Dr. Andy Higginbottom was the prosecutor for the Bremen session of the People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka in 2013. Last week, He, together with two of the judges at the Bremen Tribunal, Dr. Denis Halliday and Dr. Maung Zarni responded to the Bellinzona case at our press conference in Geneva. This short presentation, made two days before the prosecutor Ms. Juliette Noto made her main presentation to the court, provides a valuable geopolitical context to the events in Bellinzona.
Andy explains how the racial pogroms faced by the Tamils and the genocidal character of the assault against them laid the basis for the Tamil resistance – which Ms. Noto’s nine hour marathon manages to completely avoid. This is why we rush to make Andy’s contribution available on our website. The other two presentations will follow soon.
Full transcript of the Dr. Andy Higginbottom’s speech
It’s a universal definition of humanity that people struggle for their freedom. For the Tamils this can only mean, based on their historical experiences, their right to have an independent homeland. There is a clear framing political issue underlying whole case, which is: ‘should Tamil people have the right to their homeland or not, should it be seen as an expression of their humanity? or should it be framed as a criminal or even terrorist act?’.
Every crime has a motive. The ongoing crime of genocide against the Tamils which reached its horrific peak in 2009 and still continues to this day has at its core the position of the Western powers to keep Sri Lanka within their orbit so that they can control South Asia and the Indian Ocean as a region. The underlying motive for the crime of genocide remains hidden and undeclared in the court case but its presence can be at every point be felt behind the scenes.
Empire’s forward base
The Bremen Tribunal heard compelling historical evidence which has since been extended and fully backed up by archival research, which is now published, in particular, about the ongoing neo-colonial situation of the Sri Lankan State. To recap the history very briefly, the British and the French fought in the early 19th century for who would get the island which today is called Sri Lanka. They had a very clear reason for their arrival. Because in Sri Lanka you have, as Admiral Nelson declared quite frankly, the most important deep water port in the whole of the Indian Ocean, Trincomalee harbour. And the British beat the French to get this port. In terms of the seaborne empire, this was key to the whole region. The British had an additional motive of course. They used Ceylon to control and act as a forward base of forward operations to control India and South Asia more generally. So in a sense it was fitting that they would win against the French they had a higher need to keep Sri Lanka as part of their control.
The second time that the imperial significance of Trincomalee was frankly admitted came during the Second World War, remembering that in fact Japan was winning the first phase of the war. So for example, the British colonial authorities had to withdraw their entire apparatus from Burma to Sri Lanka. The whole of the intelligence networks, the whole institutional control which they exercised over Burma was shipped to Sri Lanka. In this period it wasn’t simply overall strategic intention, it was a direct operational need to have Trincomalee harbour. The British fleets in the Second World War was based in Trincomalee and from there was able to launch its counter operations in the whole theater of war, up to an including the Pacific Ocean.
Therefore, when the British granted independence to Ceylon it was one of the most peaceful transitions. The lack of violence from a liberation struggle to achieve independence carried with it a germ of future problems. The relatively agreeable handover of power was achieved on the condition that the British would in effect maintain their control. And the violence which is often characteristic of a fight to end colonial rule was in fact perverted and became encapsulated in the form of Sinhala nationalism which was not directed against the colonial authorities and the exploitation of Sri Lanka by the British, but took the perverse form of hatred of another oppressed people on the island, the Tamils.
The perversion of Sinhala nationalism was both engendered and used by the British in classic colonial form of divide and rule. But in a particular configuration in Sri Lanka, divide and rule was achieved through maintaining the form of the unitary state, one in which the Tamils would permanently be kept, both institutionally and when that failed through racist social mobilisation, in an inferior position. The Tamils could never achieve the full recognition as a people once they became locked into this setup. The period after the Second World War as we’ve already heard exemplified, became one of permanent mobilisation against any aspiration of Tamil people for their rights as Tamils. In particular, this took the form of pogroms.
Now pogroms were not unique and specific to Ceylon in this period. The pogrom is a much understudied form of racist mobilisation against an oppressed group. It is as significant in the sense that it’s very often the precursor to genocide. If you think of the situation of the Jewish peoples in eastern and central Europe and in Russia in the first part of the 20th century, the pogroms against them normalised racial hatred and mobilisation against an oppressed group. If you think of the constant pogroms against black people in the United States even after the victory of the Civil War in 1865, black people basically suffered pogroms for close on a century until the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King in the 1960s.
