The Tamil struggle and the challenges of solidarity

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Throughout more than two decades of war, much has been said about the Tamil nationalist struggle in Sri Lanka. The crucial debate for those concerned about the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils has focused on the question of whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have served to advance or exploit the interests of those they have purported to represent.

Tamils justified in struggling against Sri Lankan state oppression

Since the end of colonial rule in 1948, it has been clear that the Sri Lankan state has marginalized and oppressed the Tamil minority. Successive governments have been responsible for the murder and disappearances of literally tens of thousands of Tamil civilians.

The current regime in Colombo, which recently claimed military victory over the LTTE, appears to be no different than the past. In the final stages of battle, the government ignored international calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, as thousands of Tamils were massacred by aerial bombing and artillery fire. So, there is no question that Tamils have been justified -- and continue to be justified -- in developing methods of struggle against the Sri Lankan state.

However, the LTTE’s longstanding claim that they are the “sole representative” of the Tamil people has largely suppressed discussion as to what is the most effective form of struggle.

Diverse, progressive opposition systematically eliminated by LTTE

Prior to 1983, Tamils in Sri Lanka had developed diverse, progressive movements that principally stood opposed to the horrors unleashed by the state. Far from the totalitarian nationalism that the LTTE came to be identified with, the original movements combined political struggle, social justice, Marxist ideology and a relative openness to critical analysis within the Tamil community.

As Tamil human rights activist Rajan Hoole recently wrote, “we were free to talk and argue with ourselves.” The principles of non-violent civil disobedience co-existed with the formation of numerous militant movements. The militant groups attracted thousands of young people who challenged not only the racism of the Sri Lankan state, but questioned other forms of oppression such as class and caste.

The LTTE rose to prominence during the 1980s by systematically eliminating Tamil Leftists, trade unionists, women’s rights activists and students in Sri Lanka. They consistently met the racism and authoritarianism of the Sri Lankan state with their own unique brand of internal repression and reactionary violence.

Muslims, Leftists targeted by the state and the Tigers

In addition to a decidedly fascist opposition to Left and progressive voices in the Tamil community, the LTTE carried out the ethnic cleansing and eviction of Muslims from northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

In fact, when it comes to the treatment of Muslims, Leftists and dissenting voices, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state are virtually a mirror image.  Both the state and the LTTE have manipulated the Muslim population against each other.  And similar to the LTTE’s purging of progressive voices from within the Tamil community, the state has ruthlessly crushed socialist rebellions among the Sinhalese population resulting in the murder of more than 50,000 rural people, students and activists.

I remember sitting in Colombo when the LTTE bombed the Dehiwela commuter train in 1996. The people who died were poor people, workers and school children. They were Tamil and Sinhalese.  As the LTTE had coldly predicted, the Sri Lankan government responded to the bombing with illegal arrests and torture of Tamils living in Colombo.

The willingness to sacrifice Tamils, including child soldiers, for political and military positioning is what came to characterize the LTTE leadership. Their paranoid, almost gleeful elimination of dissenting voices within the Tamil community further begged the question of whether or not the LTTE ever had the common interests of Tamils in mind.

Lack of principled, effective response to unfolding tragedy

This is precisely why I have been dismayed by the lack of a principled and effective response in Canada to the tragedy unfolding in Sri Lanka. While Tamils continue to be killed, raped, tortured and starved to death, Canadians have largely focused on polarizing the debate.

The Right, including the federal government, has callously branded an entire community as terrorists, thereby shutting the door to constructive dialogue about finding a political resolution to the war. On the Left, some have blindly promoted the LTTE line instead of mobilizing people to demand a just peace in Sri Lanka.

During more than 25 years of war, we could have built a movement that was adamantly opposed to all forms of violence and racism to which Tamils have been subjected to in Sri Lanka. We could have actively engaged in struggle against the combined authoritarianism of the state and the fascism of the LTTE. And when horrendous stages of the war commenced, such as recently, we would have assembled a credible, collective voice that the international community and our own government could not have ignored so easily.  

The Tamil community in Canada is rich with a diversity of progressive struggle that we can all learn from. That we would pledge allegiance to a singular monolithic leadership, and assume that such an organization embodies the aspirations of all Tamil people, represents how far our own arrogance can take us in squandering unique opportunities for collective action.

Like the Right, I’ve seen some leaders of the Canadian Left scramble to find simplistic answers to the war in Sri Lanka in an effort that stinks of opportunism. During the past two decades, this opportunism has often been subtle, but some contradictions have been more overt. It is common knowledge among the Tamil community that the LTTE has targeted Muslims for murder, abduction and forced re-settlement. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to me when non-Tamil activists embrace the LTTE while at the same time campaigning for Palestinian rights or an end to the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I even remember one very prominent social democratic leader addressing an LTTE rally in Toronto by comparing Velupillai Prabakaran to Nelson Mandela!  

Constructive criticism needed for a genuine movement

Something needs to change. If we truly want to fight for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils, we can no longer afford to balk at constructive criticism of our own efforts. Most people participating in the Toronto demonstrations have been doing so because they want an end to the immense daily suffering of Tamils. They have lost loved ones. In northern Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands are internally displaced and continue to be subjected to gross human rights violations by the military. After more than 25 years of intractable war, Tamil grievances remain the same. 

If progressive voices in Canada could come together with the more than 300,000 Tamils living here and humbly try to understand the concerns of the Diaspora community, perhaps a collective movement can actually push the international community to find a political solution to the conflict.

Indeed, the inclusion of voices of pluralism and social justice in a process that addresses the rights and dignity of all Tamil peoples is contingent on our active solidarity. 


A union organizer and peace activist based in Toronto, Kevin Shimmin previously lived in Sri Lanka, where he worked with underground Tamil human rights activists and Sinhalese union organizers in the export-processing zones. He remains active with the Diaspora community in Canada and works in solidarity with Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese social justice activists around the world.

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