Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

On the 'Sri Lankan Diaspora' Conference in Kuala Lumpur

by TamilNation.org, September 7, 2008, and TamilNet, September 6, 2008

The Kuala Lumpur Conference organizers failed to recognise that it is only those who are independent who may co-operate in a positive manner, network and become inter-dependent. It is only in freedom that 'academic, commercial and linguistic, cultural and other activities' can flourish. It is only in freedom that truly independent 'global infra structures' may be created to coordinate those activities. Otherwise these structures themselves will become instruments to further the assimilation of the ruled by their rulers.

The first question  that those Tamils concerned with 'coordination'  may have to answer is - can this 'coordination' of 'academic, commercial and linguistic, cultural and other activities' be ever accomplished by acquiescence to alien Sinhala/Sri Lanka rule and/or by petitioning the Sinhala rulers? ...

"..As Patrick Buchanan points out, candidate Obama has absolutely no exit strategy from Afghanistan other than a presumed military victory. He utterly fails to understand the axiom of the guerilla strategy: the guerilla wins if he fails to lose. For the guerilla it is not about winning pitched battles, it is about continuing the fight... Anatol Lieven of King’s College (London) puts it aptly. Afghanistan is 'becoming a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the U.S. and NATO breed the very terrorists they then track down.'." -- Marc Herold

That efforts should be made by Sri Lanka authorities to make inroads into the Tamil Diaspora is not a matter for surprise.

The fact that the Conference in Kuala Lumpur on 28-31 August 2008  was titled an International Conference on THE SRI LANKAN DIASPORA – THE WAY FORWARD spoke volumes. So did the patronage extended to the Conference by the Sri Lanka Ambassador to Malaysia. So too did the fact that the conference was sponsored by a so-called Federation of Sri Lankan Associations in Malaysia in collaboration with the Department of Indian Studies of the University of Malaya. The sponsorship served to sharpen the awareness of the Tamil people who live in many lands - Tamil people who know full well the continuing genocidal onslaught on Tamil Eelam by Sinhala/Sri Lankan nationalism backed by an amoral New Delhi/Indian foreign policy.  

It appears that a 'Sri Lankan Diaspora,' presumably consisting of Burghers, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, are concerned to meet in different parts of the world to map out the 'WAY FORWARD'. [see TamilNet on the 'Sri Lankan Diaspora' Conference in Kuala Lumpur (also below)] The question that will arise  in many Tamil minds is - 'WAY FORWARD' for whom? A Sinhala nationalism which dares not speak its name and which for many decades has sought to masquerade as a 'multi-ethnic' Sri Lankan 'civic nation'  (albeit with a Sinhala lion flag, Buddhism as the State religion and an unrepealed Sinhala Only language law) now seeks to extend its tentacles within the Tamil diaspora by masquerading as a 'multi ethnic Sri Lankan Diaspora'.

We ourselves received an invitation on 28 June 2008. The invitation read -

Dear Editor,

We in Malaysia are hosting a conference on the Sri Lankan Diaspora. I am attaching a flyer for your information. We would appreciate if you could give it some publicity on your website. I am in touch with Mr Varadakumar in London and have visited him and he recommended me to you. Your kindness will be much appreciated. You or your representative are most welcome to cover the conference. The registration fee will be waived. Thank you and best wishes.

Mahendran Thuraiappah
Conference Organising Committee

We agree with the remarks in TamilNet on 6 September 2008, that -

"...Meticulous efforts are being made for sometime now by Colombo, its international abettors and by other aspirants for united Sri Lanka to capture the soul and mind of this diaspora, not by straight forward means of meeting the Tamil aspirations but by intimidation, insinuation and by catering to the greed of certain affluent sections of the diaspora..."

These meticulous efforts include the efforts of the International Crisis Group (with Board Members Lord Patten of Barnes, US Ambassador Thomas R Pickering and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans ) which frankly and openly urged in  February 2008 -

"So long as there is widespread support for separatism and militancy in the diaspora, peace in Sri Lanka will be hard to come by... ...Western governments’ policies on Sri Lanka should consciously include attempts to open up political space within their Tamil communities for non-Tiger political voices. Those governments with significant Tamil populations should engage representative civil society groups directly,.."

For the distinguished members of the International Crisis Group, the roadblocks to peace were 'separatism' and 'militancy' - not the decades-long oppresive rule by a permanent and alien Sinhala majority within the confines of a single state that has led to the struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam and, in the last resort to Tamil armed resistance.

