18th May, 2021 is the 12th anniversary of the final large-scale massacre of the Eelam Tamils (which is called Mullivaikkal massacre) when the Sri Lankan state officially declared its military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

According to the Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka held in Bremen, Germany in December 2013, it was the climax of an ongoing genocidal process unleashed on the Eelam Tamils in the north and east of the island through many decades. Prior to this the Eelam Tamils not only survived many oppressive and repressive measures as well as brutal wars of the Sinhala Buddhist state, but also built a de facto secular state in their traditional homeland with massive popular support. The Tribunal clearly states that had not the USA and UK aided the Sri Lankan state this final massacre would not have taken place and holds the two powers complicit in the genocide.1

Area claimed as Tamil Eelam. Tamils claims of the recognized de facto state of Tamil Eelam on the island of Sri Lanka. Wikipedia Commons

Dancing with Sri Lanka

Why are these two imperialistic powers dancing with the Sri Lankan state?

Almost all the academic as well as advocacy papers written on Sri Lanka reduce the conflict exclusively to a ‘two-party theory’ without making a single reference to its most pivotal geopolitical factor. At last, a domestic conflict with no history of involvement of external forces!

In fact, the genocidal intent of the Sri Lankan state is inherent in its unitary political structure that was carved by the British empire for geo-strategic reasons. Seen through the eyes of the British rulers, the island was always a strategic asset that could be used as a military foothold in fighting other imperial rivals as well as containing many uprisings in India. Through literary, archaeological and anthropological means the British made the Sinhalese the chosen race, like Israelites, while the same devices were used to construct and portray the Tamils as “racially inferior” to the Sinhalese. While the British were colonising the island, the Tamils who had lived on the island as the Sinhalese for several thousand years prior to the White Man’s arrival on it were portrayed as “the invaders.” It is this strategic asset which is protected by the USA and UK at all costs by unceasingly and unconditionally supporting the Sri Lankan state against the Eelam Tamil struggle for national liberation.

The geo-strategic value of the island under a unitary state increased as the US-led wars in the Middle East unfolded to the west of Sri Lanka – where the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Sea is situated – and with the ascendency of China to the east of the island – where the Strait of Malacca is located which is the entry point to South China Sea. Yet, despite continuous support given to the Sri Lankan state’s war against the LTTE in between 1980-2001 which killed nearly 60,000 Tamils, the Eelam Tamil armed struggle could no longer be destroyed militarily. For the LTTE succeeded in achieving balance of military power in dismantling the monopoly of the Sri Lankan state by the dawn of the new millennium which resulted in the 2002 peace process. This was the peak moment of sovereignty of the island where a great space was created to transform the colonially carved genocidal structure of the Sinhalese-controlled state with its base in Colombo.

The US Pacific Command in Trincomalee Harbour

In fact, the balance of power between the two parties stopped the genocidal process. Moreover, the LTTE stated it is prepared to consider internal autonomy and that it wants the Indian Ocean to be declared a peace zone. This is the exact moment that the USA accelerated its intervention by sending the naval officers of the Pacific Command to the most strategic Trincomalee harbour in the Indian Ocean located  in the Tamil homeland – just a few months after the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE.

According to leaked information in Daily Mirror, the travelling naval commanders’ mission in Sri Lanka was to advice and prepare Colombo’s state security forces for the final assault on the Tamil resistance movement in a move strategically designed to help reconsolidate Sri Lankan state as a Sinhalese-controlled unitary state. It was later revealed that the Pacific Command’s  advice included prioritising the capturing of the LTTE-administered areas surrounding the Trincomalee harbour, further modernising  the Sri Lankan security forces and upgrading weaponry.

