Tamil Oppression Day – Sydney

On 4 February, the Sri Lankan government will celebrate the 74th anniversary of the country’s independence from British rule. But for Tamil speaking people on the island, 4 February 1948 marks the day one oppressor handed power to another oppressor. Politicians promoting Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism co-opted the ruthlessness of colonial rule, leading to many pogroms and other heinous acts against Tamil communities.

One of the first acts of the new government was to disenfranchise more than one million Tamils. They later passed the Sinhala Only Act, denying the Tamil language equal status and making Sinhala the country’s only official language. The state became increasingly chauvinist, discriminating against Tamils in employment and education, all the while colonising Tamil lands with Sinhala-Buddhist settlers.

Tamils resisted all of this, first peacefully, by petitioning and non-violent protests that called on the government to end discrimination and to grant Tamils political autonomy so that they could manage their own affairs in majority Tamil areas of the island. They were met with a combination of indifference and violence.

In 1972, Sri Lanka declared itself a republic, the politicians illegally drafting a new constitution that removed the rights of national minorities and affirmed the supremacy of the Sinhala language and the Buddhist religion. This was an unofficial declaration of war against Tamils.

In response to their oppression, the Tamil youth began to engage in armed struggle and guerrilla warfare. In the early 1980s, after the worst anti-Tamil pogrom in the Island’s history a national liberation war emerged.

While the 2000s saw the real possibility of a negotiated peace recognising Tamil self-determination, the US and its allies encouraged the Sri Lankan government to return to war. The military conflict was brought to an end in 2009 through a genocidal offensive by the Sri Lankan military that left tens of thousands of Tamils dead and hundreds of thousands interned in concentration camps.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet acknowledged in a report published last month, Tamil and Muslim minorities are increasingly marginalised and excluded in Sri Lanka, while the highest state officials continue their divisive and discriminatory rhetoric against them. Tamil lands remain under heavy military occupation, Tamil activists continue to be targeted, Tamil economic life continues to be strangled and the attempts to colonise Tamils lands are ongoing.

Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who oversaw the 2009 genocidal massacres, was elected president last year. Since that time there has been an increase in violence towards the Tamil speaking communities comprising Hindus, Christians and Muslims. In recent weeks, a genocide memorial for the 2009 killings has been destroyed. Muslims have been forced to cremate their loved ones, going against a core tenet of their faith.

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