So we have a specific case of mobilisation based on racial hatred of a population which would destroy the homes, livelihoods and the lives of an oppressed section of the people. In these circumstances we now come to the turning point.
‘Fight or flight’
The Tamils reached a point where they would no longer be permanent victims. And this point came in the 1970s. We should recall the moment: the Vietnamese had fought and defeated French colonialism. They had managed to defeat in the end the biggest power in the world U.S. imperialism. In Africa there were movements for national liberation against the Portuguese and in Southern Africa against white supremacist rule. The Tamils said ‘how about us? what about us? Do we not do in this moment of the victory of national liberation movements also have national liberation struggle to fight on our hands?’ And so in the middle 1970s, by broad consensus, it was decided in the Tamil community there was a need for a national liberation struggle, and in this struggle the decisive turning point at which the whole of the Tamil population embraced the need for a struggle for national liberation came in 1983.
The Tamil refugee diaspora here in Switzerland and in most parts of the world were forced out of the country as a result of the pogroms in 1983. This pogrom not only killed 3000 people by the conservative estimate. It said to every Tamil person on that island: ‘We are coming to get you. If you show any signs of resistance against Sinhala chauvinistic rule, then we can come and get you with complete impunity.’ And so there was an existential choice for the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the choice was simply this: ‘fight or flight’.
Many were forced to flee but they shared and continue to link with those back home who decided they would stay and fight. It’s very interesting that the framing of the case in Bellinzona seeks to delegitimise the choice of Tamils at this point, and you do have to return to this point in time again. What else could the Tamils do but to flee or to fight to preserve their very existence? They had to do one or the other. It is this terrible choice which linked the diaspora to those who stayed at home. By now, the broadly, widely and deeply supported national liberation struggle took the form of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. So from this point on, in the diaspora there was continued support which couldn’t separate the defence of Tamil lives from the prosecution of their liberation struggle for a homeland.
Destroying the social base
The final phase was reached because the combined efforts of the Sri Lankan state supported in many ways for a long period by British operations which trained the Sri Lankan military. They set up the equivalent of Sandhurst inside Sri Lanka which had auxiliary forces, special operations units, ex-SAS operatives involved in Keeni Meeni services in warfare against the Tamil population. But none of these things were able to break the strength of the liberation struggle. And it was in fact the strength of the Tamil Tigers which brought about the peace process. It was the strength of the Tamil Tigers which inaugurated the necessity for the Sri Lankan state to enter into peace talks which lasted from 2000, effectively in operation from 2002 to 2006.
The crucial point about this period is the big powers, by this time also the United States, had decided that they needed to maintain a unitary state in Sri Lanka. Therefore they could not allow the formation of the Tamil homeland and finally came to the conclusion that to achieve this, there need to be all out and total warfare against the Tamil population on a similar scale and of a similar nature which the US had already sponsored and carried out, for example in Central America in Guatemala. In other words, in order to defeat the Tamil Tigers one would have to destroy the social base which gave them support.
And what we see in the court case in Switzerland today is an extension of this same logic. It is actually genocidal mindset which is guiding the nature of the prosecution and the prosecution’s arguments. In every detail, in every particular which is coming up in a court case one can see that there are two interpretations and it completely depends on with which mindset is brought to the understanding the facts of the case. The mindset which the Swiss prosecuting authorities have brought is one which completely refuses to accept that it was a legitimate cause of the Tamils to raise money for the struggle on a humanitarian basis, and on a broader political basis as well, for their struggle for Tamil Eelam.
In the final analysis, the Swiss judicial process will carry through and come to a decision on the evidence before it. In all probability, one presumes that if there is a guilty verdict this will be open to appeal. But in any case the appeal is not only to the judicial process in Switzerland, the appeal for the justice and the legitimacy of what the Tamils here in Switzerland did is really fundamentally open to the court of public opinion. And we are appealing as we did in the Bremen tribunal to international public opinion to express its views as well about what is happening here in Switzerland.
In other words we open this for a much broader discussion based on whatever evidence is reported and comes to light. We think that it is also a matter of concern for a much broader audience than the three judges sitting in that court in Bellinzona. So we appeal to international public opinion to pay attention to this case, to follow it in as much detail as we can provide, and to make sure that your views about the legitimacy of the Tamil struggle for a homeland are also heard.