Friday, April 24, 2009

The bleeding of Sri Lanka

The part of South London where I live has a small but significant Tamil community, particularly in the Lewisham arc from Loampit Vale to Lee High Road to Ladywell and down into Bellingham. In this area, a very large number of fried chicken joints are Tamil-run. Fried chicken, I'm afraid, is one of the worst of my guilty addictions. So I was in one the other day, and there was a small sign up saying something like "Stop the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka".

It struck me then very forcefully the point that keeps on coming into my mind these past few months: why do so few people seem to care about Sri Lanka? The conflict is complex for the simplistic Western mind, but no more complex than the situations in Iraq or Palestine, which people do seem to care about. For those not too knowledgeable, it is hard to identify a goodie and a baddie in Sri Lanka - but, for anyone, it should be crystal clear that the Tamil civilian population is suffering terribly badly, and that the worst of this suffering could be stopped with some political will from those in power.

Look at the numbers: in the Israel-Palestine conflict, there have been about 10,000 deaths since the start of the First Intifada in the 1980s (which coincides more or less with the start of the current civil war in Sri Lanka). These deaths - 10,000 too many, to be sure, and mainly afflicting the Palestinian population - included some 6000 in the bloody Second Intifada and up to 1500 in the recent horrible war in Gaza. In Sri Lanka in the same period, there have been over 70,000 officially listed as dead. Over 70,000, despite a period of relative peace in the early 1990s. The UN reckons well over 6000 Tamil civilians to have died since February, plus around 2000 killed in the intense period of fighting at the start of the year, while the world's eyes were fixated on Gaza.

If you google image the demonstrations in London, you will see an overwhelmingly Tamil presence on the march, with no banners of placards of UK organisations apart from Tamil groups, no left-wing parties, no union branches, no papersellers. Although there are plenty of honourable exceptions, the left blogosphere has been fairly quiet. Socialist Unity, fairly representative of UK hard left opinion, has had a total of two posts on Sri Lanka in 2009, while posts on Gaza have been more or less daily. Shamefully, I can't claim to be among the honourable exceptions: I have not felt that I have had much to add, from my little corner of the world.

So, is the question: why our shameful silence on this issue? Or, is the question: why our obsession with the region between Gaza and Afghanistan? And, what should we be doing about it?

P.S. Terry says it better here.
P.P.S. See comments for more: the Socialist Party as honourable exception? Have I been too sweeping? Any thoughts folks?


TNC said...

Thought you might be interested in this piece written by a friend:

bob said...

Looks interesting. Have printed it out, as it's quite long. And I haven't forgotten about 7 Songs!

TNC said...

Take your time on the songs. I didn't mean to tag so many of the people you know. Looking forward to listening what you post.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how little coverage there has been of the Tamil crisis when compared to the I/P conflict.
For the first few days of the protests in parliament square there were almost no non Tamil protesters. However, on the day of the big march there were quite a few left wing newspaper sellers at the start of the march. Also about 4 people with a large stop the war banner placed themselves very close to the front of the march. Interesting that none of these groups were to be seen at the continued protest in the following 3 days. I was not there after that so I can't comment.

nationofduncan said...

The Socialist Party was definitely on the protest and we've got a section in Sri Lanka.

We've had articles about it in our press almost every week since the start of this year as well, much more than our coverage of events in Israel/Palestine, so I think the statements in your last paragraph are a bit too sweeping.

bob said...

I read the article in Lines magazine recommended by TNC. It is good. It is about two former LTTE militants reflecting on the armed struggle. The first key point they make are the distance from the LTTE agenda, and its core ideology of militarism, from the aspirations of the great mass of ordinary Tamils in Sri Lanka. This is, of course, also true of so many "national liberation" armed movements. The second key point is that the Tamil movement needs to make common cause with other minority groups oppressed by Sinhala majoritarianism: Christians, the rural Sinhala poor, etc. This is also absolutely spot on. I think their analysis resonates with the arguments I was developing in the obese comment thread to the "Hannah Arendt in Cafe Crema" post below.
Actually, Duncan, you are right a about the SP. The Socialist's coverage has been good. The Socialist was the only left paper's website that featured prominently in the google image search. I should have mentioned that in the post. I am ashamed to say that I have not been to any of the demos, so cannot comment from my own experience on the presence of Socialist Party members or other left groups, so I am willing to be refuted on the other points in my post. In fact, I'd like to be.

nationofduncan said...

I've not been on any of the protests over the Sri Lanka protests either Bob, but I didn't go on any national Gaza protests either. However, if the stuff I've been receiving internally is accurate, and I've no reason to believe it isn't, then I can say we've had a sizeable presence on most of the demos.

Unlike other groups we don't tend to mass produce placards with our name on so from looking at photos it's not obvious we're present. Plus we have a fair few Tamil members so they won't exactly stand out from the crowd either.

