Protests and missed opportunities: The Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora

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Shivering in subzero temperatures, men and women of all ages shout slogans to stop genocide. On January 30, 2009, outside Union station in downtown Toronto, a protester holds up a photograph of a dead Tamil child with his entrails spilling out. On February 4, at the Sri Lankan consulate, another protester carries a cardboard effigy of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse with a noose, bloodied fangs and drops of blood on his tunic.

The Tamil-Canadian community mounted one of the biggest (and most surprising) protests the country has seen in some time. Clandestinely organized, thousands suddenly appeared on Toronto's streets. Police told the Toronto Star that an estimated 45,000 Tamil-Canadians participated on January 30.

As a Tamil-Canadian living in Toronto, I did not know there was a wave of protests afoot, until a friend called to tell me. As I read media coverage about the Tamil community's effort to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, what I saw were the gaps in the message. Information being given to the Canadian public was selective and misleading. Protesters directed their outrage and demands at the Sri Lankan state -- rightly so. However, what was being left out was a demand for human rights from the Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

What they were protesting appeared quite simple: the Tamil community is in mortal danger. But the message did not break away from the kind of polarization that characterizes most discussions of the conflict, and was not linked to any real discussion of how to create peace in Sri Lanka. In an attempt to fill this gap, I went out into the bitter cold to talk to people at the rallies. The answers I found point to personal suffering and loyalty to the Tigers.

At night in front of the U.S. consulate on January 29, Roshan Pillai tells me, "They don't care about Tigers; they just want to get rid of Tamil people."

The next afternoon I talk to Suthakaran Paramalingam, a 27-year-old engineering student, as he walks down Front Street outside Union station. "People think the Tigers are holding the people and the government is killing them," he says. "They are the ones fighting for us." A middle-aged Tamil woman begins to cry as she tells me about her mother and sister trapped in the combat zone.

At the Sri Lankan consulate I talk to Majura Sathiyarajah, a 23-year-old student carrying a backpack, minutes after the candle light vigil ends. "There should be an end soon before our Tamil race is totally destroyed," she says. "This is the only way to show our government."

Although the protests have successfully brought a horrible injustice to the public through international media attention, they have not brought attention to the diaspora's complicity in the chaos and violence infecting their homeland. As a result, the protests are simply perpetuating the problems behind the war rather than shining a light on potential solutions. Here's a closer look at the ethics of activism and social protest.

Civilians slaughtered in war

A war that has been going on for close to 30 years continues. In the last two years, the Sri Lankan military has gobbled up territory held by the Tamil Tigers. For their part, the LTTE is hiding among a civilian population that is trapped inside the combat zone around Mullaitivu in the northeast. Estimates of the number of civilians range from 70,000 to 200,000.

The Sri Lankan army continues to shell the area, slaughtering civilians. Those who try to leave are being shot and sometimes killed by the LTTE, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on February 19, 2009, "War on the Displaced: Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni." The report also says the LTTE is forcing people into deadly labour on the battlefield. Many of these people have family and friends in the LTTE and are reluctant to cross over into government-controlled areas -- afraid that, because of this link to the LTTE, they themselves will be viewed with suspicion, tortured and killed. Those civilians who do successfully cross over to the government side are being held in military-controlled, barbed-wire camps and are not allowed to leave. HRW has cited disappearances from these internment camps. And journalists and aid workers have been barred from the war zone.

More than 70,000 Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils, have died since the civil war started in 1983. For 30 years, both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state have carried out arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, political assassinations and massacres of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. So why is there such an extraordinary response to the current crisis? It is only now that the Tamil Tigers are being wiped out after losing their de facto state and political capital, Kilinochchi, that the diaspora is reacting. And rhetoric about saving Tamils rarely, if ever, acknowledges the massacres of other minorities by the LTTE.

Nowhere in the statements being shouted at rallies, or on the placards being waved, is there any indication that the group purporting to save Tamils has been as brutal about human rights as the Sri Lankan state. By not criticizing the Tigers, protesters are giving them a kind of legitimacy, which will only result in more atrocities.

There is more going on here than a cry to ease pain. To understand what is at stake, you have to go back to history.

A history of discrimination

After the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, the Sinhala majority ruled with policies that discriminated against Tamils. Tamils were killed in pogroms between 1956 and 1983. Sinhala became the sole official language. Tamils had to obtain higher marks than Sinhalese in order to get into university. And, Tamil voices were excluded from the political sphere. Government-sponsored Sinhala settlements were set up in Tamil areas-and when the LTTE killed several Sinhala settlers, many Tamils were massacred.