Not many know that the EU-USA/UK conflict over the invasion of Iraq could be seen clearly in regard to Sri Lanka. The EU initially backed a negotiated settlement and the USA/UK threatened the LTTE to disarm. Later under immense pressure from the USA/UK the EU banned the LTTE, which foreclosed any space for political negotiations and peaceful settlement between the LTTE and Colombo on the island. What resulted was an all-out war which was seen to be absolutely necessary to advance the USA’s goal of pivoting towards Asia.   As Sri Lanka entered into a military agreement with the USA in 2007, 1000 Okinawa-based US Marines were sent to the island to train its security forces for war. India provided naval support. China sold weapons. Besides, Israel had sold Colombo Kafir fighter jets for over a decade.

The Climax of Genocide

According to the UN reports at least 70,000 Tamils were massacre in the last phase, few months of the war in Sri Lanka.  But according to the highly revered late Bishop of Manner, Rayappu Joseph, who quoted the Sri Lankan state statistics at least 146,000 people have been unaccounted for. Presumably dead. At least half a million people lived freely in the LTTE-administered state that covered 15,000 square kilometres for a decade with a highly organised civil administration, welfare centres, farms, and so on. In the last phase of the war, this self-administered zone was reduced to 1.5 square kilometres where nearly 350,000 people were herded and heavily bombarded. Tamil Eelam had then become the Gaza of today.

The global powers  were uttering the mantra of sovereignty and territorial integrity to sacralise and sanitise the  Sri Lankan state against the Tamil resistance movement like they do for Israel. The Scottish film director Callum Macrae’s  documentary No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka shows how hospitals, medical and welfare centres, and food convoys were mercilessly bombed with heavy weapons by  the Sri Lankan security forces for weeks and months. Wikileaks revealed how the details of the genocidal massacre were known by the major powers who did not bother to convene a single Security Council meeting.

UNHRC: Another Tactic

After the climax of massacres of Eelam Tamils, the second phase of the genocidal process has begun on two fronts; one, local and the other, international.

    1. Locally the remaining essential foundations of Tamil Eelam (territorial contiguity, demography, land, economic resources, national symbols, thousands of tombs and memorial sites of the resistance movement, )  are being destroyed while imposing the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist identity on the Tamil homeland by demerging north and east, changing demography by Sinhala settlements, establishing hundreds of Sinhala Buddhist shrines (in Tamil speaking  Hindu, Muslim and Christian areas), changing Tamil names of public places into Sinhala, building  Sinhala war monuments, acquisition of key resources and commercial areas by the military and Sinhala settlers, etc. The right to memorialise those massacered in war is denied to the Tamils. Instead Sinhala military victory is celebrated. There is highly increased militarization, rampant land grab, military control of the civil administration, rape, arrests, torture and continuous security surveillance.

      According to the Economic and Political Weekly Out of 18,000 square kilometres of Tamil Eelam 7,000 are in the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces. In Jaffna district, the soldier/civilian ratio is 1/6-7. In Mullaitivu district, there are around 60,000 soldiers for 120,000 civilians. This means there is a soldier for every 2 civilians. No public event cannot be organized, even a pre-school children’s event, without the military. In fact, 35 major state department and institutions are under the ministry of defense. Over 150 top military officials run them. The President himself is an ex-military officer who was the secretary for defense in the last phase of the war who has been ‘democratically’ elected by the Sinhala majority.

    2. Globally the so-called international community which is dominated by the USA/UK axis, the demand of the Eelam Tamil national liberation movement for nationhood, homeland and self-determination has been suppressed by manipulating the human rights discourse through the toothless United Nations Human Rights Council.  Not a single UNHRC Resolution (six of them from 2012-2021) has been able to stop a single land grab in Tamil Eelam. These US-sponsored Resolutions even avoid the use of the word Tamil, a move taken to erase the collective national identity. By using the terms of the Sri Lankan constitution, sovereignty and territorial integrity, they firmly promoted the unitary structure of the Sri Lankan state which had throughout history prevented any form of autonomy for the Eelam Tamils.

