Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Diaspora for Dummies

by Peter Ratnadurai, June 15, 2009

Many were driven out of their homes by state-sponsored colonisers or artillery shells. Most had fled in the aftermath of the Black July pogrom and the various military offensives that followed.

A significant potion of the diaspora, as I am aware, does seek justice. But many would be content to settle for an outcome where their kith and kin are afforded a just future.

This question and answer session seeks to clear the role of Tamil diaspora in the post-militant struggle for the rights of Tamils in Eelam.  

Background

Are diaspora and Eelam Tamils separate entities?
No. The Tamil diaspora (the term conventionally used to refer to recent migrants from Eelam) are a sub-set of Eelam Tamils.

There are, however, Tamils in South Africa, Malaysia, Fiji and Singapore, who have a different role in the Tamil struggle. Owing to the need to generalise for simplicity, they are not covered in this session.

How is the diaspora attached to Tamileelam?

Despite being scattered across the globe, the Tamil diaspora is united by the collective Eelam Tamil identity. In the strictest sense of the word 'nation' (not to be confused with state), they are members of the Tamileelam nation.

Being first or second generation migrants, 99% of the diaspora are also bound to the homeland by blood. I, for example, count parents, two sisters and their families, and a brother amongst Tamils living across the homeland, inclusive of internment camps.

Is the diaspora driven by egos?
To the contrary. The Diaspora could easily lead material lives in their adopted countries, but many are forced to take an interest in the affairs of their homeland by practical needs.

I have had to underwrite my parents for decades, because our land (our traditional income was from farming) in Kanthalai, Trincomalee, was taken by Sinhalese, during a colonisation scheme in the 1980s. When my nephews are kidnapped by paramilitary groups, it is I who has to pay for their release. When my sister's family is interned in a camp with no access to the outside world, it becomes practically impossible for me to carry on with my daily routine.

Being first and second generation migrants, my story is replicable across the million strong diaspora. What drives the diaspora is a sense of duty to secure the lives and livelihoods of their most immediate relatives.

Does the diaspora want revenge?
It is true that a majority have very sour memories of the Sinhalese government and its military.

Many were driven out of their homes by state-sponsored colonisers or artillery shells. Most had fled in the aftermath of the Black July pogrom and the various military offensives that followed.

A significant potion of the diaspora, as I am aware, does seek justice. But many are content to settle for an outcome where their kith and kin are afforded a just future. If forgetting and forgiving for the past is what is needed to ensure that mechanisms are introduced to prevent similar injustices in the future, I suspect, diaspora would be willing.

Future

Would Tamils in Eelam welcome diaspora initiatives?
Given  the above facts, the diaspora does, and will, reflect the thinking of their loved ones in the Tamil homeland. Many abroad consider themselves as the unrestricted voices of those back home, who have to whisper codes over the telephone. I, for one, will be working towards the best interests of my parents and siblings.

Didn't the LTTE insist that any solution must be home grown?
Yes. The LTTE wasn't keen on foreign-imposed “solutions”, such as the 13th Amendment from New Delhi. It believed that any “solution” derived without consulting the Tamils would not be a “solution” at all.

However, the LTTE has always been clear on the need for the diaspora to play an important role in securing the rights of all Eelam Tamils.

The Department for Diaspora Affairs (DDA) was the first organisation to break the then trend of refugee organisations. The word diaspora was chosen because of its association with the Jews. It was hoped that the Tamils would follow the path of the forcefully scattered Jews (Diaspora) in founding and  building their homeland, as opposed to refugees who seek to return without playing an active role in conflict resolution.

The LTTE's negotiating teams were always led by Mr Anton Balasingham, himself member of the diaspora. In fact, during the last peace talks, the wider negotiating team included as many members from the diaspora as it did from the homeland.

In short, the diaspora is not foreign.

If a transnational government
is elected by the diaspora, are you not taking away all Tamils' right to elect their leaders?


A transnational government will not be a government for all Eelam Tamils. It will be an umbrella body for the diaspora (a sub-set of Eelam Tamils) to work collectively. This body will work towards realising the ultimate dream where all Eelam Tamils are able to elect how and by whom they want to be governed.

Absence of Tamil leadership in the homeland does not mean the diaspora has replaced the leadership role. Under current circumstances of internment camps and open prisons, Tamils in the homeland are simply unable to select a leadership. Even if they do, the leaders would likely get killed by the Sri Lankan military. To make matters worse, Sri Lanka's 6th Amendment means it is illegal for any Tamil to talk of exercising the right to self-determination.

A transnational government will not be a substitute for Tamil leadership. Its most optimistic achievement would be a UN-led referendum for Tamils in Eelam to elect how and by whom they want to be governed. Such an outcome would be unlike the current scenario in the East, for example, where a foreign-imposed provincial council is led by a paramilitary leader hand-picked by the Sinhalese government.

Why doesn't the diaspora stop confronting the government of Sri Lanka?
Materially, for individual members of the diaspora, working with the GoSL would make more sense. There are some who have been afforded all-paid flights, hotel stays and guided tours for putting their names to pro-GoSL statements.

However, as explained earlier, many members of the diaspora are keen on securing the future of their kith and kin. I am more concerned about having my sister's family released from the internment camps, getting my parents' land back and securing a future where my entire family can lead a just life, than in an all-expenses paid holiday to Galle.

Confronting the GoSL is a chore; members of the diaspora do not enjoy it in any way. That is why a key role of the Government in Exile would be to engage the GoSL, along with other international actors, to ensure that the Sinhalese finally accept the right of Tamils to determine their own social, political, economic and cultural affairs. We need equals for a partnership.

Note: Above is in no way comprehensive. I am sure there will be more questions to answer.