Sri Lanka and Palestine

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By Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankans are overwhelmingly standing with Palestine, and with much of the Global South which voted for a recent UN resolution, introduced by Russia, condemning Israeli atrocities in the Gaza Strip. There are deep historical reasons for this, not least of which is the Sri Lankan Left’s record of solidarity with Palestine. Both the government and the Opposition have condemned Israel, while Mahinda Rajapaksa, a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, has called for an end to the war. The latter has, for natural reasons, elicited support and criticism. Yet the underlying consensus is that, for the war to end, the Israeli State must end its campaign of aggression. In this almost all political parties are united.

Sri Lankans are voicing anger at these developments, as well as at the hypocrisy of the Western political and media establishment. From the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal, from the US Congress to the House of Commons, the debates and discussions seem to be aimed not for, but against, the Palestinians. When the Israeli military drops a GPS-guided bomb on a hospital founded by the Anglican Church, killing more than 500, the Western media first fudges around with unhelpful obfuscations, then claims it was a rocket launched from Gaza that somehow, somehow, misfired.

It is unhelpful to talk about “just retaliation” when retaliation has been anything but just. The Israeli government and the Western media may peddle the narrative that Hamas fired the first shot. But the first shot was fired 56 years ago, in 1967, when Israel colonised the Gaza Strip. The Third World, so-called, is aware of history, though Western commentators choose not to see it. Sri Lankans, in that sense, have been able to pierce through the veil. They have been better than most. Unlike certain other countries in South Asia, they have identified oppressor and oppressed rather well. In this, I think, they have been helped by the solidarity of the Global South, which has unified itself on the issue.

It has also been helped by left wing groups. The Old Left, the New Left, trade unions, and activist groups have come together on a platform of solidarity. On Palestine, these groups have always been of one mind. That has been true regardless of the ethnic divisions which define Sri Lanka today. At the height of the separatist movement in Sri Lanka, before the rise of the LTTE, Tamil militant groups sided with Palestinians. Until the 1980s, the Sri Lankan government did the same. With the shift to the right in that decade, however, there came about a tendency to side with Israel, a tendency disrupted by the Premadasa government, but resumed by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.

The UNP government of J. R. Jayewardene established links with Israel around the same time the LTTE embarked on its fratricidal wars against other separatist militant groups. In a bid to get Western support, the Jayewardene regime depicted the LTTE as a Marxist movement hell-bent on establishing a Marxist state. Yet there was hardly anything Marxist or left-wing about the LTTE. This was true particularly in its attitude to Palestine. Prabhakaran, we are told, liked Leon Uris’s Exodus, and was drawn to the Zionist ideal. He saw Eelam less as an autonomous secular State than as a Zionist fiefdom. From there to his descent to fascism and megalomania, it took only some years. The rest is history.

The Sinhala nationalist right’s response to Palestine has been less than clear-cut. On the one hand, they rightly condemn Western hypocrisy on Israeli aggression. On the other, they side with Israel, viewing it as an encircled State in need of defence. What is ironic is that Tamil separatists, including Diaspora supporters of the British Conservative Party, see Israel the same way: as a minority state which must be protected. In both cases the ideal remains that of a setter state excluding if not terminating the “Other.”

Confusing as it may be, there is a reason why nationalists and separatists have taken the same stance here. Both define themselves as a minority in some form: a global minority in the case of the Sinhalese, a local minority in the case of the Tamils. The Zionist ideal has been easy for right-wing Sinhala nationalists and LTTE supporters to embrace because both see themselves as an excluded group, but aspire to be an exclusionist class.

At one point, however, both Sinhala nationalism and Tamil separatism absorbed or borrowed the rhetoric of anti-imperialism. The Sri Lankan State, while standing against Tamil separatist elements, had no problem identifying itself with the Palestinian cause, given its support of the Arab world. Its support of the latter, in fact, helped the State curry favour with the Sri Lankan Muslim population, at a time when other minority groups, including Christians and particularly Tamil, saw themselves as besieged communities.

For close to a decade, Tamil militant groups like EROS championed the Palestinian cause while remaining in opposition to the Sri Lankan State. Yet seeing themselves as the Other in Sri Lanka, and seeing the Sinhala State’s turn to a hardline, chauvinist right in the 1980s, the Tamil militant struggle itself turned to the right. Meanwhile, the enthronement of the UNP and the regime’s openly pro-Israeli line contributed to a breakdown in relations between the State and the country’s Muslims, and following Sinhala nationalism’s embrace of the right, between Muslims and Sinhalese in general. That made Zionism the ideal to embrace among both hard-line Sinhala nationalists and Tamil secessionists.

The rightward tilt in these camps today have sadly led to an extermination of progressive, forward-thinking voices. Nowhere has that been more evident than in their attitude to the Palestinian struggle. That Mahinda Rajapaksa and Tamil militant groups could both see, and consider, the likes of the PLO as their ideological brethren speaks volumes about where we were and where we are. Today the Sinhala right peddles Israel’s narrative, framing violence as an inevitable consequence of Islamist violence. The Tamil right, on the other hand, sees Israel as a minority State in need of defence. The progressive potential of both has died. And there is no better sign of this decline than their position on Israel.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at [email protected].

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