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Tamil Diaspora: Difficulty and Dilemma

by a diaspora Tamil, April 30, 2011

The answer will depend on the wisdom and energy, the patience and persistence, of the diaspora, and of those within the Island. All, whether resident or abroad, have a part to play.

Since the decimation of the Tigers, many see the diaspora as the last and only hope of bringing justice to the Tamils, particularly since the “post-war policies of President Mahina Rajapakse have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained LTTE militancy”:  The International Crisis Group, Asia Report, No 186, 23rd February 2010.  It is a grave and daunting responsibility, and the diaspora must not – using the words of Nirmala Rajasingham - incubate ideas and plans “in a bubble”, having no relation to present realities and, one may add, heedless of repercussion and consequence where Tamils within the Island are concerned.

As is well-known, the word diaspora comes from the dispersal of the Jews: their removal to all the kingdoms of the earth (Deuteronomy 28:25. See, Appendix 2, below). It seems to me that while a phrase such as “immigrants” suggests an external view, that is, the host community seeing those who have come in, “diaspora community” connotes an internal perspective, in other words, the consciousness of the newcomers.

Be that as it may, is every Tamil living abroad a member of the Tamil diaspora? In a literal sense, yes, but what if a Tamil hasn’t any interest in or concern at all for Tamils, be these Tamils in Sri Lanka or abroad? S/he is then a member of the diaspora only in terms of statistics (and potential).  Of course, a diaspora Tamil, no less than others, has a multiple identity, identities that co-exist and need not, necessarily, be in conflict, though perhaps in competition: see, for example, ‘How did you become Sinhalese?’ in Charles Sarvan Public Writings on Sri Lanka.

It is now rare for an exile group to raise an army abroad, land in a country recognised as sovereign by the UN, and wage war. Nor (given the massive occupation of what once was, traditionally, Tamil territory) can an internally based group arm itself and carry out attacks. That leaves Tamils outside the Island with non-violent options. (Tamils within the Island too, but these are some thoughts on the diaspora.)  It seems to me that the diaspora can act in two ways:

Attempt directly to influence the attitude and conduct of the Sinhalese people and their government

Prevail upon other governments and peoples to influence this ‘behaviour’.

Taking the first, it is difficult to change the attitude and action of the present Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) government because of its (a) “racist” nature and (b) because suspicion of, and hostility towards, Tamils can be exploited to retain popular support and, thereby, power. So it is that, recently (March 2011), the government claimed there were Tiger training-camps in India. (The statement was withdrawn when India protested.) Though the Tigers as an armed group are now a matter of the past, the Tiger “bogey” is deliberately, and constantly, kept alive in the mind and imagination of the Sinhalese. Fear and insecurity breed cruelty. The evidence given by the Ven. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Sangha Nayake of America, before the Lessons Learned & Reconciliation Commission on 22 November 2010 was reported by the Sunday Island of 28 November 2010 under the caption ‘Sri Lanka: the beachhead for a Tamil Homeland.’ “Beachhead” is a word associated with war and attack. The dictionary defines beachhead as “a defended position on a beach taken from the enemy by landing forces, from which an attack can be launched” (emphasis added). Given the present plight of Tamils, it would be laughable to claim they planned such grandiose ventures – laughable, except that many take Ven. Piyananda’s claim (given prominence in English-language and Sinhala newspapers) quite seriously. Myths outlive facts, and ancient, historical, fears are difficult to allay: see Sarvan’s essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’ in Public Writings.  The stripping naked of the dead bodies of LTTE cadres, jeering and dancing round them; the desecration of graves, the treatment accorded the ashes of the mother of the LTTE leader, while pointing to a lack of culture are also evidence of intense, virulent, hatred. Not even the dead are safe.

