Towards the end of 2008, I joined thousands in Toronto to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza. Like people all over the world, we called for an immediate end to the war. At York University, where I was a student, we mobilized the campus to defend Palestinian rights.
A few months later, bombs were falling on my own people — in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka. And once again, we hit Toronto’s streets in protest.
I realized then that even though our homelands are oceans apart, Palestinians and Tamils have much in common.
Through the “war on terror,” the Israeli and Sri Lankan armies have waged war on civilian populations.
The Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal has commissioned an independent report that finds the Sri Lankan state guilty of bombing hospitals, humanitarian operations and even government-declared “safe zones,” in clear violation of international humanitarian law (“Preliminary report,” January 2010 [PDF]).
A United Nations report estimates that from January to May 2009, between 40,000 and 75,000 persons were killed (“Report of the secretary-general’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka,” 31 March 2011).
The Sri Lankan government’s own statistical data reveal that almost 147,000 persons remain unaccounted for: no one knows if they are held in prison, injured, or dead (“146,679 Vanni people missing within a year of war: Bishop of Mannaar,” TamilNet, 12 January 2011).
Major arms supplier
But there are more direct connections.
Israel has been a major arms supplier to Sri Lanka’s government, as well as providing it with strategic military advice. With permission from the United States, Israel has sold Sri Lanka consignments of Kfir jets and drones.
Israel has also supplied the Dvora patrol boats to Sri Lanka, which have been used extensively against Tamils (“Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ swarm tactics,” Jane’s Navy International, March 2009 [PDF]).
And Israel has also provided training to the Special Task Force, a brutal commando unit in the Sri Lanka police.
The similarities don’t end there. Both Palestinians and Tamils have been subjected to a process of settler-based colonialism.
In the 1980s, Israel offered advice to Sri Lanka as it built Sinhala-only armed settlements in the eastern province, which aimed to create buffer zones around Tamil-majority populations (the Sinhalese are the ethnic majority of Sri Lanka) (“Sinhala academic blames US-UK axis for genocide in Tamil homeland,” TamilNet, 15 April 2012).
The strategy employed was the same as Israel’s in the West Bank: to destroy the local population’s claim to national existence and render invalid any political solution based on popular sovereignty.
Just like in Palestine, land seizures and settlement programs in Sri Lanka are fragmenting the Tamil people’s national and social coherence throughout their historic homeland in the north and east of the island. As exiled journalist and human rights worker Nirmanusan Balasundaram wrote earlier this year, the effect is to undermine any possibility of creating a contiguous national homeland (“Sri Lanka: The intentions behind the land-grabbing process,” Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, 30 April 2013).
Within the occupied West Bank, this process takes place against the backdrop of “dialogue,” which more and more Palestinians see as a sham as Israeli settlements spread across their land. After the 2009 war, the Sri Lankan government used the rhetoric of “reconstruction” and “redevelopment” to obscure its process of rapid colonization.
For Tamils, “post-war development” has become another form of counter-insurgency warfare, whereby Sinhala settlements, state-led militarization and the open gerrymandering of constituencies all threaten the Tamils’ historic relationship to their homeland.
An international agreement with India foresees Sri Lanka holding elections this September for a Northern Provincial Council, supposedly another gesture of reconciliation. The US is backing the election, despite serious reservations within Tamil civil society and the diaspora.
The council, if elected, would provide Tamils with only the perception of self-determination — similar to the experience of the Palestinian Authority — while the military occupation continues to dominate every aspect of civilian life. The council’s powers would remain under the control of the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and its governor would be a direct appointment of the Sri Lankan president (see “Much ado about nothing,” Colombo Telegraph, 21 April 2013).
Regardless of the façade of self-government, the crime of apartheid remains a fact of life for Tamils in Sri Lanka, as it does for Palestinians under Israeli rule.
Sri Lanka’s treatment of the Tamils in the north and east of the island meets the definition of apartheid contained in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.
Apartheid involves the domination of one racial or ethnic group over another. The convention is not restricted to the particular manifestation of apartheid in South Africa or to majorities being oppressed by minorities. Instead, it condemns practices that resemble apartheid — of which there is more than one version.
Without a doubt, there are critical differences between the oppression faced by Palestinians and the oppression faced by Tamils (and by black South Africans, for that matter). Nevertheless, both Israel and Sri Lanka are characterized by discrimination, repression and territorial fragmentation through stolen land.
The unitary Sri Lankan state structure constitutionally places all power of the state exclusively in the hands of the Sinhalese people, while denying Tamils equal access to education, their own language, their land, and self-determination.
In light of this common experience, the Palestinian and Tamil peoples are enduring a slow — but relentless — genocide. The massacres in Gaza and the Vanni were carried out to kill civilians, cause serious bodily and mental harm, and impose conditions of life that produce partial and gradual physical destruction — all with little meaningful opposition from global capitals. Both can be considered cases of genocide, as it is defined by the United Nations.
In the case of Sri Lanka, as long as it uses the language of “reconciliation,” it will continue to pursue the same strategy and enjoy praise from major powers.
But the realization of our peoples’ aspirations does not depend on the whims of foreign governments. It rests with the Tamil people — as the aspirations for a liberated Palestine rest with the Palestinians — and the support of a mobilized and engaged international solidarity movement. By supporting each other’s struggles, and by learning from each other’s histories, we can get one step closer to a more just world.
For both Palestinians and Tamils, the attacks of 2008 and 2009 were part of a broader history of dispossession, occupation and genocide. Our people have a lot in common in the struggle for peace and justice. In fact, our oppressors appear to have lots in common too.
Krisna Saravanamuttu is an activist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a member of the steering committee of the Canadian Peace Alliance, and is the spokesperson of the National Council of Canadian Tamils. Follow him on Twitter: @KrisnaS85.