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Parallel Struggles: Sri Lanka & Palestine — Part 1

Disturbing echoes of the last phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka and the treatment of Palestinians under Zionist Occupation

7 mins read
International diplomacy often exhibits double standards, wherein selective human rights enforcement prevails.

Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the wealth of others – the empires and their native overseers. In colonial and anti-colonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison. ~ Edward Galeano[i]

Preamble

The opening of Edward Galeano’s book looks at the historical origins of Latin America’s underdevelopment, the central theme being the genocide of the native population by the Spanish and Portuguese ‘civilising’ colonial project in the Americas. This involved hunger, overwork, communicable diseases, and massive damage to the cultures, flora and fauna of the continent. Echoes of this are found in the thirty year civil war in Sri Lanka and in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

The genesis of this paper was the carpet bombing of Gaza by Israel. At the time of writing, over 26,000 inhabitants are dead, many of them refugees from Israeli occupation. The majority are women and children. 60,000 are wounded, with access to medicine and health care more precarious by the day. An overwhelming majority of the population are facing imminent starvation. All this is transmitted daily to the world.

There are those who say that the victims are the terrorists. They largely rely on the horrific events of October 7, when the armed cadres of Hamas managed to break out of the open-air prison of which the people of Gaza were confined. In the bloody melee that ensured around 1,100 mostly Israelis lost their lives and over 200 hostages were taken. It is also alleged that Hamas were guilty of rape and beheading. It is undeniable that atrocities occurred, but until there is an independent enquiry, questions will remain. How many deaths were caused by crossfire is also uncertain. None of this justifies the harm caused to the civilian population of Gaza.

What Palestinians in Gaza are forced to endure is reminiscent of what happened in Sri Lanka during the last months of a thirty odd years civil war between the Sinhalese majority government and the Tamil armed opposition. This playbook is also disturbing similar of other colonisers, like the Moroccan military in Western Sahara; Indonesian security forces in West Papua; the Burmese military junta, the Turkish government in the repression of the Kurdish people in Türkiye and North East Syria. All mercilessly done to enable, perpetuate and demonise the colonised and the unacceptable price the oppressed always pay.

The Argument

In this paper I shall highlight the use of mass murder against the dispossessed and the ideological, structural and legislative methods used to demonise the dispossessed. In doing so in a small way the hope is that the mass struggle for social justice and self-determination becomes, an international one, like what is happening in Gaza, in which atrocities are not allowed to happen, without exposure and resistance.

The paper will do this by looking at the historical similarity between the respective struggles of the Tamils and Palestinians, examining the asymmetrical nature of their respective struggles, the reasons for the struggles, the attempt to hide massacres, and who must be held accountable.

The paper starts by looking at the links, military and economic, between the respective states.

Collaboration

The Lankan government’s relationship with Israel has waxed and waned, depending on its geopolitical interests and ideological predilections. In contrast, Israel has always pursued good relations with the Lankan government. Their rapport deepened during the long Lankan civil war (from the 1980s to 2009). Israel supplied the Lankan armed forces with military aircraft and ships – Kir fighter jets, Super Dvora class patrol boats, Saar 4 class missile boats and Gabriel missiles. The relationship was cemented in the colonisation in the Eastern Provinces (Mahaweli project) by Sinhalese farmers and peasants who displaced many Tamil and Muslim landowners.

Like the Indian government, the economically bankrupt Lankan government has offered its people to replace the foreign workers who left Israel because of the conflict in Gaza. Some estimates put the figure at 100,000.[ii]

In the last phase of the civil war elite troops of the Lankan military were trained by Israeli military personnel. They were taught how to methodically mop up areas, with no distinction made between civilians and armed LTTE cadres.

Asymmetry of the forces of the state versus the armed resistance

One of the more successful tricks of colonisers is to exaggerate the size and the prowess of the “enemy”, thus stoking the fears of the majority community and justifying the diversion of resources from health and education to the security apparatus. This places the emphasis on a military solution, not a political one.

In 1984, with the civil war heating up, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) had around 2,000 fighters, with the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) having 17,000. During the last phase of the war the LTTE had a force estimated to be no greater than 11,000, facing probably 160,000 well-equipped and trained Lankan troops.[iii] Considerably more, in fact, if the military police, intelligence, navy and air force are taken into account. Gordon Weiss states that in 2009, at the end of the civil war, Lanka had the 17th largest army in the world, more than 30 times its strength at the start in 1983.[iv] And all this in a country that has fewer than 23 million people.