What needs to be changed is both the mindset of the Sinhalese government and of the Sinhalese people. As Goldhagen writes in his Worse Than War, governments can change a people’s conception of the “other”, almost overnight. Yesterday’s enemy can be portrayed as today’s friend, and vice versa: history offers many examples. The diaspora must give thought to means and methods of bringing this about. For example, can a boycott of travel to Sri Lanka, and of Sri Lankan goods, be economically painful to such a degree that it brings about a change of mind – if not of heart? Few, whether they are Sri Lankan or non-Sri Lankan, will heed the boycott plea. While the impact of a boycott will be negligible, it will harden attitudes, and be used as justification for ill-treatment: Tamils are unpatriotic, and seek to harm the country.

(‘Internal’) Tamils, particularly those in the North and East, are hostages whose treatment will depend, to some extent, on the “behaviour” of the (‘external’) diaspora. For example, the cancellation by the Oxford Union of the invitation to President Rajapakse to address them is attributed to the efforts of the diaspora. It is thought anger at this success led to the Tamil version of the national anthem being banned. Whether this was coincidence or consequence, others are better placed to judge. The dilemma for the diaspora is how to act and yet not inflict further suffering on Tamils within the Island: they have suffered, and continue to be discriminated against and ill-treated.

The hope, if not with the Sinhalese government, must be with the Sinhalese people. There are admirable Sinhalese individuals and groups who speak out and work for equal rights and fair treatment, at great personal cost. (Since I cannot list them all, I don’t name any.) They do it on grounds of principle and a common humanity. They must be supported; their words and works publicised. Going back to multiple identities, there is common, shared, “space” and linking bridges. For example, Sinhalese and Tamil meet as Christians; as socialists, thinkers, and as creative artists (including here, writers). No positive change can be effected if the beliefs and attitudes of the Sinhalese masses are not changed. Further, justice is indivisible, be it on grounds of ethnicity, class or gender.  As Ahilan Kadirgamar of the of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum has pointed out, the Tamil call for justice must not be narrow and selfish but encompass other groups, such as the Upcountry Tamil and the Moslems.


Regarding the second (other governments and peoples), Sri Lanka and the Tamils are not high on the list of priorities. Further, what is overtly said and covertly done can be quite different. For instance, country A may publicly preach human and humane values; freedom, democracy and self-determination to B while doing business, for example, selling arms, to it. Diasporas “seldom make a government adopt a policy unless that policy is also in the national interest of the country.” (Ostergaard-Nielsen. Cited by Luxshi Vimalarajah and R. Cheran in Empowering Diasporas, Berghof Occasional Paper No. 31, Germany, 2010, p. 33. Emphasis added.) Here again one must differentiate between foreign governments on the one hand, and humanitarian groups and individuals in those country. Governments are most responsive (for electoral reasons) to plea and pressure from within their own country, and from their own citizens.

If foreign governments and groups show an active concern, it will not be on specific ethnic grounds (in this case, the treatment and plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka) but because it is one among several other instances of discrimination, persecution and injustice. Concern will be expressed, help given, not because we are Tamil but because we, as a group, are a part of humanity. For non-Tamils, it is not Tamil rights but human rights.

But there is no shortage of injustice in this world, and Tamil pleas for attention compete with several others. One role the diapora can play is to make sure that the plight of the Tamils is not forgotten by the international community.  And not only by others but by Tamils abroad: with the passage of time, the injustice and suffering of those in the Island becomes “normal” and natural, and to be endured. Besides, the problems and preoccupations of daily life demand attention, and “consume” the (limited) amount of interest, energy and time each individual member of the Tamil diaspora has.

Some Tamils wonder whether we are we witnessing the death of yet another people, in this case, the Tamils. The Burghers (Euro-Asians) of Sri Lanka, once a thriving and contented group, are now well on the way to extinction, and are written about in the past tense. Similarly, is it the end of the history of the Tamils of Sri Lanka? By “history” here is meant the shaping (to some degree at least) by a people themselves of developments that relate to them.  Where it does not end in assimilation and extinction, will the Tamils be reduced to eking an existence on the margins, such as the autochthonous elsewhere: the Aborigines of Australia, and the Native Americans? 

