Tamils’ invocation of the word ‘genocide’ with regards their treatment by the Sri Lankan state is viewed by many external observers as exaggeration. After all, they argue, even by the worst Tamil assertion, ‘only’ 90,000 of us have been killed in the conflict - and that too over several decades.
But genocide need not involve the deaths of millions of people nor need these be carried out en masse. But the swift, explosive types of genocide such as Rawnda’s, while generating international attention, often do so too late.
However where genocide may be discernible but slow burning, the international political community may choose to ignore it for tactical reasons, de-prioritising it precisely because it does not command the attention of international media and may thus be conveniently ignored in the interest of geopolitical objectives.
The treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka fits all the requirements of a genocide. According to the UN convention of 1948, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group: (1) killing members of the group; (2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (3) deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction; (4) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (5) forcibly transferring children of this group to another group.
The term genocide was first coined by a Polish Jewish scholar Raphael Lemkin in the context of the Jewish Holocaust.
But Lemkin said of the original Geneva legal definition: “generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
He went on to say:
“The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups”
Lemkin’s definition, which formed the basis of the UN convention, was broad in that it included not only physical genocide but also slower, but equally deliberate acts aimed at destroying the culture and livelihood of the target group.
According to the Swiss academic Julia Fribourg, the term ‘genocide’ includes the deliberate displacement of national groups from their homelands with an aim of destroying their cultural and habitational grounds.
Further, as James Smith, another academic specialising in genocide, observed: “genocide is not extreme war or conflict; it is extreme exclusion. Exclusion may start with name-calling, but may end with a group of people being excluded from a society to the point where they are destroyed.”
It has been often said that the problematic aspect of the legal definition of genocide is the question of intent. Intent is always difficult to prove. One way of getting around this is by the legal construct of an independent, rational observer.
However in the Sri Lankan case, intent may not be so much of a problem.
For many historical actions of the Sri Lankan state vis-à-vis the Tamils, it is difficult to find rationalisations other than the ‘disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence’ or the intent of ‘exclusion’ as defined by Smith or the intent of ‘displacement from the traditional homeland’ as defined by Fribourg.
Large numbers of Tamils have been compelled to flee their traditional homeland. At least 800,000 people are internally displaced or refugees abroad. That’s out of a total population of just over three million.
Whilst displacements occur in many conflicts, there is a key difference: colonisation by Sinhalese of traditional Tamil areas and the long-term incorporation of Tamil areas into sprawling military complexes.
Sinhala colonisation of Tamil areas has been actively, even aggressively, sponsored by the Sri Lankan state from as early as the sixties. It has proceeded most forcefully during the decades of conflict, with the Sinhala-dominated military paving the way for Sinhala settlers by driving Tamils out.
The government has historically not only subsidised Sinhala colonisation of Tamil areas, in the seventies it even forcibly resettled Sinhala ex-convicts there as part of a ‘rehabilitation’ programme.
At independence from Britain in 1948, Sinhalese formed only 3% of the population of the Trincomalee district in the contested east. They now form 30%. The Amparai district, now dominated by Sinhalese, has been hived off the Batticaloa district.
Jaffna was home to a million Tamils. Now there are 450,000. Many of the rest are abroad. But up to a third of the peninsula has been incorporated into so-called High Security Zones (HSZs). That was by ten years ago.
Apart from the changing demographics due to the dispersal of the Tamil people by military offensives and the shrinking of traditional Tamil areas by state sponsored colonisation, there are state actions that are detrimental to the Tamil population specifically.
These include the under-investment in the Northeast over the many years before and after the start of the conflict, the paltry resources allocated since independence to education in Tamil areas (in contrast to Sinhala areas) and the discrimination against Tamils entering university.
The last was achieved by ‘standardisation’ which was the practice of allocating intake to districts by quota to enable students from underdeveloped areas greater access – except Jaffna was defined as well-developed even though it had the same indicators as under-developed Sinhala areas.
Many of the recent actions of the Sri Lankan state are not new measures against the Tamils but merely part of a habitual, systemic pattern.
Take, for example, aspects (2) and (3) of the above UN definition: Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction
The closure of the A9 highway, the only road link that allows food and essentials to reach Tamil areas not under the control of the Sri Lankan military and the associated embargo of food and medical supplies fall within section 3.
The Geneva conventions do not allow deprivation of food and medicine against a civilian population in times of war. In this instance it is deprivation of the Sinhala-dominated state against a minority population, the Tamils.