Hamas established their Qassam Brigades[v] in 1992. The brigade has carried out numerous attacks against Israel, including suicide attacks. According to the CIA the Brigade has around 20,000 to 25,000 members. It well stocked with guns, grenades, and rockets. It has no tanks, artillery, planes, or warships. It is an irregular force, lightly armed and with no backup, unlike the IDF. There are other forces arraigned against the Israeli state but their capabilities are even smaller than those of the Qassam Brigades. [vi] It is estimated that the Hamas military budget is around $100 million.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 169,500 active military personnel, with 465,000 in reserve. Its defence budget in 2023, including aid from the United States, was around $23.6 billion, a budget greater than the military budgets of Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and Jordan combined. Its military, navy and air force are equipped with the latest weapons. With the help of its main ally, the United States, it has a mostly effective missile shield, the Iron Dome (worth many billions of dollars).[vii] The IDF is considered to be one of best equipped and most efficient armies in the world.

According to the UN, from 2008 up to the current conflagration there were 6,407 Palestinian deaths as opposed to 308 on the Israeli side.[viii] According to Israel’s social security agency, the death toll on October 7 was 1,139. It has identified 695 Israeli civilian deaths and 71 migrant workers. Around 373 members of the Israeli military and security forces were reported dead.[ix] Since then, 26,000 Palestinian have been killed, mostly civilian. Gaza has suffered air bombardments before this. In 2008 the Israeli air force, in Operation Cast Lead, dropped 600 tons of bombs and reduced large swathes of the Gaza strip to rubble. Even areas deemed safe, like the UN compound, were bombed with many casualties. Around 4,000 civilians were killed and 5,000 wounded. Israeli deaths were 13 (three which were the result of friendly fire).[x]

In the last phase of the civil war in Lanka (July 2006 to May 2009) credible estimates of deaths range from 40,000 to 80,000. Around 6,000 were of the security forces of the Lankan army. Reliable estimates of the human deaths during the civil war are around 200,000, the overwhelming majority being Tamils.[xi]

From the start the Lankan government, like that of Israel, was much more comfortable with the military option than with dialogue. In 1977, for example, the government of Lanka sent in the military to deal with a small group of Tamil insurrectionists who were involved in assassinations and bank robberies.[xii] The army targeted the whole Tamil community. They arrested, shot or tortured anybody who was critical of the government, including student activists, teachers, academics, artists, priests and social workers. As a direct result the violence escalated, culminating in 1983 in a pogrom against the Tamils in the south, resulting in tens of thousands of their houses being looted and burnt, countless women being raped and 3,000 deaths. The background to this was being the gunning down of 13 Lankan soldiers who were on patrol. Hushed up was resultant massacre of 60 Tamil civilians by the military. The hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees fleeing the pogrom fell into the arms of the “boys with the guns” and a low-intensity conflict flared into a full-blown civil war.[xiii]

The second part of the part of the paper will critically look at the ideological defence of the colonisers and what is life for people under the thumb of the military of the occupier.

To be continued


[i] Galeano, Edward (1997), foreword by Isabel Allende: Open Veins of Latin America, Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Scribe, p.2

[ii]  Balachandran, P.K., ‘The many twists and turns in Sri-Lankan Israeli Relations’. Daily Mirror, 26 December 2023.

[iii] Upsala Conflict Data Program, Sri Lanka Conflict Summary. Retrieved: http://www.ucdp.uu.se/gpdatabase/gpcpimtry,.php id=144&regionselect=6 Central and Southern Asia

[iv] Weiss, Gordon (2011). The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, p. 234.

[v] Named after a freedom fighter, Ezzedine al-Qassam, who was killed by the British military in 1935; his death was one of triggers of the 1936-39 Arab revolt.

[vi] These figures are similar to estimates made by other media outlets including western ones. ‘What is Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades,’ Al Jazeera, 26 October 2023.

[vii] ‘How do the Israeli military and Hamas compare in size and strength,’ ITV 13 October 2023. Retrieved: http://www.itv.news.

[viii] Figures gleaned from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. October 2023.

[ix] Scahill, Jeremy (2024) Netanyahu’s war on the Truth. Israel’s Ruthless Campaign to Dehumanise Palestinians. The Intercept, February 7, 2024. Retrieved: https://theintercept.com/2024/02/07/gaza-israel-netanyahu-propaganda-lies-palestinians/

[x] ‘The Occupation of the American Mind’ (2016). Documentary produced by Media Education Foundation.

[xi] For a more detailed and sober analysis of the casualties of the last phase of the civil war, see: Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, 31 March 2011

[xii] This was not the first time the military was brought in to quell the Tamils right to self-determination. In 1961, Major General Richard Udugama was dispatched to the north with the 1st battalion of the Ceylon (as the country was known then) after the party representing Tamils (Federal Party) launched a  peaceful disobedience (Satyagraha ) campaign against Sinhalese being the sole language – with the resultant mayhem.

[xiii] Cooke, Michael (2011). The Lionel Bopage Story. Agahas Publishers. In particular, pp. 235 to 294.

Michael Colin Cooke

Michael Colin Cooke is a retired public servant and trade union activist who has a lifelong interest in South Asian history, politics and culture. He has served as an election monitor in Sri Lanka. He has also penned when the occasion demanded a number of articles and film reviews.

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