Dr. Jehan Perera addressing the conference in Malaysia August 2008 photo TamilNet

Dr. Jehan Perera addressing the conference in Malaysia. Photo: TamilNet

Wisdom is not always a function of gross national product and western governments (as well as others such as Malaysia) may want to recognise that the Tamil people are not stupid. The struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about what the LTTE may have done or not done. The struggle for Tamil Eelam is about the democratic right of the people of Tamil Eelam to govern themselves in their homeland - nothing less and nothing more. An independent Tamil Eelam is not negotiable. But an independent Tamil Eelam will negotiate with an independent Sri  Lanka the terms on which two independent states may associate with one another in equality and in freedome. Sovereignty, after all, is not virginity.

The Tamil people are not devoid of wisdom. They know that if the armed resistance to the genocidal onslaught by a murderous Sinhala nationalism fails, they will be left only with Tamil pleaders, supplicants and collaborators who may gain some crumbs from their master's table for themselves (and their next of kin) but will do nothing to oust the alien Sinhala army from the Tamil homeland and prevent continued alien Sinhala rule of the people of Tamil Eelam. Tamils in many lands will therefore question those who claim (as the Kuala Lumpur Conference flyer claimed)

 "..Unless the current generation takes steps to co-operate in a positive manner, to network, to promote, to review and to update its academic, commercial and linguistic, cultural and other activities and create a global infrastructure to coordinate these activities, there is a distinct possibility that the Diaspora as we know it today will not only diminish but quite possibly disappear in the course of time..."

The Kuala Lumpur Conference organizers failed to recognise that it is only those who are independent who may co-operate in a positive manner, network and become inter-dependent. It is only in freedom that 'academic, commercial and linguistic, cultural and other activities' can flourish. It is only in freedom that truly independent 'global infra structures' may be created to coordinate those activities. Otherwise these structures themselves will become instruments to further the assimilation of the ruled by their rulers.

Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, a Malaysian historian and a Professor Emeritus at the University of Malaya, addressing the audience. Photo: TamilNet

The first question  that those Tamils concerned with 'coordination'  may have to answer is - can this 'coordination' of 'academic, commercial and linguistic, cultural and other activities' be ever accomplished by acquiescence to alien Sinhala/Sri Lanka rule and/or by petitioning the Sinhala rulers?

"The organs of middle class political life can only be dangerous (to the ruler) so long as they are independent. By taking away their independence they become fresh sources of strength for the Government...The dissolution of the subject organisation into a disorganised crowd is the inevitable working of an alien despotism..."  Sri Aurobindo in Shall India be Free?: Unity and British Rule, 1907

International conferences concerned with the  'disappearance'  of the so called 'Sri Lankan' diaspora, should start by recognising that "it is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows".

"... It is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation... It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately the source of all culture..." Frantz Fanon at the Congress of Black African Writers, 1959

And without heart, we churn out the products of desiccated calculating machines. The report of the Malaysian Tamil Scholar in TamilNet on 6 September 2008 that

"A point, said to be a practical issue, brought out by some of the participants was that the term ‘Tamil’ was not acceptable to any of the governments or universities facilitating such conferences."

makes for interesting reading. The term ‘Tamil’ was not acceptable to any of the governments or universities facilitating the conference but there were some who called themselves Tamils who were willing to participate! Given that the conference was held in the land where Subhas Chandra Bose founded the Indian National Army, the Conference Organisers may have wanted to pay attention to that which Bose said many years ago in relation to Jawarhalal Nehru  -

"...If he really wants to serve..., he must first of all make sure of his foundations. For if he doesn't take care to seek solid ground under his feet, the ground won't seek his feet either: consequently, he will never be able to stand perpendicular anywhere..." (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, quoted in the Lost Hero, a Biography of Subhas Bose by Mihir Bose, Quartet Books, 1982)

If you really want to serve the Tamil diaspora then you must learn to stand perpendicular. It is only then that the ground will reach out to you. It is therefore not surprising that in the event a  'large section of the activists of the Ceylonese Tamil community (in Malaysia) especially its younger generation boycotted the conference.'