That the obstruction is deliberate and intentional is demonstrable from the ruthless crackdown on international and local relief and rehabilitation NGOs. All NGO staff are required to obtain new ministry of defence permits before they can work. But over 500 are still waiting. Meanwhile, the massacre in August of 17 aid workers from Action Contre le Faim, a French NGO, has spread considerable disquiet.
Amid the government embargo and blockades, international NGOs are not only the main relief actors, they are also witnesses to events in the Northeast who can appraise the international community.
The denial of food extends to the recent scattering of cluster bomblets across Tamil farmland in areas not under government controlled.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan troops advancing into the Tamil Tiger areas have deployed a scorched earth policy, razing Tamil villages to the ground, preventing the return of fleeing inhabitants.
That this is a systematic process may be seen by considering events of the past decades. Food and medicine have been used as weapons against the Tamils before.
A strict economic embargo was an integral part of the infamous ‘war for peace’ waged from 1995-2002 by the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. As were bans on faming and fishing – reinforced by murderous military attacks on farmers and fishermen who ventured out.
Officially, the UNP government of 2002-3 lifted the embargo and restrictions on fishing and farming following the ceasefire with the LTTE in 2002. However, even during the ceasefire, the military ignored the terms of the truce and kept the restrictions in place in many places, despite repeated protests by local communities.
Mass killings of Tamils have not taken place since 1983 – when 3,000 Tamils were slaughtered by Sinhala mobs in the ‘Black July’ pogrom. The lack of mass communal violence may partly be due to fear of retaliation by the LTTE.
But that is not to say being a Tamil in the Sinhala south is unproblematic. Whereas Sinhala nationalists point to the large numbers of Tamils in Colombo as a sign that ‘there is no ethnic problem’ an altogether different inference can be made.
Whilst some of the Tamils in Colombo are long settled there, many others have sought safety there from the conflict zones of the Northeast. This is not to say that they are safe there, but safer than the violent Northeast.
Tamils are routinely arrested and either murdered or ‘disappear’ in military custody. The numbers have been rising in recent months. Scores are being killed each week in all districts of the Northeast – Jaffna, Trincomalee, Vavunia, Mannar, and Batticaloa – and even in Colombo.
Tamil journalists, academics, politicians, aid workers and rights activists have been abducted and murdered by Sri Lanka’s military with complete impunity, despite the frequent protests by local and international human rights groups and civil society organisations.
This liquidation of Tamil intelligentsia is not a side-effect of the conflict but an integral part of the state’s efforts to blunt and undermine the Tamil nationalist project.
The pattern is not new. One of Nazi Germany’s first priorities after the invasion of Poland was the targeting of Polish Jewish academics and intellectuals. Raphael Lemkin had good cause to know intimately the pattern of acts that build up, sometime initially unnoticed, towards genocide.
Apart from the deprivations inflicted by the state, there is the exclusion from it, particularly exclusion from participation in the governance of the country. Sri Lanka’s military is 99% Sinhalese. It was so in 1983, before the armed conflict erupted, as Harvard academic Stanley Tambiah noted then.
Apart from the token Tamil minister, especially the Sinhala sycophantic Lakshman Kadirgamar, or the pro-government paramilitary leader, Douglas Devananda, the control of the state is in Sinhala hands. Indeed, Sri Lanka’s two main parties are predominantly Sinhala.
The Sri Lankan state bureaucracy is Sinhala-ised and even radicalised against Tamils. So is the judiciary. And these trends are not recent, the expulsion and exclusion of Tamils can be traced back to the fifties, shortly after independence.
The infamous ‘Sinhala Only’ language Act of 1956 is a quintessential icon of the exclusionary ethos of the Sri Lankan state. The point of the Act was to remove Tamils from the machinery of state.
A study of Sri Lankan legislation, including the present constitution, graphically demonstrates the privileging of Sinhala-Buddhism over other ethnic and religious identities.
There are the longer term trends which are discernible. Then there is the scale and pattern of displacement (and resettlement/colonisation). The patterns, nature and intensity of economic embargo and military violence are there to see.
Although mass killings are not a common feature of the conflict now – and may not be as long as the threat of Tamil militant retaliation exits – there is a pattern to the disappearances and killings of Tamils.
All of this must be viewed in the context of Raphael Lemkin’s comment that genocide “is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence.”