Waterloo Sunset said...

I wasn't on the demos either, so I can't say if they had a presence, but the AF have also covered it-

It's a bit simplistic and soundbitey for my tastes, particuarly compared to some of their other analysis although hopefully they'll do some more. (In general, I think the AF are heads above the rest of the British anarchist movement as far as their international coverage is concerned).

Bob said...

WS, in general I agree about the AFed, but wasn't especially impressed by the piece. Although their criticism of both the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE solution is broadly right. First, April 17 is fairly late to take up the issue.

Second, I thought this was week: "As Libertarian Communists, we must remember not to support national “liberation” movements". As if there is some kind of temptation we need to resist, by remembering we are noble Libertarian Communists (in capital letters indeed). In fact, it is not because we are libertarian communists that we oppose national liberation; we oppose national liberation because groups like the Tamil Tigers expose the poverty of nationalism.

Third, more trivially, I was struck by the prominence given to "LBGTQ" issues and transphobia in a relatively short article. While not in itself a trivial issue, is this that big a deal when the southern peasants, Christian minorities, and others are at the sharp end of the Sri Lankan government's shit policies? (Maybe it is important: maybe transgender people are an important part of Sri Lankan culture, and this is my ignorance talking.)

Waterloo Sunset said...


I'd broadly agree with much of that criticism.

They definitely took it up late. My suspicion (not actually being a member) is that this probably boils down to two factors. Firstly, a combination of the relatively small size of the anarchist movement and the vagaries of anarchist organisation mean that topics, particuarly international issues, tend only to get written about when someone with both the motivation and the knowledge to do so offers. That's somewhat regrettable, but understandable I think. More problematic is the fact that the anarchist movement does have a tendency to tail-end the orthodox left a lot of the time. In some ways, I think that's useful. When the left have decided on a 'big issue' like Israel/Palestine, I think it is necessary for us to get our own analysis out there. However, it conversly leads to the situation where we're not picking up issues the left is less interested in which may have happened here. I think that's a big problem, but I don't have any easy solutions for it.

I think the second point you highlight is probably best understood in the context of the argument the AF have been having with other libertarian communists about 'progressive' national liberation movements. Particuarly elements of Class War and their support for the IRA/INLA. Understood in that context, I think the comment makes more sense.

The third part I disagree with you on. My understanding (my knowledge isn't much greater than yours sadly) is that there are several LGBT groups operating within Sri Lanka and a sizeable number of transgender people specifically. Who do face criminalisation and violence from the state. While it's arguable whether that's the priority at the moment, I definitely think it was worth mentioning. Particuarly with the downgrading of LGBT issues by much of the left at the moment.

(As an aside, the ultraleft communists seem to have nothing on this at the moment, which is surprising to me. That surprises me. They're normally pretty good on this kind of thing. Ditto Libcom, who only have a small handful of articles). And from a very different side of the spectrum, blogs like Harry's Place also seem not to have covered this much. This seems to go further than just the question of disproportionate reporting compared to Israel/Palestine for me. It's certainly true there's been a lot less reporting of this then there was of East Timor or former Yugoslavia. I'm not sure why that is though).

ModernityBlog said...

Surely, once the mainstream liberal media, Cif, The Guardian, etc publish a lot on Sri Lanka then the remnants of the British Left (who seem to be avid readers of the Guardian) will pick up the issue for a moment, make some generalized comments, and put it to bed, like a passing fad.

Maybe that is a bit cynical, but that's how a lot of other international issues seem to be handled.

Often they appear to tail-end the liberal media, which is kinda funny when you think about it.

Waterloo Sunset said...


Cynical, but accurate in many cases. There's a sadly common form of left journalism where you just nick a piece out of the Guardian and stick some vague conclusion about "worker's unity" in at the end.

ModernityBlog said...


you are not going to be happy, as Andy Newman seems to want to start a fight:

"Or to take a less obvious example, slow-burn Zionist, Bob from Brockley, condemned us at Socialist Unity blog for only posting two articles so far in 2009 about Sri lanka. This is by the way two more than Bob has posted."Please go easy on him.

Newman was in the SWP for a few decades and his head is often up his arse on these issues (check out SU's fawning over China's dictatorship or their recent appalling article on the GDR).

Newman's best ignored.

However, if you choose to argue on his site, your comments are liable to be deleted if he gets the hump or you make him look foolish, which isn't too hard :)

For an adult, Newman is often very immature, just ignore him.

ModernityBlog said...

agreed WS, you're right, it is a poverty of poor politics, small wonder the British Left is so small?

bob said...

I just spent a little bit of time on superficially researching LGBT and especially transgender issues in Sri Lanka. Of course, it turns out that there are significant transgender practices in Sri Lankan culture, and therefore this is an important issue. I, therefore, as utterly wrong in what I said about that - although you wouldn't know if from the way the AF article was framed.

