Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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The Tamil Diaspora and the Future of the Tamil Struggle

by Nirmanusan Balasundaram, Groundviews, Colombo, February 18, 2011

Tamil people in Sri Lanka lost kith and kin, lost their livelihoods, and lost their hope for the future. What is left is an identity shaped by trauma and a situation of needless fatality.

This begs the question, what is the role of the Tamil Diaspora–who remain a voice of voiceless as they are connected to the kith and kin back home?

Today, the 18th of February, finds us three months away from the second anniversary of the “Mullivaikal Massacre”. At this juncture it is important to ask the question: What constructive action can be taken by the Tamil Diaspora to build a better future for the Tamil nation?

In Tamil culture, at a funeral, all the people of the village are expected to attend. It’s tradition. But if the whole village was a funeral house, who will go and to whose house?  Also, who will heal the existing souls?

This is not just a philosophical question, but an unavoidable reflection on the May 2009 humanitarian catastrophe, where 40,000 Tamils were massacred and nearly 60,000 were wounded. Nearly one in four Tamil people became direct victims of the Sri Lankan government’s offensive military operation. And today the survivors still suffer lingering effects of structural and cultural violence.

The disastrous events of May 2009, which were sold to the International Community as a “humanitarian rescue operation” by the Rajapakse regime, led to nearly 300,000 Tamil people being detained against their will in military run internment camps for almost a year.

Tamil people in Sri Lanka lost kith and kin, lost their livelihoods, and lost their hope for the future. What is left is an identity shaped by trauma and a situation of needless fatality.

This begs the question, what is the role of the Tamil Diaspora–who remain a voice of voiceless as they are connected to the kith and kin back home?

Until May of 2009, the Tamil Diaspora remained actively engaged, but after the “May Ashes,” their efforts have been limited and do not appear to be able to function in a sustainable manner in order to achieve long-term goals.

It is obvious after the tragedy, each community needs considerable time to recover and rebuild. At the same time, the Tamil Diaspora became the next priority target of Rajapakse regime after its military victory over the LTTE. Soon after the end of the war in May 2009, the GoSL adopted a full-scale operation to destroy or weaken the function and the network of the Tamil Diaspora. Presently, the GoSL is using its maximum resources to weaken the Tamil Diaspora and is spending millions of dollars for this purpose. They hired top-level public-relations firms. For instance, in the UK, Bill Pottinger is working to build up Sri Lanka’s image. This is the same organization that is working for the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged by International Criminal Court with alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Tamil Diaspora is not as well equipped to face the challenges, as there are sharp divisions within the community. The transformation from a unipolar front to multipolar approach is worthwhile, if misunderstandings are sorted out through peaceful dialogue. Otherwise, it may end up in a disaster. Swift action without a realization of the implications of these actions creates more misunderstandings among any community. The Tamil Diaspora is a recent example of it.  Compared to other Diaspora communities, the Tamil Diaspora has re-awakened relatively soon and has productively engaged in certain activities. However there are still setbacks which need to be overcome before applying any strong initiative in the future.

In order to properly move forward the Diaspora need to deal with following issues.

Collective mourning – to work on deep emotional feelings

The May 2009 tragedy is still a shock to the Tamil Diaspora. It was something so unbelievable, that still today the Diaspora does not know how to deal with it. For months everybody was checking news on the internet, TV and radio every minute, was following the events on the screens, the phones, saw and heard the bombings and killings, and had to realize that the rest of the world did not care. The Diaspora experienced the war as a virtual reality. Is it therefore, that they haven’t gathered for collective mourning in the same way that they gathered for other remembrance days. Denial of emotion is a disaster and an impediment to a better future. On the ground, the Tamil people cannot commemorate the loss of their kith and kin as they faced intimidation by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Also, their atmosphere and attitude is desperate as they are living under severe oppression for a long time.

However, the Tamil Diaspora has the environment to commemorate it. Mourning is part of humanity and a long tradition and deep rooted aspect of Tamil culture.  Tamils shared their sorrow and showed their sympathy when it was needed, but in this particular situation they have not done it so far. At the same time, they are considered the voice of voiceless of the oppressed Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Suppressing emotions may lead to frustration and has the potential to end up in a lack of productivity. This is also a reason why the Tamil people always give paramount importance to funerals, especially when the older generation cries together for the first few days – particularly on the burial day. This tradition still continues at the individual level and needs to be followed for those 40,000 people collectively as well.  To honor and remember the lost ones is a healing sort of mourning, which the Tamil Diaspora should do in great degree. Tamil tradition and culture shows how and why it’s important for recovery and re-emergence.

