Last Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Street in Sydney was blocked by police and a mostly polite crowd of protestors who were upset that their relatives were being butchered on a small tropical island far away.
Over the Easter weekend, another group of protestors took this same message to Kirribilli House, spending two days camped outside the Prime Minister’s residence before moving their protest to a nearby park.
Right now, in a patch of jungle somewhere in northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers are fighting a desperate last battle with the Sri Lankan Army. The Tigers are a guerrilla movement who have waged a violent struggle for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population to secede from the majority Sinhalese since the early 1980s. The war has dragged on fitfully for almost 30 years, all the time characterised by a brutal disregard for human life on both sides of the conflict.
There have been times when it looked as though the Tigers might be close to succeeding in their mission. Lately, though, their movement has broken down. They have now lost most of the territory they once held and, sensing that military victory might be within reach, the Sri Lankan Government has embarked on a final merciless campaign of annihilation. Most independent observers estimate there are between 150,000 to 200,000 civilians trapped in the midst of this apocalyptic chaos.
On Wednesday evening in Sydney there was a beautiful moon floating over Hyde Park, and a spokeswoman who cared about the issue deeply was trying to make me understand. She was a young Tamil lady with an Australian accent and her voice was tinged with worry much more than anger.
Trying to explain the feeling that had brought all these people out to wave placards at indifferent Sydney commuters, she told me about people dying by the thousands and a state relocation program that sounded like something from the darkest days of the Vietnam War.
"Everyday", she said, "people get sent to safety zones, and then the Government bombs them".
Later she told me: "We have all lost someone in this war".
For some reason, the Sri Lankan civil war is one of those conflicts that is hard for Australians to grasp. The issue has never had its share of coverage in the Australian media. On a map, the island looks so tiny, a punctuation mark off the pointy end of India. Perhaps for someone from these wide open spaces it’s hard to understand a territorial conflict over such a small amount of land. Or perhaps we don’t care because Sri Lanka poses no strategic importance to us.
After the British left Sri Lanka — then Ceylon — in 1948, there were major disagreements between the country’s two largest ethnic groups about how to run the country. As Sinhalese nationalists rose to power, official acts of discrimination againt the Tamil population became widespread — the Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhalese the sole official language of the country, despite it not being spoken by the Tamil population, was one of the most significant.
In the late 1970s, popular Tamil discontent gave rise to DIY militias, the most prominent of which was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which went to war against the Sri Lankan Government and eventually claimed administrative control over parts of the north and east of the country.
The conflict’s origins are complex, but the arguments given by the protesters for blocking the traffic last Wednesday were very simple. The Sri Lankan Government is waging what they feel amounts to a war of extermination against their relatives. The people who came to the protests had lived through this war and were still in touch with relatives who were caught in it.
They told me about white phosphorous, hospital massacres and forced relocations. I was pretty rattled when I finished staring at a spreadsheet for the day to find a few hundred people on the pavement outside who were loudly asking our Government to put pressure on another government to not kill their families, please. But it seemed to me that they were right to block the traffic. It was important, people should know and care.
But of course there was more to it than that.
This was a well organised event. When I arrived the protest was winding down, and under the Moreton Bay figs were piled dozens of printed placards. Some were emblazoned with the emblem of the Tamil Tigers: a snarling tiger in front of crossed rifles on a red background. Others showed their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, a portly middle aged warlord wearing unflattering camouflage fatigues and a goofy smile.
The Tigers are listed as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries including Australia. They have the extremely dubious distinction of being the organisation that started the modern practice of suicide bombing, and to this day have carried out more of them than any other group. They have been frequently accused of using child soldiers and blamed for horrific crimes against civilians.
What the Sri Lankan Government is doing to its Tamil citizens in pursuit of its war against the Tigers is nothing less than state terrorism — the emotion that was coursing through that crowd left no room for me to question that. But the presence of men draped in the flag of an army known to recruit child soldiers and murder its political opponents made me feel a little uneasy.
I brought this up with some people there, and they were all very polite and articulate in explaining to me why I had it all wrong. I told them that I felt terribly sorry for them, and agreed that our Government should do whatever it could to pressure Sri Lanka into stopping the massacre in their homeland, but what about the Tigers? Weren’t they known to sometimes be just a little nasty themselves?
The spokesperson conceded that "they have been claimed as terrorists", but said there was more to it. "They are freedom fighters", she said. "They’re essentially fighting for the people."
Another group I spoke to put it differently, pointing out how the discipline of the Tigers should be seen as proof of their noble intent. They told me about the Spartan life of a Tiger soldier, recruited as young as 14 to a life of abstinence, sobriety and physical hardship, and how no one chose to do that sort of thing because they found it fun. Whatever the Tamil Tigers did, they believed, was for the simple reason that decades of violent repression from the state had left them no other choice.
In the end, not being a Sri Lankan, there’s not much I can say about the bloody climax of the war there except to wonder at just how very far the narratives of history books and newspapers leave me from understanding why it is happening. All I really know is that the fear and grief and anger I saw on Elizabeth Street were real — and that as a community we must be pretty hard-hearted if we let that sort of thing slide by without giving it pause.
Having said that, public veneration of the Tamil Tigers is not something most Australians can ever accept, and by mixing in their posters of Velupillai Prabhakaran and Tamil Tiger flags with their heart wrenching plea for awareness that Tamil civilians are being massacred, Wednesday’s protesters were making it very unlikely that anyone will listen to them.
And that’s a terrible shame.
This article has been edited since it was published on 14 April, 2009.
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