The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities

Nirmala Rajasingam
17 April 2009

The Sri Lankan Tamil community may not be the largest of the diaspora communities represented in London or other such greatly diverse cities around the world, but the numbers and conviction they have mobilised in recent days to highlight the plight of their brethren at home have been exceptional. The demonstrations by Tamils in the centres of London, Toronto and other cities have been spectacular, defiant and spirited displays of grief and anger: men, women, and many young people have gathered with colourful flags and banners, staged sit-ins, and chanted slogans, while several of their number have promised to fast unto death.

Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan Tamil activist who lives in exile in London. She is a member of the steering committee of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), an international network of progressive diaspora voices. She was the first woman to be detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the early 1980s, survived the government-engineered Welikade prison massacre, and was subsequently freed from prison by LTTE guerrillas. She left the LTTE as a result of the lack of internal democracy within the movement and its serious human-rights abuses.

Nirmala Rajasingam is the sister of Rajani Thiranagama, founder-member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), who was assassinated by the LTTE for her outspoken views. They are the subjects of the documentary film No More Tears Sister (National Film Board of Canada) Their slogans are simple: "Genocide!", "Pirapaharan is our leader!", and "We want Tamil Eelam!". These references to the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the aspiration to an independent state in northern Sri Lanka are accompanied by the touting of images of this figure and the waving of flags showing the Tiger emblem. Several parliamentarians in Britain and Canada have voiced support for the demonstrators.

The humanitarian situation in parts of northern Sri Lanka - especially in the narrow strip of land around Mullaitivu - is indeed desperate, as the Sri Lankan army's advances have continued and as they lay siege to LTTE redoubts where approximately 100,000 civilians are confined - the latest stage of a long war that has persisted since 1983 (see "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice", 8 April 2009).

The cries of genocide have risen with the intensification of the military campaign and a sharp turn for the worse in the fortunes of the Tamil Tigers. They have spread too beyond the official Tiger propaganda stream (radio, TV and newspapers); the blood-splattered images and messages have inundated cyberspace: via Facebook and YouTube and other cyberspace outlets, via a torrent of emails, the drenching claim is simple, direct and frightening: genocide. This campaign has mobilised even those who had never been politically involved before.

The sorrows of commitment

The genocide alert is at heart about the trapped civilians in Mullaitivu. But the truth about the horrific circumstances in which civilians are stranded there is not stated in full. They are caught between two armies, each of which seeks to use them as pawns in this war. The government forces have shown no inhibition in bombing and shelling indiscriminately into crowded civilian areas, schools and hospitals as long as their military objective of crushing the Tigers is achieved. But the civilians are dying not only as a result of such bombardments or in crossfire; for credible reports indicate that Tigers are not allowing civilians to move out of the line of fire and escape to government-controlled areas, and may be going further to prevent attempts to flee.

It has long been established that many children have been forcibly recruited into the ranks of the Tigers, and that such cadres are forewarned that their families would be wiped out if they surrender. Now, as the Tigers' military situation becomes more and more desperate, the logic of their own anti-civilian approach is apparent: for the Tamil civilian presence now provides the only chance of ensuring the Tiger leadership's survival.

It is striking, however, that in all the demonstrations not a single cry, slogan or placard seems to demand that the Tigers should let the civilians go or cease their own assaults on them. The silence of the diaspora community on this issue is deafening. The general support for the Tamils' cause has in the public arena collapsed into one soundbite. There is no recognition in these demonstrations of the fact that the military objectives of the LTTE are no longer reconcilable with the safety of the trapped civilians. There is a disjunction between propaganda and reality here that reflects the way the logic of Tamil Tiger propaganda has become internalised by much of the diaspora. This does nothing to help Sri Lankan Tamils.

Such spectacular demonstrations have the potential to send a powerful message to the international community about the true nature of the predicament of the trapped civilians. Why then do the demonstrators fail to highlight this. Why have they not also raised their voices against Tiger atrocities as well as the government's? Why do they elide the horrifying predicament of the civilians with the political interest of the Tigers?

What makes these questions even more pertinent is that the huge demonstrations in the west that endorse the LTTE are in direct opposition to the waning popular support for the LTTE amongst Tamils in Sri Lanka itself. The eastern region of Sri Lanka where many Tamils live - and which has lost far more of its young people and children in this war than any other Tamil region - has largely abandoned support for an independent state. The Jaffna peninsula in the north has been largely uninvolved for more than a decade or so in the separatist cause; there, the vast majority of civilians have submitted to uneasy cohabitation with the army simply because amid available options, they prefer an absence of war. The LTTE's cynical and callous use of civilians for its war effort has also over the years undermined its status within the Tamil population in Sri Lanka.

There are other considerations absent from the demonstrators' concerns. The escalating military campaigns have placed great pressure on civilians for months, yet there have been no demonstrations to highlight the plight of those commandeered to retreat and follow the Tigers in the wake of government army advances - for example, those from the Mannar area in the western part of the northern province, who had to follow the trail of the Tiger retreat all the way across the Vanni jungles to their current pocket on the eastern coast of the Vanni. Many of these civilians had been corralled out of Jaffna at gunpoint by the LTTE in 1995 during the first big and enforced Pol-Pot-style exodus.

The frenzied demonstrations have begun only when the military defeat of the LTTE appears a real prospect. Again, the confusion between humanitarian protest and political solidarity with the LTTE is evident. But this still leaves open the question: what explains the widespread support that the LTTE enjoys in the diaspora despite its declining fortunes in Sri Lanka, and the atrocities it commits against ordinary Tamil people there?