On my other points, you are right on all of these WS. I cannot blame AF for being tardy on this issue: they were ahead of me. The fact is, though, almost no-one on the British left, broadly defined, was anything other than way behind.

Mod's point is spot-on: if the MSM had made a bigger deal of Sri Lanka, the left would've too. So, it is not just the left at fault.

East Timor, incidentally, took a long time getting into the consciousness of the left. That it eventually did, we have to be grateful to John Pilger, who also helped force Cambodia on to the agenda when no-one wanted to pay attention. If only Mr Pilger turned his attention back from Iz-Pal and the so-called war on democracy to some of the shit going down in places like Sri Lanka...

ModernityBlog said...

Bob you wrote:

"So, it is not just the left at fault. "I am not blaming anyone, just remarking how it tends to work.

Surely, a vibrant Left shouldn't be tail-ending the mainstream media, particularly in the age of the Internet and google translation facilities?

By that I mean, gathering news nowadays is not limited to what is published in the Guardian/Independent. News is just a click away, and can be accessed in English, if required via Google translation.

To be honest I look at the British Left and I am sadden at the state of it, in the age of the Internet, free blogs, access to world news with so much going on globally, but so little new to say.

Much of the British Left comes over as still stuck in 1920/30's thinking. Shame.

bob said...

Mod, yes, you are right. Better put: the mainstream media is at fault for ignoring Sri Lanka, the left is at fault for both ignoring Sri Lanka and tailing the mainstream media. The left's failure of imagination is all the more terrible when you look at, say, Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers Dreadnought newspaper, which covered the anti-colonial movement in India for a mainly working class East End audience, despite the lack of information in the mainstream media of her day about this issue, or if you look at the original, incisive writing by Maurice Brinton on Sri Lanka in the 1960s...

Thanks for notifying me of Andy N's gentle hatchet job on me. "Slow burn Zionist" indeed.

ModernityBlog said...

I didn't know that about the Workers Dreadnought, I wonder if there are on-line copies?

As for Newman's snidey "slow-burn" comment, I think you pissed off many modern day "anti-Zionists" when you put your non-Zionist, non-nationalist lopsided argument recently, as it is very hard to answer, if they are honest.

But forget Newman, he'll misrepresent your views just for the fun of it, too many years in the SWP have shaped his weird views and cheap tactics.

bob said...

Workers Dreadnought: some at libcom.

I don't know if the 1990s anti-nationalist/ultra-left publication Proletarian Scud (a big influence on my worldview) deliberately referenced her title.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"Slow burn Zionist" indeed."

They clearly follow the Bush doctrine: if you are not with us, you are against us.

Except that they take it to a higher notch: if you do not subscribe to each and every item of our faith, you are the enemy.

I've just been accused of being a "statist Zionist" by the Magnes Zionist, in response to a comment I made doubting that he is a Zionist at all (he seems to accept Palestinian demand of RoR).

Zionism, in Hebrew everyday parlance, means patriotism, no more no less. It's the anti-Zionists who have resurrected the term "Zionism" as a political ideology. I don't know if there is any parallel in the national evolution of any other people. Usually national movements are not an ideology. There can be ideologies within a national movement, but the movement itself cannot be designated as an ideology. When a movement has already achieved its national goals, it becomes even stranger to continue to refer to it as a "movement" rather than a state.

But anti-Zionists will have none of it. While pleading for not making Israel a special case as far as accountability is concerned, they make a special case of Israel as far as its essence is concerned. They continue to insist that Israel is an ideology, or a movement. Like Ahmadinejad, they claim they are only against Zionism.

Zionism is made up of ideas, narratives, books, essays, etc., unlike Israel, which is made up of children, parents, grandparents, soldiers, mothers of soldiers, sisters of soldiers, workers, scientists, secretaries, poets, writers, builders, plumbers, taxi drivers, students, nurses, doctors, barristas, etc etc you get my point. THEY are much harder to ignore, or to vilify with impunity.

Waterloo Sunset said...


I don't know if there is any parallel in the national evolution of any other people. Republicanism probably. (In the Irish sense as opposed to the US definition).

More arguably, Stalinism. ("Socialism in one state").

The Contentious Centrist said...

Thank you, Waterloo Sunset. I can definitely see a direct and fully legible parallel between Zionism and Stanilism.

Waterloo Sunset said...

I think you've misunderstood me. I'm not saying that the two are the same ideologically. However, what you asked for was examples where a national movement is also an ideology. Stalinism is one of those movements, where the national movement of the Russian people was seen as closely tied up with a specific ideological position. As I said it's arguable (partly because, as a liberal democracy, Israel politics is obviously far less monolithic than Russia under Stalin), but I think it still broadly fits into the category you outlined.