The words of Gramsci should remain a constant reminder to those 'academics' and 'intellectuals' fearing the 'disappearance'  of the so called 'Sri Lankan' diaspora -

"...The error of the intellectual consists in believing that it is possible to know without understanding and especially without feeling and passion... that the intellectual can be an intellectual if he is distinct and detached from the people-nation.. History and politics cannot be made without passion, without this emotional bond between intellectuals and the people-nation. In the absence of such a bond the relations between intellectuals and the people-nation are reduced to contacts of a purely bureaucratic, formal kind; the intellectuals become a caste or a priesthood...' Gramsci  (quoted in James Joll's Gramsci, Fontana, 1977)

It appears that the reality that the 'Tamil diaspora' is not the 'Sri Lankan Diaspora' somehow eluded the Conference organisers. Furthermore, the reality that the Tamil diaspora is not a subset of the so called Sri Lankan Diaspora also eluded the Conference organisers.

K Kesavapany, former Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia, currently the Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, delivers keynote address. Photo: TamilNet

The Tamil disapora is not simply the Eelam Tamil diaspora. The worldwide Tamil diaspora is not simply the result of oppressive Sinhala rule in the island of Sri Lanka. British colonial rule also dispersed Tamils from their homeland in South India and the North-East of the island of Ceylon (as it was then known ) to many lands. In the 1840's Tamils went to Trinidad in the Caribbean, Guyana in South America, and Mauritius off the coast of Africa; in the 1860's to the British colony of Natal in South Africa; in the 1870's to the Dutch colony of Surinam; in the 1880's to Fiji. Others migrated to the French colony of Reunion. Some migrated to Burma now known as Myanmar (and which until 1937 was a province of British India) to work on the plantations or to work as clerks and book keepers. Tamils from Tamil Nadu went to work on the plantations in central Ceylon and in Malaysia. Tamils who had resided in the North of the island of Sri Lanka, went to Malaya and Singapore in search of white collar employment.

Today, more than 70 million Tamil people live in many lands across distant seas - in  Australia, Bahrain, Botswana , Canada , Denmark Eelam , Fiji , Finland , France , Germany , Guadelope & Martinique , Hongkong , Indonesia , Italy , Karnataka Malaysia ,Manipur , Mauritius , Myanmar , Netherlands , New Caledonia &Tahiti , New Zealand , Norway , Quatar , Reunion , Seychelles , Singapore , South Africa , Sweden , Switzerland , Tamil Nadu , Trinidad , United Kingdom, and USA.

The Chairman of the Organising Committee of the conference, A/P Datuk Dr. D. M. Thuraiappah. Photo: TamilNet

The growing togetherness of Tamils living in many lands is not simply the togetherness of the Eelam Tamil diaspora. It is much more. It is a growing togetherness rooted in a shared heritage, in a rich language and literature, in a vibrant culture, and consolidated by struggle and suffering, and given purpose and direction by a shared aspiration to create a future where they and their children and their children's children may live in equality, in freedom and in peace with the other nations of the world. It is a growing togetherness which cries out sometimes in pain and sometimes in joy: 'Yes, we may live in many lands and across distant seas, but we too are a people!'

And, that Tamil diaspora is not about to disappear. The digital revolution has rendered State boundaries increasingly porous, not only to the market but also to information, human rights and political activisim and  deep rooted kinship ties are finding fresh avenues for expression. A Google search for the word 'Tamil' returns more than 46 million pages.  tamilnation.org itself (which ranks second to Wikipedia in that search) receives more than 50,000 visitors every week from many parts of the globe and around half are from Tamil Nadu - and for many of them the words that we have carried on our home page for several years -

-  resonate with their own being, with their own existence and with their own aspirations. Many of them are moved by the truth of something which Velupillai Pirabakaran said -

Veluppillai Pirabakaran Prabakaran quote

Velupillai Pirabaharan

They are moved to recognise that the struggle for Tamil Eelam is also their struggle. They recognise the force of reason in the words of Golda Meir in 1948 -

"..We always had faith that in the end we would win, that everything we were doing in the country led to the independence of the Jewish people and to a Jewish state. Long before we had dared pronounce that word, we knew what was in store for us...I want to say to you, friends, that the Jewish community in Palestine is going to fight to the very end. If we have arms to fight with, we will fight with those, and if not, we will fight with stones in our hands... During the last few years the Jewish people lost 6,000,000 Jews, and it would be audacity on our part to worry the Jewish people throughout the world because a few hundred thousand more Jews were in danger. That is not the issue. The issue is that if these 700,000 Jews in Palestine can remain alive, then the Jewish people as such is alive and Jewish independence is assured. If these 700,000 people are killed off, then for many centuries, we are through with this dream of a Jewish people and a Jewish homeland..."