The answer will depend on the wisdom and energy, the patience and persistence, of the diaspora, and of those within the Island. All, whether resident or abroad, have a part to play. After the pogrom of 1983, there was much international sympathy and support but, gradually, as a result of the attitude and action of the “militants”, people - including Tamils - distanced themselves. (Ironically, Tamil freedom was the first fatality of the Tamil struggle for freedom.) There was moral distaste for the manner in which the armed struggle was being conducted. After “9 / 11”, distance and distaste turned to hostility. Now (April 2011), with the UN report and the realization that Tamils suffered a “Srebrenica massacre” far greater in numerical terms, there is again some international attention; a realization that Tamils have suffered grievous injustice; a recognition that justice and fair play demand a radical restructuring of the body politic.

The diaspora carries the greatest of burdens: the immediate present and the long-term future of an entire people.


Appendix 1: Colonisation

There are Sinhalese who challenge: “Tamils live all over the Island, so why shouldn’t we, the Sinhalese, move to (so-called) Tamil areas?” A few of the Sinhalese who speak on these lines are unthinking and naive but others are far from “innocent”.

The Tamils, what with the flight of thousands from the Paradise Isle, are now perhaps down to about 15% of the island – I don’t have the statistic. The majority of these live in the North and East. Therefore it follows that the number of Tamils in the “South” is very, very small.

However, those Sinhalese who are “racist” have the impression that Tamils have “taken over” certain areas in the South, particularly in Colombo, for example, Wellawatte. This is similar to the “racist” in the West who cries that people of colour (or Muslims) are swamping her or his country when, in fact, the percentage is in single figures. It is a reflection of the person’s prejudice, and not a statement of fact.

Secondly, Tamils in the South, because they are Tamil, quietly, unobtrusively, get on with their lives. Their presence has no impact on the Sinhalese-Buddhist way of life (culture). They talk either Tamil or English with each other but learn Sinhala, at least, sufficiently to get by on a daily basis.

Thirdly, Tamils did not move South under some government-sponsored scheme or encouragement.

On several grounds, Sinhalese moving into traditional Tamil areas is quite a different matter, the first of these being number. (I gather there are now more Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans.) Secondly, their behaviour is that of conquerors – superior, demanding, arrogant, insulting, indifferent to the feelings of Tamils, contemptuous of their language, religion and way of life. They will not pay their hosts the courtesy and compliment of learning Tamil: indeed, they will not see themselves as guests but as those who now live there by right of conquest, under the protection of “their” government and army.

Tamils living in the South only want to make a living, as successful a living as they can: they have no wish, and make no effort, to take over the area, to wipe out the way of life on their neighbours and replace it with theirs.

Given all this, one is compelled to conclude that those who ask the above rhetorical question are being disingenuous, specious, even cynically deceitful, and contemptuous in their pretended innocence of implication and long-term (destructive) consequence.

                                                Appendix 2: Jewish parallel

Some Tamils draw example from Jewish history: “The remnant shall return”. While the Jewish story may encourage, we must be aware of difference. To be a Jew is to belong to an ethnic group, and that includes religion. In other words, to say “Jew” is to signal at once both “race” and religion. But above all, what differentiated, and sustained the Jews was their religion; the belief that they were the “Chosen People” of God, and (2) that a certain territory, a geographic area, had been promised to them by Jehovah: “the promised land”.

I believe that what is essential for the preservation of ethnic identity is territory, a “space” identified with a people, a place where their culture, their way of life, predominates. But, in the absence of land, the Jews were sustained through the centuries by a belief unique to them, one that equated religion and “tribe”. It was as if (a) all Sri Lankan Tamils were Hindu and, even more significant, that (b) only Sri Lankan Tamils were Hindu in the whole world.

So while there are parallels from which one may draw inspiration, the situation is not identical. We must be aware of crucial difference and resulting difficulty.