It is one year since Sri Lankan state’s genocide of the Tamil population reached its zenith. In the closing months of Colombo’s military onslaught against both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Tamils, particularly the residents of the Vanni region, tens of thousands of civilians were liquidated in mass bombardment from land, air and sea. UN officials have since said up to forty thousand people perished - though its official count, since revealed as politically manipulated, is seven thousand. A detailed investigation by The Times newspaper, citing UN and other international officials, revealed at least twenty thousand died in the closing weeks under a relentless hail of Sri Lankan artillery shells and bombs.
2009’s single, protracted program of state-conducted slaughter has a sixty year-long antecedent, beginning well before the armed conflict erupted in 1983. From 1956 to then, thousands of Tamils died in regular episodes of rioting by Sinhala mobs. These almost always coincided with key moments when Tamils politically articulated their right to be treated, like the Sinhalese, as a founding nation of the country. The state stood by – whilst elements of the Sinhala ruling elite and armed forces supported and facilitated the bloodletting and rape. The war itself erupted in the wake of the Black July pogrom of 1983, a state-orchestrated cleansing of Tamils from the Colombo. During the entire quarter century of armed conflict that followed, large sections of the Tamil population were subject to mass bombardment and blockades of food and medicine in places the Sinhala state’s writ did not run, and, where it did, to abductions, summary executions, torture and rape by the armed forces.
In short, since independence from Britain the Tamils have been a clear target for state-sanctioned and, later, state-conducted violence on a massive scale. Despite a well-documented and eminently traceable history, this assertion has routinely been ignored or denounced as hyperbole by international actors, amid nothing less than a flawed ideological assumption: it just cannot be thus. However, just because a country holds elections and is inhabited by ‘friendly’ people, doesn’t mean it does not embody a will to racial superiority. Sri Lanka does. Sri Lanka’s state racism has been underlined again and again over the past few years. Apart from the strategies and methods of the military, racial logics have informed all major state actions – from the directing of tsunami aid in 2005 to expenditure on education, health and justice. The most obvious recent example is the internment and brutalization in militarized camps of hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils from May 2009 – a practice which still continues.
Both the slaughter of the Vanni population and the subsequent penning of the survivors in concentration camps took place under the direct and daily observation of the international community. Quite apart from actors like Human Rights Watch, several international governments repeatedly sought – ultimately futilely – to persuade Sri Lanka to act like a civilized state. Moreover, contrary to uncritically posited claims, it is entirely practical to account accurately for how many people were killed. This was not some remote corner of the world beyond modern day tabulation. The entire population of the Vanni was registered as voters, as beneficiaries of international projects, as networks of family, and so on. The survivors are a latent source of accounts of what happened to their relatives, neighbours and close-knit communities. The truth is a question of access.
There has been an international tendency, perhaps an understandable one, to blame these horrors as a peculiarity of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime. Whilst the Tamils see 2009 as the manifestation of a deeper-seated and institutionalized racial hierarchy of Sri Lanka itself, it is also true that this particular set of atrocities were dreamt up, planned and executed by these leaders – whose popularity, incidentally, underwrites our wider claim.
Whether these acts are seen as ‘war crimes’ – i.e. abhorrent conduct in an otherwise lawful military campaign, or ‘genocide’, a strategic state-led project, the question remains, what does Sri Lanka’s slaughter, undertaken in brazen defiance of international calls, pleas and threats - mean for a globalised international order in which principles such as human rights and international humanitarian law supposedly hold sway? These are certainly political values. But they are not, despite some assertions, just ‘Western’ ones. During the Cold War, there were three armed international interventions to protect populations being targeted (amidst, of course, the interveners’ other goals): India in East Pakistan, Vietnam in Cambodia and Tanzania in Idi Amin’s Uganda.
Certainly, with regards to Sri Lanka today, the wheels of international justice are turning, albeit very slowly. Several actors have been working on preparing the grounds for an international accounting. They recognise that the Sri Lankan state will never bring to justice those responsible. In that sense, the Tamils today embody the raison d’etre of the ‘responsibility to protect’.
Wherever they have the freedom to do so, Tamils will in the coming days commemorate Sri Lanka’s slaughter of their people. The Sinhalese will celebrate ‘victory’. This is emblematic of Sri Lanka’s future. Just as Sinhala political projects will remain bound up with establishing a racial hierarchy, our political projects will turn on resisting hegemony and politically establishing our rightful place on the island. Accounting for 2009 is, in other words, the defining principle of Tamil-Sinhala relations to come.