Tamils living in many lands recognise the truth of something else that Golda Meir also said on that occasion -

" We are not a better breed; we are not the best Jews of the Jewish people. It so happened that we are there and you are here. I am certain that if you were in Palestine and we were in the United States, you would be doing what we are doing there, and you would ask us here to do what you will have to do."

The Tamils in Tamil Eelam are not a better breed; they are not the best Tamils of the Tamil people. It so happened that they are there and we are here. If we were there and they were here, we would be doing what they are doing there and we would ask them to do what they will have to do.

Tamils living in many lands and across distant seas recognise that though they themselves may not relocate to Tamil Eelam when it is established, Tamil Eelam must be established if they are to live with dignity where ever they may continue to live - live with dignity, thanmaanam, and not as wandering nomads without a state of their own.

And it is the growing togetherness of  70 million Tamils - a nation without a state -  that Sinhala Sri Lanka fears as a threat to its assimilative agenda.  It is therefore encouraging to note that Sinhala Sri Lanka has begun to recognise the force of that which Tamil Nadu leader Suba Veerapandiyan  said in June 2008 -

"...The struggle for Tamil Eelam rests in three fronts or battlefields.  The first battlefield is in Tamil Eelam. There the struggle is progressing with lives being put on line. The second battlefield is in the Tamil Diaspora living in many lands. The third battlefield is in India. A change in the policy of the Indian government will depend on  a change in the approach of  Tamil Nadu political parties. A change in the approach of Tamil Nadu political parties will depend on change amongst the people of Tamil Nadu..."

Finally, Conference organisers truly concerned with the future of the Tamil diaspora (and not diverted by the limited wisdom of those such as the International Crisis Group)  may want to pay greater attention to something which Marc Herold wrote about Obama and Afghanistan recently -

"..As Patrick Buchanan points out, candidate Obama has absolutely no exit strategy from Afghanistan other than a presumed military victory. He utterly fails to understand the axiom of the guerilla strategy: the guerilla wins if he fails to lose. For the guerilla it is not about winning pitched battles, it is about continuing the fight... Anatol Lieven of King’s College (London) puts it aptly. Afghanistan is 'becoming a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the U.S. and NATO breed the very terrorists they then track down.'."

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TamilNet on the 'Sri Lankan Diaspora' Conference in Kuala Lumpur

[TamilNet, 6 September 2008]

A conference on Sri Lankan diaspora that took place last week in Kuala Lumpur provided an opportunity to understand the broad perspectives of the Eezham Tamil diaspora, its universal aims and development agenda on one hand and to witness the subtle efforts by certain elements to nullify its identity and hijack its noble agenda to the diplomatic benefit of the Sri Lankan state on the other hand, according to a Malaysian Tamil scholar.

"The Colombo government and its abettors either believe or want others to believe that the course of military solution opted by them to end the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka has become successful and very near its goal," the scholar told TamilNet.

"The image they try to create is that the political aspirations of Eezham Tamils will be silenced once and for all in a couple of months and thereafter the task is to only deal with a defeated people."

It is a well-known fact that one of the fundamental strengths of Eezham Tamils is the diaspora, without the involvement of which nothing decisive can take place in Sri Lanka.

The Eezham Tamil diaspora today is found spread in all the continents of the world and even conservative estimates place the number between one and a half and two million.

The very existence of this diaspora bound by a common Eezham Tamil identity and its networking is seen as one of the foremost challenges to those who want to uphold a united Sri Lanka by show of force. More over, this is largely a diaspora victimized by the Sri Lankan state and is hostile to it. The diaspora pricks the prying eyes concerned at the moment.

Meticulous efforts are being made for sometime now by Colombo, its international abettors and by other aspirants for united Sri Lanka to capture the soul and mind of this diaspora, not by straight forward means of meeting the Tamil aspirations but by intimidation, insinuation and by catering to the greed of certain affluent sections of the diaspora.

Impelled by the needs of the situation, the Eezham Tamil diaspora today, especially the new diaspora, is vigilant and vibrant.

A conference on Sri Lankan diaspora that took place last week in Kuala Lumpur provided an opportunity to understand the broad perspectives of the Eezham Tamil diaspora, its universal aims and development agenda on one hand and to witness the subtle efforts by certain elements to nullify its identity and hijack its noble agenda to the diplomatic benefit of the Sri Lankan state on the other hand, according to a Malaysian Tamil scholar.