      Juridical justice has been promised in exchange for political justice. Like entrusting the Nazis to lead the Nuremburg Trials the Sri Lankan state has been requested to probe into the last phase of the war. Above all the USA’s security forces are involved in conducting joint military training sessions with the Sri Lankan security forces that had been accused of massive violations of human rights.

      The truth is that these UNHRC Resolutions appeared for public relations exercise, even though the Tamils were made to believe in the power of the UN. Tamil activists who live in exile are charged with collecting funds to aid the LTTE and thereby prolonging the war. This was a position which was never there in the EU countries during the peace process. So much so the LTTE travelled to many EU countries in seeking support for the peace process.  One case was in Switzerland where some leading Tamil activists were taken to courts. The argument of the Swiss prosecutor seems to say that when a woman got wounded or killed for resisting rape  she is responsible for her  wounds and death.  The case was thrown out by the judge and the defendants were freed. Viraj Mendis, a Sinhala human rights activist, who campaigned for the rights of these Tamil activists by using the findings of the People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka – and  highlighting the USA/UK complicity in genocide – has been criminalised by the Sri Lankan state by putting  him on the “terrorist list”.

In a striking manifestation of duplicity of politics – just a week after the latest UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka in March 2021 which mandated the Commission to gather information about human rights violations in Sri Lanka – 20 Tamil asylum seekers were deported from Germany and Switzerland to Sri Lanka. Germany which fully backed the Resolution now seems to give full legitimacy to the Sri Lankan state by handing over the Eelam Tamils to their tormentors. As the anti-refugee right wing political forces are on the rise in Europe there seems to be a new alliance that is being made between these forces and the Sri Lankan state. As the International Human Rights Association in Bremen has pointed out Germany’s “great coalition” government’s ministry of foreign affairs headed by Socialist Democratic Party minister seems to be in conflict with one of its alliance partners, the Christian Social Union led ministry of the interior. Whatever the words of the Resolutions may be it is the deed that matters.

Keeping the Indian Ocean in Permanent State of War

The USA/UK axis not only helped triggered Colombo’s war against the Eelam Tamils by dismantling the 2002 peace process, but also paved the way for a coordinated genocidal process internationally through the UNHRC Resolutions, criminalising activists, deportations, and psychological warfare against the Tamil Diaspora which in turn put pressure on the leadership and the rank and files of the Eelam Tamil liberation movement. With all these external measures the colonially carved Sri Lankan state continues to be heavily guarded in keeping the island’s Indian Ocean region in a permanent state of war.

Another key development that took place after the military victory in 2009 is the anti-Muslim campaign by the far-right Sinhala Buddhist groups who also aligned strongly with such groups in other predominantly Theravada Buddhist countries such as Myanmar and Thailand. The Sri Lankan state has given total impunity to those who are engaged in this campaign which heightened after the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels in 2019. It is an open secret that those suicide attackers on Easter Sunday were very much known to the Sri Lankan security apparatus for years. This group was harassing the Muslims first, not the Buddhists, Hindus or Christians. On many occasions the Muslim community leaders complained to the state officials against their activities, but the latter took no action or measures against the extremists.

Today the entire Muslim community of Sri Lanka is being criminalized. The attackers had no deep roots within the Muslim community.  After the bombing, nearly 1,000 Muslims have been arrested under draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act which was originally put in place in order to criminalize and repress Eelam Tamils resistance. This is in addition to hundreds of Eelam Tamil political prisoners who are being detained after the war.  Perhaps we will never know who masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks, but we know for certainty that after these attacks the Sri Lankan state has been further securitized becoming a full pledged member of the club of ‘global war on terror’.

The Muslims are Tamil speaking, too. The Sri Lankan state is making every attempt to divide the Muslims from the rest of the Tamils by actively promoting Islamophobia, particularly in the Eastern Province. But there are Tamil civil society organizations as well as political parties who have formed strong alliances between Christian, Hindu and Muslim communities in overcoming these divisions.  Recently there was a 700 km march of thousands of Tamils from the east to the north opposing land grab, building of Sinhala Buddhist shrines, arrests, detentions, militarization and discrimination of Muslims.

