On 27 November, students at Jaffna University lit a lamp in the womens’ dormitory. Their simple act of commemoration unwittingly sparked events that have unfolded into the most significant confrontation with the Sri Lankan state since the massacre of Tamils in May 2009.
The lamps were to remember as heroes those Tamils who gave their lives fighting for ‘Eelam’, an independent homeland in the north and east of the island. Sri Lankan soldiers were already on standby outside before they forced entry to the hostel, attacked the students and extinguished their lamps. The next day state force broke up a sit-down protest on the university campus, attacking two journalists and injuring twenty students.
The BBC reported the army’s claim that the students provoked them by throwing stones, but eyewitnesses report a different sequence of events – stones were only thrown in self-defense after the students were set upon. Over the next two weeks up to 50 Tamil students and youth across the Jaffna peninsula were rounded up. Four student leaders were processed at the Joint Services Special Operations (JOSSOP) camp in Vavuniyaa, notorious as a torture centre, and are now in the Welikanda military detention camp where former LTTE Tamil Tiger rebels are detained and interrogated.
The students are held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (who is the President’s brother) to order suspects’ detention for eighteen months. Rajapaksa claims that the Jaffna students are in custody for ‘rehabilitation and counselling’. However, as the crackdown spread, Amnesty International issued an urgent action expressing their concern that several students “are held incommunicado, putting them at much greater risk of torture.”
Sri Lanka has occupied territory formerly held by the LTTE with a saturation presence of one soldier for every five residents. Despite the risks, the students’ symbolic act of defiance has been supported by a wave of social movement protest. Lecturers at Jaffna University went on strike for half a day and have demonstrated their support. The student body is boycotting classes indefinitely. Tamil students in the UK and in six other countries coordinated emergency vigils on 4 December and marched on Downing Street on Saturday, 22 December.
At time of publishing (8 January) the students have not been released. Worse, the Sri Lankan state has targeted those Tamil civil society and political opposition groups who protested the students’ detention. Jaffna University’s Vice Chancellor has told staff they must not speak to the press and the Sri Lankan military are pressing students to break the boycott.
The Tamil diaspora is pressing for Sri Lanka’s massacre of their relatives three years ago to be recognised as a genocide. The UN’s own Petrie report recognises that it was wrong to pull out from the conflict area in September 2008 just as the government’s offensive was entering its final lethal phase of shelling civilians; and that in the first months of 2009 senior officials suppressed reports from their own aid workers of civilian casualties. By March 2009 they knew that five thousand Tamils had already been killed. The report notes (para 63) that the UN’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide raised concerns but “favoured quiet diplomacy and told the [Sri Lankan] Government he would ‘not speak out’.” By this point excessive pragmatism turned into an outright betrayal.
The brutal crackdown on commemoration ceremonies shows that the Sri Lankan regime is determined to eliminate any collective memory of genocide. At the end of May 2009 Tamil deaths had reached tens of thousands, estimates range from 30,000 to 140,000.
There is reason to believe that the UN's treachery was not just an institutional cock-up, but symptomatic of an even more worrying conspiracy between major powers to finish off the Tamil Tigers, no matter what the cost in civilian lives.
The island’s location makes Sri Lanka a prime target for the US and China seeking control of the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes. These geo-strategic implications were first pointed out by the Tamil analyst Dharmeratnam Sivaram , then by Robert Kaplan in the neo-conservative US journal Foreign Affairs.
Rival powers in the UN Security Council are all courting favour with the Rajapaksa government. Evidence to the ‘Peoples Tribunal on Sri Lanka’ held in Dublin argued even further that the US in particular deliberately collapsed the Norwegian brokered peace process that had lasted from 2002 to 2006. In this crucial period, rather than holding out for a negotiated settlement, the EU fell in line with a military solution and, under UK prompting, banned the LTTE as a ‘terrorist organisation’ whilst continuing to arm the Sri Lankan regime. The claim that international actors scuppered the peace process is in sharp variance with the standard interpretation, as for example the evaluation commissioned by Norad, which highlights the intransigence of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
Certainly, it is not only the UN that is now turning a blind eye to the genocide and its aftermath of military occupation. The UK government is pushing ahead with a controversial deportation program of failed asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. It is already well documented by several human rights groups that people returned to Sri Lanka have been tortured. The UK Border Agency’s own policy bulletin notes (para 4.1) that the Sri Lankan “government has stopped investigating cases of torture as a matter of policy, and since 2009 no cases have been investigated or prosecuted”.
Yet the UK Border Agency has increased the frequency of its deportation flights to Sri Lanka. On 23 October, the Guardian reported that last ditch legal efforts successfully saved a number of Tamils from deportation; but nonetheless the flight went ahead. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence boasts that 28 deported asylum seekers arrived on the flight to Colombo. The latest flight on 6 December saw 25 more Tamils deported. These flights should stop immediately.
By sending refugees back to torture by their persecutors, the UK is intimidating Tamils from speaking openly about their past and their continuing aspiration for Tamil Eelam. Yet all the signs are that neither in Jaffna nor in the diaspora will the Tamils be silenced. The real question is who will join them?