1 October, 2020

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Student Remembrance Triggers Tamil Rebirth

By Phil Miller and Andy Higginbottom

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 Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, 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 reportrecognises 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?

*Andy Higginbottom is Principle Lecturer at Kingston University.Phil Miller works for the Stop Deportations Network. This article is first appeared in OpenSecurity

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    ” Simple act of commemoration”. What an outrageous use of words? The lamp lighting referred to was a very devious act and well planned ploy to use the Karthikai Villakkeedu, a Hindu religious festival, as a cover to celebrate the LTTE initiated Maveerar day.

    The war- affected Tamils as a community do not need to mark events initiated by the LTTE, as part of their propaganda and psychops effort. The university is a public institution and property. Being located in Jaffna it becomes a communal property. The emotions, attitudes and objectives of a few cannot once again be let to become a curse for the entire Tamil community. The entire Tamil community cannot be held hostage by a few. The entire student community should not be also made to pay for the foolhardiness of the few.

    The LTTE celebrated the Maveerar Day annually in commemoration of only its cadres killed in war. These celebrations were not for the Tamil civilians who were killed during the war or because of the war. It was also not in commemoration of cadres and leaders of other Tamil militant groups who died in pursuit of their goals or were killed by the LTTE. Hence it is not in commemoration of all those who died in the war. This distinction should be clearly understood.

    I empathise with those whose sons, daughters and other relatives who joined the LTTE willingly or were forcibly conscripted and died during the long years of war. They have as humans the right to remember and mourn them. However, their grief has to be felt and expressed as something personal. It cannot be a public event, because of the suffering and damage the wars caused to the Tamils as a people and the lowly and brutal manner in which LTTE behaved towards its own people- the Tamils. The behaviour of the LTTE , does not in anyway negate the grief of those who have lost their near and dear, but negates their claim to be remembered as great heroes by the community. They were no doubt heroes in many ways, but their association with the LTTE has removed the lustre from their heroism.

    Further, to confound it with a age-old religious festival and make those celebrating that occasion with much fervour pay a price, is a dastardly and cowardly act. A community that is taking its first steps towards recovery and takes much solace from its religious beliefs , should not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

    However, the government should designate the 19th of May or any other suitable date, as a National Remembrance Day for all those who died in Trade union actions, communal riots, JVP insurgencies, Tamil militant violence, and the Eelam wars. We have to remember everyone who died as a result of violence that engulfed our nation and caused it unimaginable hurt and pain. It should be an occasion to remember individuals who died and why they had to die. It should also be a day for national repentance. Unfortunately, the government in its shortsightedness is incapable of responding to this national need.

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran.

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      Well said Dr.Naren. We don’t need another LTTE saga to begin from this incident. For all civilian deaths during the war, the Jaffna University students has a right to commemorate in their faculty on a different date not in LTTE’s remembrance day. You know what they did to your own (Ranjani Thiranagama & Rajan Hoole)

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      Dr R.N.
      “the government should designate the 19th of May or any other suitable date, as a National Remembrance Day for all those who died” :)

      UK and the IC never really ended the Northern Ireland conflict but supressed it for the sake of foreign investment etc. But now the times have changed and they are back to business as usual.
      Will they solve it NO! because the largest export item of UK/US is arms and ammunition and terrorism is the testing ground.

      Sri Lanka will never solve this problem but it’s close to becoming like Wahhabi Saudi Arabia the terrorist state of the Middle East- SL the Sinhala Buddhist terrorist state of South Asia.

      Learn to live with it- kiss the ground and Oil will flow. :)

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    Narenthiran,

    It is not the Government, but the Tamils who should decide the date and time and the manner of remembering annually all the dead during the conflict.

    The Tamils have the democratic right to do so

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    I thought those student are commemorating the Innocent civilians ,academics AND OTHERS killed by LTTE AND SECURITY FORCES.
    [EX; RaAjinee Thiranagama] ,
    STILL THEY [MOSTLY DIASPORA TAMILS]AND E P D P GOONS WANT TO GET THE INNOCENTS AS SCAPEGOATS.
    IF THERE ARE ETHNIC DIVISIONS PREVAIL, THEY CAN SURVIVE LONG PERIOD.

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    Well said Dr.Naren. We don’t need another LTTE saga to begin from this incident. For all civilian deaths during the war, the Jaffna University students have a right to commemorate in their faculty on a different date not in LTTE’s remembrance day. You know what they did to your own (Ranjani Thiranagama & Rajan Hoole)

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