The Sri Lankan state is using the COVID-19 pandemic to stop all protests and further militarize every sphere of the society, not only in the Tamil areas, but also in the Sinhala areas. Even though the Eelam Tamils continue to oppose these moves, the Sinhala majority does not do so because they see the security forces as their national heroes who won the war against the Eelam Tamils.

Today, the USA-India military cooperation has reached unprecedented levels in history at a time the Hindu far right forces are at the helm of power in India. In 2020, three bi-lateral military agreements were signed by the two countries. The USA-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) which involves Australia, India and Japan is  one of the most dangerous moves against peace in the Indo-Pacific region.  There are attempts to include South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam into the alliance.  Protecting the Sri Lanka’s unitary state without any challenge from the Eelam Tamils is crucial for this alliance. It is for the same reason South Korea is strengthened militarily against North Korea .

Where does China stand in this? China is the biggest donor of the Sri Lankan state even though China did not destroy the 2002 peace process between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. Today China is entering into same war paradigm of the USA in the Indian Ocean without taking a principled position in opposing to the USA/UK aided attacks on the oppressed peoples in Asia.

Declaring Indo-Pacific Oceans as Peace Zones

It is clear that there needs to be a broader alliance amongst the oppressed peoples in Asia who resist in multiple ways demanding their right to homeland; Kashmiris, Okinawans, Palestinians, Rohingyas and Eelam Tamils, to name a few. One the one hand, it is necessary to extend solidarity to each other’s political struggles. On the other hand, it is important to develop a common campaign to resist the USA/UK-led military paradigm in Asia which is heavily backed now by India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, and so on, amongst whom the Sri Lankan state is at the heart of the Indian Ocean. One such campaign has to be based on the demand to declare both the Indian and Pacific Oceans as peace zones. The further these Oceans get militarized the more the repression of every progressive movement in Asia will continue unchallenged and the region will be held under a permanent state of war. This is the message that those thousands of Eelam Tamils who resisted the Sri Lankan state and its global backers, and were massacred in Mullivaikkal convey to us.

Jude Lal Fernando

Jude Lal Fernando is assistant professor in the School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin  (University of Dublin), and the director of the Trinity Centre for Post-Conflict Justice. He is the author of Religion, Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka: The Politics of Interpretation of Nationhoods (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2013), and the editor of Resistance to Empire and Militarization: Reclaiming the Sacred (Sheffield: Equinox, 2020) and Faith in the Face of Militarization: Indegenous, Feminist and Interreligious Voices (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2021). He was the coordinator of the Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka and lives in exile in the Republic of Ireland.

Banner Image: GENEVA, SWITZERLAND, MARCH 10, 2014: Protest by Eelam Tamils outside the offices of the UN. Image: Martin Good / Shutterstock.com

  1. There were two sessions of this Tribunal. The first was held in 2010  in Dublin which found the Sri Lankan state and its security forces guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and  held the countries led by the USA responsible for supporting the conduct of the Sri Lankan government and its armed forces(People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka, 2010, 20). Both the Tribunals  were conducted by the Permanent People’s Tribunal in Rome and organised by the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka and the International Human Rights Association in Bremen.

Posted by Jude Lal Fernando

Jude Lal Fernando is assistant professor in the School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin (University of Dublin), and the director of the Trinity Centre for Post-Conflict Justice. He is the author of "Religion, Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka: The Politics of Interpretation of Nationhoods" (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2013), and the editor of "Resistance to Empire and Militarization: Reclaiming the Sacred" (Sheffield: Equinox, 2020) and "Faith in the Face of Militarization: Indegenous, Feminist and Interreligious Voices" (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2021). He was the coordinator of the Peoples’ Tribunal on Sri Lanka and lives in exile in the Republic of Ireland.