaborated with the imperialist forces that the LTTE had to wipe out in order to protect the aspirations of the Tamils being misused had been portrayed as moderate Tamil leaders (it has been custom of the Sinhalese to tell the Tamils who their leaders are when the Tamils have defiantly choose LTTE to prove them wrong) by these Sinhalese to bring discredit to the LTTE. The Tamil people are well aware that LTTE is no angel, but they are well aware that LTTE is the only force that can protect Tamil people (including the Muslim people) and their quest for national liberation.

    On Part 3 of Ron Ridenour’s article, there is a perfect quote to describe the Tamil Tigers:

    “Tigers were good people, intelligent and sensitive to people and nature. But contradictions did exist. They were a strange animal.”

  6. Here is a report from Times (UK) that shows the reality:

    chance encounter behind the wire offered the cook an opportunity to serve exquisite revenge on his would-be killer. He was a prisoner, one of 280,000 Tamil civilians interned in Sri Lankan detention camps this year, when the moment came. Memories of his earlier escape from the strip of land held by the Tamil Tigers during their last stand in May were still vivid.

    “The Tigers killed between 20 and 30 people in the group I was with as we tried to run,” V. Sivalingam, one of the final Tamil detainees released on Tuesday, recalled. “There were four or five of them. At first they argued with us. Then the crowd around them grew bigger. They began to panic. People started to push past them. Then they opened fire. Close range. Waist high. Directly at us. It was chaos. The military were shelling us at the same time.”

    Sivalingam, a cook from Mullaittivu, had miraculously survived, and succeeded in reaching the army’s lines with his wife of 20 years and five children after an epic flight that involved wading through neck-high sea water for ten hours. Within a matter of days he and his family found themselves interned by the authorities in a Zone 2 camp of the infamous Manik Farm complex, where they remained until Tuesday. Most of his fellow detainees were strangers but on one glorious day Sivalingam had recognised a familiar face.

    “It was one of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] fighters who had shot so many people that day,” he said. “He was a young man, who had managed to escape too, and now disguised himself in the camp as a civilian. I walked up to him and said, ‘Remember me? I was in that crowd you shot at. Think of what I could do to you now’. The man hung his head.”

    However, instead of beating up the Tiger, or revealing his identity to the camp guards, Sivalingam said: “I did nothing. I told nobody of his identity. I could have had him arrested but I didn’t. The LTTE had fought long and hard for us. At the end of it all they did terrible things — we know that. But they didn’t have much choice.”

    Such ambivalence towards the Tigers, even among those who suffered directly at their hands, is typical among the civilian former detainees now struggling to pick up the threads of their life since their release.

    “When I first heard that Prabhakaran [leader of the LTTE] was dead I felt nothing either way,” explained Jegathees Sridtharan, 34, a teacher from Kilinochchi, released after spending six months in a Zone Zero detention camp in Manik Farm with her husband and two infant sons.

    “But later, as a Tamil woman, I felt deeply worried about his death. For 30 years the LTTE had fought for our freedom, right up until disaster.”

    Yet these words came from a woman who by her own account had endured a horrific battlefield ordeal in which she had waded through the sea with her husband, clutching their sons aged 2½ and 7 months, escaping a war zone in which she described seeing hundreds of bodies of civilians killed by artillery and airstrikes, simultaneously under fire from both the Tigers and the army.

    “I could see the LTTE shooting at us as we entered the water with a huge crowd,” she said. “People were hit and falling into the water.”

    These mixed loyalties pose a complex and time sensitive challenge that the Sri Lankan Government must surmount speedily if it is to transform its military victory of May into a lasting peace.

    Detaining 280,000 civilians for six months, whom it first claimed to have liberated from the Tigers in “one of the largest hostage rescue operations in history”, was not an auspicious start to winning their support. Though life in the camps does not seem to have involved systematic physical abuse, it could nevertheless be one of hardship, overcrowding and poor sanitation.

    “Our camp was particularily bad,” Sivalingam said. “People fought over water, food and space. We felt like prisoners because that’s what we were: third-class citizens.”

    All returnees, including the final 130,000 released on Tuesday, are technically offered an immediate resettlement package, which includes a World Food Programme ration card, the first of two $220 (£133) handouts and essential non-food items such as blankets.

    However, the plan is flawed in its application. Some people receive cash and rations, some do not. In Trincomalee not a single returnee spoken to by The Times had managed to draw the weekly ration allowance, despite being issued cards, owing to administrative errors by local authorities.

    “Each time I go to the authorities they tell me that they have received no rations to give us yet,” said Rajneedevi Visavalingam, 32, the wife of a 40-year-old Tamil farmer who had been blinded in both eyes by shrapnel in April (but who nevertheless had been detained in a Zone 4 camp with his family the moment he was released from hospital).

    “I took a letter to the UNHCR [United Nations Commissioner for Refugees] here, saying I have three small children, a blinded husband, no home of our own and no money. They sent me to the IOM [International organisation for Migration], who sent me back to the local divisional secretary, who sent me away with nothing. The Government has washed its hands of us.”

    “The situation is crazy,” admitted Father V. Yogeswaran, the Jesuit priest who is director of the Centre for Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Trincomalee. “There is no clear procedure for the rehabilitation or resettlement programme. We don’t know it. The returnees don’t know it. The UN hasn’t a clear plan either. Why? There’s no answer yet. It’s like the blind groping for a way out.”

    The Sri Lankan Government has undermined its own ability to cope with the situation by restricting the access of NGOs to the north and east of the country, organisations that would be far better skilled at delivering resettlement aid than local authorities.

    Meanwhile, even the exact freedom of movement status of the final 130,000 released detainees remains unclear. Many have no homes left to go to. Some from the Manik Farm camp complex have been told to report back within ten days, others within 15 days. The total closure of camps is not due until January 31.

    Most of those released on Tuesday were happy just to savour even limited freedom after six months’ incarceration rather than brood on their more distant future, although for the cook Sivalingam, the day was one of mixed fortunes.

    “I said goodbye to my wife of 20 years for good when I walked out of the camp gates,” he said. “We had been through so much together. We had escaped through the fighting knowing it could be the end of our lives. But we survived. I loved her. But in the camp she consorted with the military for extra rations. That association disgraces her. She’s gone to Jaffna. I’ll never have her back.”

    Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6945213.ece

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