Brainstorming and reflection with constructive self-critique of the past, present and future

There is a time to fight, a time to rest, and a time to rethink and reflect. Like collective mourning, this has also not taken place. It is a crucial step that will decide the future of the Tamil people.  In this stage, to have a constructive self-critique of  the past successes, deadlocks and failures would be helpful to identify, how successes were brought about, why deadlocks could not be overcome, how and why the Tamil people in Sri Lanka faced failure. We should also think about the present, while connecting it with the past and future. We must also, be pragmatic, when dealing with the past and build smart strategies for the future. There is a need to build concrete and different scenarios, while learning lessons from the past—and at the same time—to be pragmatic, radically honest and comprehensive.

A Tamil reflection needs comprehensive discussions and a constructive dialogue concerning its goals. It should consider possible solutions and what Tamils really want. It can be an analysis of common political perspectives and personal needs.  It should be a realistic assessment based on the ground realities, even though there may be a contradiction between short-term personal emotions and long-term perspectives on sustainable political goals. It might lead to some disputes, but these disputes should not be avoided, but constructively dealt with. A self-critical reflection process demands for looking at our weaknesses, which can be frightening in the face of a much more powerful opponent. But if Tamils are to avoid the same mistakes in the future, it is needed. And what might be perceived as weakness in the short-term, it is a long-term precondition for strength and magnitude. Recognizing mistakes requires more courage, commitment, hard work and dedication than merely blaming others. Such a process can provide Tamils the necessary building blocks for future achievement and growth.

Understanding the Reality, Cognitive Actions and the Way Forward

The successive governments of Sri Lanka targeted the LTTE while talking about peace. Now the Rajapaksa Regime is targeting the Tamil Diaspora, in order to destroy them, at the same time talking about reconciliation. At present the Tamil Diaspora is the only challenging factor to the government. Otherwise, the Rajapakse regiments would not need to spend $4.7 million to build up its post-war image and hide mass atrocities. Apart from this, their diplomatic missions are carrying out special assignments at a high cost to weaken the Tamil Diaspora’s peaceful resistance activities.  Most of these activities function with the aim of weakening the Tamil Diaspora.

The Tamil Diaspora has become a focal point as the LTTE’s armed structure is no more. Therefore, the Tamil Diaspora must understand their external and internal challenges, limitations and strengths. In particular, internal contradictions are not dealt with in a constructive way. A critical self-reflection process might lead the Tamil Diaspora to a new understanding and concept of unity, not a monolithic concept of unity, but a unity, which is achieved by coordinated diversity, and in which different roles and functions are carried out in autonomous and non-hierarchic structures.

It is obvious that the present dynastic government is more powerful than any of the previous governments in Sri Lanka. But this does not mean they will yield this kind of power forever. There was a time for Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic and so on. Their rule eventually ended. Hopefully a similar end would befall the current regime in Sri Lanka as well. Tunisia and Egypt are very recent examples that undemocratic rulers and bad governance cannot be sustained indefinitely. This will not happen by accident, but will depend on the hard work of the people – those  who really want to restore democracy and stability in Sri Lanka, and who want to contribute towards global peace. Those who want to regain their rights and sovereignty need to do the appropriate homework and adequate preparation.

In this process, the Tamil Diaspora can play a crucial role. In a way it’s an opportunity for them to play a constructive role, if they consider the above mentioned points. The present circumstances are a challenge at the current time, but if they work hard with a clear goal, but it is not an obstacle that cannot be overcome. The events in Egypt proved this possible.

Engagement with the International Community should not be limited to war crimes and crimes against humanity issues only. While it is vital to seek justice, the Diaspora needs to realize that this is a mid-term goal. Long and short term goals need to be pursued as well. The long-term goal has to remain to find and achieve a political sustainable solution for the Tamil people, especially for the people in Sri Lanka. The short-term goal is the humanitarian and developmental support of the Tamils in Sri Lanka thorough genuine channels. All three goals needs different strategies and can be pursued by different Diaspora organizations.

In conclusion, the Tamil Diaspora should respect each other’s opinions and appreciate what everybody can contribute to fulfill the needs of the Tamil people, so their rights, sovereignty and dignity can be regained. Prof. Abraham Maslow once said, “If I were dropped out of a plane into the ocean and told the nearest land was a thousand miles away, I’d still swim.  And I’d despise the one who gave up.”  Like this, the Tamil Diaspora also has to fight for this struggle constructively until it reaches fruition.


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