Tamil militancy reached a new height in response to the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 when an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Tamils were butchered, torched or beaten to death at the hands of Sinhala mobs. But in 1986, the LTTE began eliminating other militant Tamil factions that had also formed to stand up to the Sri Lankan state. They massacred Tamils who did not support them, claiming sole representation of Tamils. In 1990, they expelled an estimated 75,000 Muslims from northern Sri Lanka. They also massacred 75 Muslims returning from pilgrimage, 120 Muslims at prayer in a mosque at Kattankady, and another 120 in the village of Eravur. They have used child soldiers as cannon fodder, deployed suicide bombers and eliminated dissenting voices.

Contrary to what many Tamil-Canadian protesters would have their audience believe, Tiger tactics have consistently derailed discussion of Tamil grievances. During elections in 2005, they set up road blocks comprised of burning tires to prevent travel to polling stations in the north and east. As a result, war hawk Mahinda Rajapakse won the election. The Tigers then restarted the war in late 2005 with a series of civilian and military attacks. In response, the government launched a brutal counterattack, which has led to the current crisis.

'The movement has life because of racism and repression'

Sujith Xavier, a Sri Lankan-Tamil, international human rights lawyer and PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, gives the protests more credit. He was happy to see the diaspora galvanized to generate interest in the humanitarian crisis. "I think the protest was quite effective, whether you're an LTTE supporter or not," he says. However, he is also quite critical of the diaspora.

"The diaspora forgets the [Tamil] population is so brutalized, people are so poor, and yet we want them to continue supporting this war," he says. "If you don't want to send your first born there, why would you support the war?"

Xavier, who was in Sri Lanka last September, describes the internally displaced persons camps in the north: Tamils live in tin-roof shacks with piles of rubbish; cows graze next to unhygienic toilets; children walk around without clothes on. "People just don't care. They are just so tired of the conflict," he says. "If we don't address these issues, there isn't going to be a post-LTTE era."

He doesn't think a political solution will happen without the LTTE sitting at the table. "The movement has a life because of repression and Sinhala racism," he says. "There are other voices within the LTTE, I don't think the LTTE will cease to exist because Prabhakaran's (the LTTE leader) advisors sustain him and they are quite powerful."

Yet the Tigers have never articulated what they would contribute to a political solution. There has been no democratic space for any alternative Tamil leadership to evolve for 30 years.

Xavier places the responsibility at the feet of the Sri Lankan government.

"A healthy judiciary, free media and civil society are the necessary conditions for creating a post-LTTE world," he says.

The protests were effective in raising international awareness of the human cost of the Sri Lankan state's military actions. But organizers failed to have a positive influence on the future of Sri Lanka by having such a narrow political aim, which was a tacit campaign to save the Tigers. Garnering attention and provoking conversation is not enough. There has to be a change on the ground. The Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora is a powerful force and could have used the momentum of the rallies to send a different message to the Tigers.

However, there are other voices in the diaspora with a more layered understanding of human suffering. Viji Murugaiyah, a Sri Lankan-Tamil, spent more than a decade as a human rights activist in eastern Sri Lanka. She also saw protesters in Toronto, shouting to stop killing Tamils and demanding a ceasefire from the Sri Lankan government. But she did not want to join them.

"I started crying almost. I did not want to be there. Groups that support the Tigers organized the protests," she says. "The Tigers are also fighting and not bothered by the people who are dying."

Murugaiyah says the pictures of women and children killed by shelling are used for political reasons. "People get influenced because it's women and children." She grieves for people on all sides who are dying: LTTE cadres who have been forcibly recruited, Sinhala soldiers and civilians.

In Murugaiyah's view, if the Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora thinks the LTTE will sort out the problem and they will be free from the Sinhala government, they are bound to be disappointed. The government is also not interested in human rights, she says. "With the defeat of the Tigers, they think they win the prize. That's it."

Her sadness stems from the fact that there was an extraordinary opportunity to send a human rights message to all the actors of war. Unfortunately, it was wasted.

In fact, Murugaiyah thinks the Tigers are finished, and that this is a good thing.

"I don't want to see them grow up again," she says. "They should stop and burn all their guns. Even if the war ends there is a violating mentality that has developed within the community. Everyone is used to gun culture." Sri Lanka has become a heavily militarized country.

When Tamil women were raped and killed by the military and other armed groups, Murugaiyah organized protests. When the Tamil Tigers forcibly recruited child soldiers, she helped families file complaints with UNICEF and tried to negotiate with the Tigers for a child's return. She also provided support to women who were victims of domestic violence. Murugaiyah saw how many militants, from the LTTE and other armed groups, are brutally abusive to their wives. "They release the stress through women," she says.

Murugaiyah sees mental health as the biggest issue in creating a healthy society in Sri Lanka after war. "Development means what?" she says. "I think development means first, everyone's mind should change."

 

Meena Nallainathan is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

 

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