ModernityBlog said...

Good point about Irish Republicanism, it is closer and you'd rarely ever hear anyone on the British Left attacking it.

In fact the opposite, years ago at Left events you used to hear Irish songs glorifying "the struggle". Irish nationalism is given an easy pass.

On another tack, I looked up arms suppliers to Sri Lanka and shock, China is high up there, along with Pakistan.

I think Israel supplied some Jets about 10 years ago.

It is not 100% clear, but Newman's beloved Beijing dictatorship have got their fingers in this particular pie too. Not that you'll ever hear any criticism from the new style retro-Stalinists at SU blog.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"Stalinism is one of those movements, where the national movement of the Russian people was seen as closely tied up with a specific ideological position."

I always thought Stalinism was a term for Stalin's repressive regime. I never thought of it as an ideology. I never thought that Russian peoplehood was bound up with Stalin's atrocities. I remember reading about Russian nationalism in "War and Peace". Was Natasha's Russian dance a pre-figuration of Stalin?

Anyway, my claim was that Zionism was not an ideology but a national movement (within which there were a few different ideologies, for example: religious Zionism, Socialist Zionism, revisionist Zionism). After the state was established, these various ideologies expressed themselves in different political parties. The fact that anti-Zionists insist on conflating the two does not necessarily mean that they have got it right. It's mere acrobatics, mind games they are playing with themselves.

Waterloo Sunset said...


I don't think Newman is even a "new style" Stalinist, to be honest. He's pretty unreconstructed. He still believes Russia under Stalin was socialist which is a step further than the 'degenegrated workers' state' theory of the Orthodox Trots. (Which makes his previous membership of the SWP interesting. Is there any evidence Newman's views have changed over the year? From what I can tell he's been pretty consistent).


It's true that it's not the term that Stalinists choose to use for their political ideology. (They generally just describe themselves as "Marxist-Leninists). However, while this is complicated by the fact Stalin was almost certainly clinically insane for much of his political career, I still think that his actions very much had an ideological basis. That doesn't in any way lessen the horrific nature of his rule, I merely don't think the atrocities were committed on a whim.

Equally, the cult of personality Stalin set up was heavily entwined with the concept of Rusian nationhood, even having his name incorporated in the national anthem. That doesn't mean that everybody in Russia saw their national identity in those terms, but national identity is generally expressed by a country's rulers, historically speaking. (We still see Ancient Rome very much in the context of Julius Caesar).

Regarding your War and Peace question, I think that just shows how the expression of nationalism varies even within one country. The expression of Scottish nationalism today takes a very different form than it did in the Jacobite risings, but they're both variants of Scottish nationalism.

Do return to Israel, I'd broadly agree with what you have to say there. I recognise that nationalist movements represent a diverse range of opinions as the examples you list show. In fact, I think one of the ironies of how the subject of Israel is discussed abroad is that the binary terms it's presented in are actually far less pluralistic than that which takes place in Israel itself. Both Zionists and anti-Zionists do that, presenting Israel as a monolithic political entity when it evidentally isn't, same as any other country.

In terms of Zionism not being a political ideology, I don't think its just anti-Zionists that would disagree with you there. Organisations like the Zionist Federation and the neo-Zionist movement would take great issue with the idea that Zionism is no longer a movement.

That said, I think it's quite likely that the concept of "Zionism" is going through a transitional period now. Both the non-Zionist and the post-Zionist viewpoints seem to be gaining ground, both within Israel and outside it. I think that's generally a positive development.

Give it a century and talking of "Zionism" may be as relevant as talk of "Pan-Slavism" is today.

ModernityBlog said...

WS, I was jesting with the "new style":)

Yes, I take your point, but I haven't run across many SWPers, who having accepted the whole State Cap. stuff THEN revert to worship of the GDR and China.

Maybe it happens, but to me it is SUCH a backward step you have to think that something else his going on in his head.

It is not as if we have any shortage of information concerning the Soviet regime, Eastern Europe and their crimes, I am just a bit surprised that knowing all of that doesn't put Newman off?

Then again he doesn't come across as terribly rational on occasions.

I think it is bizarre.

I have known a fair few CPers, assorted Tankies and Maoists but even they wouldn't have gone in for the hero worship and idiocy that goes on over at SU blog.

It reminds me a bit of Roger Garaudy, leading French Communist Party intellectual, (not the whole nasty Far Right stuff), but how once he left the CP he seem to drift towards another overpowering ideology, etc as some form of comfort blanket. Not sure, but without someone to tell them what to think many of these politicos go a bit weird.

Ken said...

All the Tamil shops in Loampit Vale were closed today.

These people are watching their world end and we're just walking past on the way to the bus-stop.

Some more comments in my blog at the URL below.