Politics & Economy

Tamils and Palestinians: Parallel realities of occupation

At the close of 2008, I joined thousands in Toronto to protest Israel’s attack on Gaza, and even spoke at some of the rallies. 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 stop the bombing and to defend Palestinian rights. Only a few months after the siege, the bombs dropped again, but this time, they 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 Defense Force (IDF) and Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces have waged war on civilian populations. The Rome-based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal commissionedan independent report that found the Sri Lankan state guilty of bombing hospitals, humanitarian operations, and even government-declared “safe zones,” in clear violation of international humanitarian law (PPT Sri Lanka). A UN Secretary-General report estimated that from January to May 2009 between 40,000 and 75,000 people were killed (UN Panel of Experts Report on Sri Lanka). The Sri Lankan government’s own statistical data reveals 146,679 people remain unaccounted for: no one knows if they are held in prison, injured, or dead (Bishop of Mannaar).

But there are more direct connections. According to Dr. Jude Lal Fernando, a lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin, Israel has been a major arms supplier to Sri Lanka’s government and gave it strategic advise (Dr. Jude Lal Fernando). With permission from the United States, Israel sold Sri Lanka nine Kafir jets by 1997, and seven more by 2005 – even during its ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In addition, Israel supplied Sri Lanka with Dvora fast naval attack crafts, as well as electronic and imagery surveillance equipment. Israel also helped Sri Lanka to create the Special Task Force, a brutal commando unit, which have used the same repressive tactics as the IDF like extrajudicial killings.

The similarities don’t end there. Both Palestinians and Tamils have been subjected to a process of settler-based colonialism. Indeed, in the 1980’s 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). The strategy is 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: the effect is to undermine any possibility of creating a contiguous national homeland (Sri Lanka: The intentions behind the land grabbing process). Within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 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 uses 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.

The Palestinian experience – in particular, the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 – has been instructive for Tamils (The Oslo Illusion). An international agreement with India will see Sri Lanka hold elections this September for a Northern Provincial Council, supposedly another gesture of reconciliation. The US backs the election, despite serious reservations within Tamil civil society and the Diaspora. The Council, if elected, would provide Tamils 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. Even if it forms, the Council’s powers will remain under the control of the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and its governor will be a direct appointment of the Sri Lankan president (Much Ado About Nothing).

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 falls within the meaning of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (International Convention on the Crime and Prevention of Apartheid). This 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 in practice are characterized by discrimination, repression and territorial fragmentation through stolen land. The Convention criminalizes “systematic oppression and domination” by one group over another, “committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” 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, despite whatever differences exist, the Palestinian and Tamil peoples are enduring a slow and 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 (UN Genocide Convention). 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 conflicts of 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.

Image courtesy: Jim Rankin | Toronto Star 

A slightly different version of this article first appeared on Electronic Intifada


Krisna Saravanamuttu is an activist based in Toronto, Canada.  He is formerly the National Executive Representative of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. Krisna is a member of the steering committee of the Canadian Peace Alliance, and is the spokesperson of the National Council of Canadian Tamils. The writer can be followed on Twitter @KrisnaS85