Distant Voices, Desperate Lives

In the early 1960s, it was the Irish of Derry who would phone late at night, speaking in a single breath, spilling out stories of discrimination and injustice. Who listened to their truth until the violence began? Bengalis from what was then East Pakistan did much the same. Their urgent whispers described terrible state crimes that the news ignored, and they implored us reporters to “let the world know.” Palestinians speaking above the din of crowded rooms in Bethlehem and Beirut asked no more. For me, the most tenacious distant voices have been the Tamils of Sri Lanka, to whom we ought to have listened a very long time ago.

It is only now, as they take to the streets of western cities, and the persecution of their compatriots reaches a crescendo, that we listen, though not intently enough to understand and act. The Sri Lankan government has learned an old lesson from, I suspect, a modern master: Israel. In order to conduct a slaughter, you ensure the pornography is unseen, illicit at best. You ban foreigners and their cameras from Tamil towns like Mulliavaikal, which was bombarded recently by the Sri Lankan army, and you lie that the 75 people killed in the hospital were blown up quite willfully by a Tamil suicide bomber. You then give reporters a ride into the jungle, providing what in the news business is called a dateline, which suggests an eyewitness account, and you encourage the gullible to disseminate only your version and its lies. Gaza is the model.

From the same master class you learn to manipulate the definition of terrorism as a universal menace, thus ingratiating yourself with the “international community” (Washington) as a noble sovereign state blighted by an “insurgency” of mindless fanaticism. The truth and lessons of the past are irrelevant. And having succeeded in persuading the United States and Britain to proscribe your insurgents as terrorists, you affirm you are on the right side of history, regardless of the fact that your government has one of the world’s worst human rights records and practices terrorism by another name. Such is Sri Lanka.

This is not to suggest that those who resist attempts to obliterate them culturally if not actually are innocent in their methods. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have spilt their share of blood and perpetrated their own atrocities. But they are the product, not the cause, of an injustice and a war that long predates them. Neither is Sri Lanka’s civil strife as unfathomable as it is often presented: an ancient religious-ethnic rivalry between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese government.

Sri Lanka as British-ruled Ceylon was subjected to a classic divide-and-rule. The British brought Tamils from India as virtual slave labor while building an educated Tamil middle class to run the colony. At independence in 1948, the new political elite, in its rush for power, cultivated ethnic support in a society whose real imperative should have been the eradication of poverty. Language became the spark. The election of a government pledging to replace English, the lingua franca, with Sinhalese was a declaration of war on the Tamils. The new law meant that Tamils almost disappeared from the civil service by 1970; and as “nationalism” seduced parties of both the left and right, discrimination and anti-Tamil riots followed.

The formation of a Tamil resistance, notably the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, included a demand for a state in the north of the country. The response of the government was judicial killing, torture, disappearances, and more recently, the reported use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons. The Tigers responded with their own crimes, including suicide bombing and kidnapping. In 2002, a ceasefire was agreed, and was held until last year, when the government decided to finish off the Tigers. Tamil civilians were urged to flee to military-run “welfare camps”, which have become the symbol of an entire people under vicious detention, and worse, with nowhere to escape the army’s fury. This is Gaza again, although the historical parallel is the British treatment of Boer women and children more than a century ago, who “died like flies,” as a witness wrote.

Foreign aid workers have been banned from Sri Lanka’s camps, except the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has described a catastrophe in the making. The United Nations says that 60 Tamils a day are being killed in the shelling of a government-declared “no-fire zone.”

In 2003, the Tigers proposed a devolved Interim Self-Governing Authority that included real possibilities for negotiation. Today, the government gives the impression it will use its imminent “victory” to “permanently solve” the “Tamil minority problem,” as many of its more rabid supporters threaten. The army commander says all of Sri Lanka “belongs” to the Sinhalese majority. The word “genocide” is used by Tamil expatriots, perhaps loosely; but the fear is true.

India could play a critical part. The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has a Tamil-speaking population with centuries of ties with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. In the current Indian election campaign, anger over the siege of Tamils in Sri Lanka has brought hundreds of thousands to rallies. Having initially helped to arm the Tigers, Indian governments sent “peacekeeping” troops to disarm them. Delhi now appears to be allowing the Sinhalese supremacists in Colombo to “stabilize” its troubled neighbor. In a responsible regional role, India could stop the killing and begin to broker a solution.

The great moral citadels in London and Washington offer merely silent approval of the violence and tragedy. No appeals are heard in the United Nations from them. David Miliband has called for a “ceasefire”, as he tends to do in places where British “interests” are served, such as the 14 impoverished countries racked by armed conflict where the British government licenses arms shipments. In 2005, British arms exports to Sri Lanka rose by 60 percent. The distant voices from there should be heard, urgently.

