Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Wider World Demands Attention

by Doug Clark, News-Record, North Carolina, September 9, 2009

It’s personal for Schwandt — but not just as a Tamil from Sri Lanka, a country she feels isn’t hers anymore. As an American.

“America is a symbol of freedom and justice,” she says with pride. “It’s a bigger brother who stands up for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

She’s right.

Manju Schwandt is a soft-spoken woman, but I finally received her message loud and clear: This is important. Pay attention.

For months, she’s been trying to raise my awareness about events in her native Sri Lanka, an island nation off the coast of India.

She’d send e-mails with links to online articles and reports detailing human-rights abuses in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, which ended this year with a brutal victory by the government over the “Tamil Tigers.” Then she’d call to ask if I’d seen what she’d sent.

It’s not that I was special. She’s also been contacting other journalists as well as politicians, and making connections with other human-rights activists on behalf of  the “Tamil diaspora.”

Schwandt, 44, is a Tamil, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. The government is controlled by the majority Sinhalese. Her family was driven from its home in 1983, she told me, when Sinhalese “thugs” prompted by the government launched an “ethnic pogrom.” She made her way to the United States in 1987, earned a college degree in computer programming, became a citizen. She’s married, a mother and operates a consulting business from her home in Jamestown — the American dream.

And for years, she tried to “pluck up the courage to speak out” about what was happening in Sri Lanka.

“Worry about the safety of our family and friends back home makes a lot of Tamil people afraid to speak up,” she said. But she couldn’t remain silent any longer.

Since the start of this year, when the remaining Tamil Tigers were pushed into a corner of northern Sri Lanka by a government offensive, 20,000 Tamil civilians have been killed, Schwandt says. Now, 300,000 live in muddy concentration camps without enough food. Thousands more are unaccounted for, with young men disappearing regularly. A video smuggled out of Sri Lanka shows summary executions of naked Tamil prisoners by soldiers.

The government is “trying to neutralize our next generation,” she says. “It’s a systematic, slow genocide.”

She rejects the terrorist label for Tamils, insisting “Tamils never harmed a single American. We embrace America.”

Meanwhile, China and Iran are major supporters of the Sri Lankan government.

The China connection links Sri Lanka to Sudan, the North African country waging a seven-year campaign of genocide against the people of its Darfur region. That’s the issue that called 19-year-old Frank Stiefel to political activism as a high school student in New Jersey.

Stiefel took a history elective course on the Holocaust and was horrified to learn that  mass killings were still taking place in the world.

“Being completely oblivious of Darfur blew my mind,” Stiefel told me. “Not only not being aware, but not doing anything to stop it.”

His teacher invited him to join STAND — Students Taking Action Now in Darfur. Through that organization, he met George Sworo, a refugee from Darfur attending the University of Pennsylvania. The two became friends, and Sworo’s story strengthened Stiefel’s commitment.

He started a STAND chapter at Elon University, where he’s now a sophomore. He’s brought speakers to campus, organized events, met with students at other local colleges, lobbied politicians and a couple of weeks ago wrote a column for this paper urging the Obama administration to step up pressure on the Sudan government. I ended up on his e-mail list, too.

For the past year, Americans have focused on the sour economy. This summer, the talk has been about health care reform.

When we think about international affairs, it’s usually about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All understandable.

But the world is bigger than U.S. problems. There are places where people aren’t sure of surviving from one day to the next, often because other people are trying to kill them.

I’m grateful for Schwandt, Stiefel and others who believe we can make a difference — if we get involved.

In a world where you can see atrocities on television, or connect to people on the scene via cell phone or Facebook, nowhere is too far away to see, hear or care about.

It’s personal for Schwandt — but not just as a Tamil from Sri Lanka, a country she feels isn’t hers anymore. As an American.

“America is a symbol of freedom and justice,” she says with pride. “It’s a bigger brother who stands up for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

She’s right. It’s just that sometimes, Americans need to be reminded of that. I did.

Thanks, Frank and Manju. Keep it up.