The political war

The answer to this question lies in part in general conditions experienced by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora community, and in part in the particular role of the LTTE in establishing its political dominance within it.

The Tamils in the west have like many other migrant communities from the global south faced racist discrimination, exclusion, social isolation and economic deprivation. Their search for membership of and integration with "host" societies is, even in the best of circumstances, difficult. The result is that Tamil communities often lead culturally and socially a ghettoised life in which they - in an attempt to preserve "Tamil cultural and social heritage" in these new environs - construct anew a self-conscious way of "being Tamil" or of "living as Tamil". This has meant the mushrooming of Tamil cultural organisations, self-help groups, Tamil schools, businesses and temples. This pattern is in itself not an unusual phenomenon with migrant communities. But with the Tamils, there is an unusual twist.

The LTTE in the course of its military and political campaign decimated all other political opinion within the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka, in order to establish itself as the "sole representative" of the Tamil people. At the same time, it began to flex its muscles within the Tamil community in the west. Its representatives moved in on community groups, temples, Tamil schools and businesses and took control of many of them. In time its stranglehold over the diaspora communities - including through methods of intimidation, assault, and threats to families in Sri Lanka - became an accomplished fact. Paris and Toronto were prime examples of the phenomenon, where unquestioning compliance was demanded and wrought.

The intimidation of independent media outlets is a key arm of this strategy. The LTTE has for a generation sought to dominate the "Tamil narrative" - martial, dogmatic, missionary, zealous, leader-fixated - with many tales of military valour, of brave conquests against a marauding Sri Lankan army, of resolute "final wars", of "operation motherland redemptions". To a great extent it has succeeded.

The Tiger lobbyists, fundraisers and propagandists in the diaspora are relentless in attempting to enforce submission to this narrative and its command performances. Even for events such as "martyrs' day" celebrations or the funeral of the LTTE ideologist Anton Balasingam, thousands are mobilised and bussed in. Every tragic event is turned into a fundraising opportunity.

Also on Sri Lanka in openDemocracy:

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka's election choice" (17 November 2005)

Alan Keenan, "Sri Lanka: between peace and war" (14 May 2006)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka: time to act" (10 September 2006)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Sri Lanka: the politics of purity" (17 November 2006)

Irfan Husain, "Sri Lanka: giving war a chance" (8 February 2007)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka" (30 May 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka under siege" (30 January 2009)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice" (8 April 2009) A whole class of Tiger operatives has become affluent through being involved in the Eelam enterprise. Many have vested interests in its continued mobilisation, independent of the political situation or tragedies involving civilians. Moreover, the Tamil diaspora also sports a financially powerful and influential class of educated professionals and businesspeople who are also in many ways implicated in the Eelam roadshow and help to buttress it for social and other reasons.

The diaspora gaze

The outcome of this lengthy process of political manipulation is that the vast majority of Tamil homes in the diaspora are exposed to "Tamil" news that is heavily weighted towards LTTE propaganda - and it is a perspective that feeds into news about the rest of the world, not just Sri Lanka, as well. The LTTE channels provide a daily diet of culture and politics: everything is seen though the Tiger lens, including the international community's attitude to the conflict in Sri Lanka and to the Tigers.

The diaspora Tamil community has been acculturated to the LTTE message for a good part of two decades. But the message is the work of more than intimidation; its potency draws on and appeals to that aspect of life in exile which makes meaningful and satisfying the sense of abstract belonging to a homeland - especially if there is no tangible possibility of return in the immediate future. A "captive" audience that lives to a great degree in its own social and cultural bubble, determined to hold fast to the "Tamil culture" finds the mythical call for an independent Tamil state all the more attractive.

In this way the enterprise of preserving Tamil culture and Tamil way of living is wedded to the political quest for the independent state. At a moment when Tamil nationalism of the strident and dogmatic - indeed totalitarian - kind espoused by the LTTE is beginning to lose its flavour with Tamils in Sri Lanka, it is very much alive in the diaspora; and the Tigers are determined to use the serious military setbacks that they have experienced to entrench it further.

When in Sri Lanka itself the Tigers peddle the dream of an independent state of Tamil Eelam, many people recall aspects of the LTTE's own record: the 1995 exodus, the eviction of Muslims, abductions of their children, the waste of lives, the internal and internecine killings, the fanatical hero-worship. Their tangible experiences are evidence that the Tigers' brand of uncompromising politics leads to suffering and death. The result is increasing questioning and dissent - including about Sri Lanka's political future, the interests of the Tamils and how a sustainable and democratic future can be built after decades of war.

For diaspora Tamils living far removed from the day-to-day problems of living with the Tigers in battle, it is much easier to support the LTTE's zero-sum solution.

For the Tiger lobby and their its large bank of support - as well as for many young diaspora Tamils whose compassion and concern is as yet unmatched by independent sources of information and argument on events in Sri Lanka - the complex questions of democratisation, demilitarisation, cohabitation with other communities and the search for political settlement of the conflict appear to be immaterial. The suffering of civilians only helps to further reinforce the "imaginary" of an independent state of Tamil Eelam as the only solution. The destructive logic of the Tiger cause is to annihilate political reason and progress in favour of a totalitarian fantasy of power and control. Those who dream from afar have a responsibility to think harder, to look deeper, and to break through to reality.

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