John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His latest film is The War on Democracy. His most recent book is Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (2006). Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

14 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. C S said on May 13th, 2009 at 9:30am #

    John: Thanks for this splendid piece.
    One minor point to be clarified: In Sri Lanka (Ceylon) there are indigenous Tamils and Indian Tamils or they are called Upcountry/hill country Tamils. The latter were brought into the country as indentured labour by the Brits. They were disenfranchised by the Sinhala state and during Srimavo Bandaranaike’s reign many Hill country Tamils were pathetically repatriated to India like cattle!! Yet they slaved in the hills from morn to dusk, bringing foreign currency to the country.
    It is the indigenous Tamils in the North and East who are struggling for Self-determination. They say, they want live with freedom and dignity in their traditional homelands without persecution and discrimination and killing squads.

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain said on May 13th, 2009 at 6:55pm #

    Israel has indeed been, in recent years, a firm ally and arms supplier for the central Government in Sri Lanka. I do not doubt for an instant that the Israelis have aided and abetted this campaign of mass slaughter, bringing their undoubted expertise at murder and demonisation of despised untermenschen to the assistance of a similar regime. The Sri Lankan Government, however, lacks two essential attributes that Israel possesses and which make its malignancy unique in current world affairs. Whereas Israel completely controls the US political and media apparatus, the Sri Lankan Government is just one of many fascist supplicants at the Imperial Court. And whereas the Judaic Lobby can instantly and fanatically denounce and vilify the criticism of any Israeli crimes as ‘anti-Semitism’ and rely on masses of morally insane toadies to screech their echoing response, the Sri Lankans won’t get far peddling ‘anti-Sinhalism’ as a new verity. For a start I imagine their Israeli friends would not appreciate anyone else using one of their favourite tactics, one bequeathed to them alone, by God Himself, apparently.

  3. leon said on May 13th, 2009 at 7:15pm #

    Thanks a million.You make the valid point that the Tigers as a guerilla force is a creation of the racist policies of the Sinhala Govt which commenced immediately after Independence in 1948.The first thing the Sinhala Govt did was to disenfranchise the Up country Tamils.This was followed by a systematic colonization of the traditional homelands.This was followed by declaring Sinhala as the only Official Language.This was followed by making Buddism the state religion.
    As you know before the British set foot in The Island there were three kingdoms namely the Kandyian,the Kotte and the Tamil Kingdom in the North. The British for easy administration amalgamated and they are morally responsiblt for the state we are in

  4. MM said on May 13th, 2009 at 8:00pm #

    What should a Tamil do at this juncture? What would I tell my thirteen year old son, why we are held in the barbed enclosure like animals? What would I say about his 19 year old cousin who was taken away by the thugs who wear uniform? What would I say about my wife and younger son, who are supposedly locked up in another prison camp?

    How will I reason that attempting to killing your tormentors will lead to he being called a terrorist?

  5. Raj said on May 13th, 2009 at 8:51pm #

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful article.

    As the previous commentator mentioned, Tamils have been living in Sri Lanka for thousands of years.

    These are the people fighting for an independent state in their traditional areas of inhabitance, primarily in the North East region of the island where they lived as free people prior to colonial rule and subsequent alien rule by the Singhalese.

    As for British divide and rule? I haven’t seen any evidence to support this argument by remain open to anyone who can provide evidence. IMHO, this theory has gained acceptance for two reason. First the ethnic Singhalese have used it repeatedly to justify their discriminatory and destructive policies against the Tamil people. Second, it is an easy theory to accept as the British did employ such tactics in other colonial settings.

    The root cause of the conflict is the belief among the majority of ethnic Singhalese that the entire country is theirs alone and that the Tamils are subhuman (as evidenced by Singhalese Buddhist religious texts). This justifies their atrocities as they are not killing humans (or so they believe).

    An end to what is appropriately being called a genocide can only come about when countries like Canada and the US meet their moral and legal obligations and stop the Government of Sri Lanka from substantially destroying or altogether wiping out its ethnic Tamil population.

    I ask all Canadians to encourage our government to act immediately and impose political and economic sanctions against the SL government in concerted effort with our allies and through the Commonwealth.

  6. Raja_h said on May 14th, 2009 at 12:23am #

    Israel is indeed deeply involved in Sri Lanka in the genocide against the Tamils. They are advising GOSL not only in hardware war but also psychological war. The aim of the Sinhala government is to ensure that in the future there will never be a rebel Tamil movement in Sri Lanka. That is the aim of the so called internment camps. Segregate the Tamils in age group.children are segregated form the parents and made vulnarable and reliant on the Sinhala soldires.
    What is going on in those internet camps is mind boggling. A drama is staged for the journalist and behind thier back mental torture and brain wahsing is taking place. Israel and Sri Lanka are two pariah states.