The conference was organized by the Federation of Sri Lankan Associations in Malaysia in collaboration with the Department of Indian Studies of the University of Malaya.

The federation and the term Sri Lanka found in this context are new to Malaysia, introduced only in 2003. As the eminent historian of Malaysia, Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim rightly pointed out in his speech in the conference there were no Sri Lankans in Malaysia. They were Ceylonese or rather Jafanese (people from Jaffna) largely and a few Sinhalese. Today there are classified under the category of ‘Others’ in the Malaysian population, roughly numbering to 50,000 Tamils and 5000 Sinhalese.

For a long time the Ceylonese, predominantly Jaffna Tamils, were proud of their Ceylonese identity and refused to even identify themselves with the Indian Tamils of Malaysia. The recent forging of a federation of Ceylonese associations under the banner of Sri Lanka itself is considered to be a feat diplomatically favouring the Sri Lanka government. When the present day Eezham Tamils have rejected the State of Sri Lanka their five generations old diaspora has all of a sudden discovered Sri Lanka. It is said that many of the affluent members of this diaspora have business interests in Colombo.

The conference of the federation, ‘Sri Lankan Diaspora, the Way Forward’, conducted in the University of Malaya premises and its associated social gatherings were earnestly attended by the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in Malaysia. There was also an orchestrated group of attendees from Sri Lanka, thanks to the contacts of some among the organizers.

One of the speakers, Dr. Jehan Perera, an intellectual peace activist from Colombo, was quick to grasp the opportunity in appreciating the theme behind the unifying title of the conference. He later wrote to the United Press International that “if the Tamil diaspora wishes to come to the aid of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, they need to be prepared to engage constructively with the Sri Lankan state, and find ways to do so. It also means that the Tamil diaspora has to reconsider its separatist option and be prepared to accommodate itself to the reality that the LTTE's military force will not win peace, happiness and prosperity for the Tamil people in the homeland”.

A large section of the activists of the Ceylonese Tamil community, especially its younger generation boycotted the conference. The students of the Indian Studies Department also boycotted it. They were not happy about the theme and motives of the conference and the organizers.

Nevertheless, a meaningful gathering of scholars came from different parts of the world, covering potential and hitherto untouched issues related to Tamil diaspora such as its unique attributes, strategies of negotiating with the global community, statistics, directory, Tamil language teaching centre, a diaspora university, museum, cultural institutions, economy, youth issues, gender issues, employment opportunities, business opportunities etc. They were either not aware of the credibility of the organization or chose to use the forum to present the case of the Tamil diaspora to the Tamil diaspora. The pivotal point made by them was that the diaspora has to look after itself. Some of the profound ideological, practical and research points made by them have to be brought out through various other channels if they have to reach the attention of the diaspora to which actually they were meant for.

Some well-known Tamil diaspora scholars whose names were in the conference web display for a long time opted not to come.

Interesting issues were raised when it came to continuing similar discourses on the diaspora in future in different parts of the world. It was pointed out by most of the participants at a committee level that proceedings of such conferences will not be acceptable and will be viewed with suspicion by the predominant section of the diaspora, i.e., the Tamil diaspora, if the theme is going to be the ‘Sri Lankan diaspora’.

It has also been pointed out that conducting such conferences for the benefit of the Tamil diaspora, with the spontaneous participation of the diaspora is not possible in any part of the world where the Tamil diaspora live, if the name tag is Sri Lanka. The diaspora has the freedom to choose the term for its identity.

A point, said to be a practical issue, brought out by some of the participants was that the term ‘Tamil’ is not acceptable to any of the governments or universities facilitating such conferences. The next conference is scheduled to take place in Germany.

The diaspora has to first fight against such indiscriminate vilification and insult if it really exists in any universities or governments. But it is a lame excuse, showing only the lack of guts with the intellectuals to voice for justice with establishments, commented a participant behind the lines.

It seems at the moment there are nearly 20,000 Sri Lankan refugees, predominantly Tamils are living in Malaysia. Most of them are provided with UNHCR identity cards. But there is no provision for their livelihood as they can’t officially work. Many youngsters live in trying conditions and are being exploited for labour for meager or no payment at all. They ruin their prime youth for years now.

The Federation of Sri Lankan Associations could have taken care of educating these youngsters or training them in vocational fields as a token of its grand plans for the diaspora, commented a conference delegate from the West after talking to a few of the UNHCR refugees.