  7. bozh said on May 14th, 2009 at 6:19am #

    about ‘jews’ using “antisemitism”. The word “antisemitism” is also [ab]using ‘jews’.
    and use of that word does not, i hope and believe, deter the socalled antisemites.
    actually, the more ashk’c folks with the judaic cult use “antisemitism”, the more we expose their lies and rejoice everytime they resort to namecalling.
    calling names people appears to be a panhuman trait and children use it more than adults.
    ‘jews’ use namecalling out of desperation. And i do not think that seasoned observers wld shrink back from observing just because of namecalling.
    they may cease to observe and posit their observations only if threatened with a suit or loss of job; especially people who also have family to look after.

  8. Lloyd said on May 14th, 2009 at 7:16am #

    Hey, Mulga. I wish you’ve go over to OpEdNews and look up Jason Paz. He gets articles promoted to the headlines, and also posts Dairies and QuickLinks.

    Paz’s politics are very commendable on everything except militant Israel. But on M.I. the guy thinks he’s David and everyone who supports Gazans and Palestinians is Goliath. A regular one-man defense of the indefensible.

    He stopped replying to my comments to his stuff several weeks ago, probably because I provide more heat than light. You know, I have (or had) lots of Jewish friends; and then I didn’t want to spill any apple-carts for Obama during the elections year; blah blah; and then I started slamming him after the Gaza…”Incursion”?

    There really needs to be a well-informed counterweight to Jason Paz at OEN.

  9. Suthiano said on May 14th, 2009 at 7:39am #

    Instead of writing about his colleague Amira Hass’ arrest, Gideon Levy decided to publish this on Haaretz today: “Anti-Semitism is rearing its head in Tel Aviv”

    So much for Mr. Levy.

  10. vara said on May 14th, 2009 at 1:55pm #

    how much more starvation, rapes,disappearences and total lives
    does the civil society and the humanity as whole needs to push it
    into action to bring halt to the ruthless killing?

  11. anthony innes said on May 14th, 2009 at 4:47pm #

    Tamil Separatist aspirations are not new.My father was there during WW2 and the allied troops were briefed on the chance of violence and warned off involvment.
    Mulga the victims of Abraham will like all religously afflicted continue to push their agenda of unchecked breeding and lets rock on to paradise (screw the Earth ).
    Chomsky, Pilger and other gate keepers are correct to raise the issues but to never take the fight to BIS (Bank International Settlements) and the bank cartel that runs the whole shmeer keeps more sheeple in the comfort zone they enjoy and mocks those they purport to inform.
    The active BIS war mongering and fiat currency manipulation is a the root of all opposition to human and social progress.

  12. anthony innes said on May 14th, 2009 at 5:03pm #

    I should have added that Ceylon (remember what a fine country it was ) is strategicaly important and since the emerging of Corporate piracy serves as a lesson to India,Singapore,Malaysia Australia and other vassals the perils of non compliance with “free” verses “fair” trade.BIS arms dealers prefer chaos it sells more product and provides more fodder.This is deliberate policy .Bleeding heart wanking by Pilger et al detracts from serious analysis.

  13. Bose Kaspathy said on May 14th, 2009 at 5:32pm #

    John, seldom I have seen such an article that reflects the reality and gives the Tamils some hope that their voices will be heard and justice done. I am astonished by the behaviour of some United Nation members. China, Russia, Vietnam and Lybia are adamantly refusing to stop the Genocide. Each of the above countries have their particular reasons for refusing to discuss the matter in the Security council. China needs “its own port” for refuelling in Sri Lanka; Chechnia may be Russia’s problem, Vietnam may have any other reasons; Lybia advancing a USD 500.000,000 to SL while the IMF loan is being delayed….and now after 1995 collective resigning of the Dutch Government [we all know why], for Mr.Piet de Klerk, Netherland’s Acting Permanent Representative to UN, the killing of thousands of civilians, hundreds in the last weekend alone, does not implicate the EU’s notions of human rights. What a shame to humanity does bring acts of these kinds.

  14. Selvadurai said on May 14th, 2009 at 7:52pm #

    Thank you John Pilger for a well researched piece. The Sinhalese put all the blame on LTTE for all the problems in Sri Lanka. For them Sri Lankan history starts from the moment LTTE came into the scene. They pretend that Sinhalese loved Tamils until LTTE came into scene. They hide the fact that there were several state organized pogroms against the Tamil, several Tamils lost their life and property. They also tells every one that 50% of the Tamils live happily among the Sinhalese even now! They hide the fact that there are “white van abductions” and extra judicial killings of Tamils even in the heart of Colombo and that recently bus loads of Tamils were deported to Vavuniya for staying in colombo for various reasons including for medical treatment.