Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Why Many Tamils in the Diaspora Continued to Support the LTTE

by Charles Ponnuthurai  Sarvan, May 15, 2011

So a possible one-word answer to the question, “Why were many in the Diaspora purblind and deaf, silent and inactive, in the face of Tiger errors and crimes?” Could it be ‘desperation’ — tragic and fatal desperation? They believed in and supported the Tigers because, in the light and experience (both in individual and collective terms) of history since Independence in 1948, they saw no other alternative. There had grown, over years of repeated failure and disappointment, of unleashed mob and state terrorism, the desperate need to believe in a deus ex machina, in a much needed, longed for and long awaited saviour who would lead Tamils to freedom, equality and dignity. Tiger tyranny would, in turn, be combated and dismantled once this ‘promised land’ had been reached, and the ‘dream’ made reality.

It is unfortunate that the UN Report on human rights violations during the close of the Eelam war (not to mention other writers and commentators) speaks loosely of “the” Tamil Diaspora. For a start, a recent document wondered whether every Tamil living abroad was 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? She/he is then a member of the Diaspora only in terms of statistics.”

Further, Diaspora Tamils, like those within the island, differed and differ. Some supported, while others counteracted, tried to modify or opposed — paying the price in one form or another.

Therefore, to write that ‘the’ Tamil Diaspora uncritically supported the Tigers, disregarding their brutality and political folly, indicates a Diaspora homogeneity that didn’t (and doesn’t) exist. It blurs difference and makes no distinction. I suppose the phrase is convenient shorthand, an easy-to-stick-on label.

It’s a fact, as the Report states, that many in the Tamil Diaspora continued to support the Tigers despite the latter’s grave political mistakes and miscalculation; despite dictatorial attitude and conduct; despite great crimes (a secular, ethical, term) and sins (from a religious perspective).

But I think one should go further, probe this fact and ask: “Why?” Is it that those members of the Diaspora were stupid? Or were they, by nature, addicted to violence and cruelty? Or was it a mixture of both? Such answers would furnish an easy explanation and bring closure, but they would also be inadequate.

I think Tamils who ‘stubbornly’ supported the Tigers did so because they desperately needed to believe in them. As often, we, human beings, believe what we wish or want, need or like, to believe. But this raises the further question: Why did they desperately need to believe in and support the Tigers? Something of an answer is there in the essay, Reign Of Anomy, first published in 2007, and included in my anthology, Public Writings On Sri Lanka.

To understand the present, one must remember the past. M. R. Narayan Swamy (no friend of the Tigers!) wrote that Tamil leaders over the years virtually begged and cajoled for concessions, but successive Sinhalese governments turned them down: (Public Writings On Sri Lanka page 213.) Speeches in parliament by Senator Nadesan – models of incisiveness and clarity; eloquent oratory by G. G. Ponnambalam, eminently reasoned argument by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, all asking for inclusion and equality were of no avail, while a satyagraha outside parliament was met with state-orchestrated, encouraged and incited, violence and terror, culminating in the pogrom of July 1983: a shameful blot on Sri Lanka’s history.

The Tamil separatist wish was a last resort. After all, as Professor K. M. De Silva observes, when in 1925-6, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (see, Public Writings On Sri Lanka page 217). In 1952, Mr. Chelvanayagam contested the Kankesanthurai parliamentary seat as a member of the Federal Party, and was defeated by a UNP candidate (Public Writings On Sri Lanka, page 218).

The thinking of some in the Diaspora was, if despite democratic plea and protest within the parliamentary system; if despite non-violent boycott and satyagraha; if despite the armed struggle by the Tigers, there was unwillingness to grant equality, would it be given when the Tamils were defenceless?

The Asian Times of January 11, 2005 stated: “Without the protective role of the LTTE, the Tamils would be at the mercy of the Sinhalese chauvinists”: see, Public Writings On Sri Lanka pages 239-240. (Some would say that, sadly, action after the total annihilation of the Tigers proves this prediction to be right. Others, Tamils included, would say Tamils needed protection also from the Tigers. Be that as it may, as ever, the greatest suffering was, and is, visited on poor innocent civilians; on children, women and men.)

So a possible one-word answer to the question, “Why were many in the Diaspora purblind and deaf, silent and inactive, in the face of Tiger errors and crimes?” Could it be ‘desperation’ — tragic and fatal desperation? They believed in and supported the Tigers because, in the light and experience (both in individual and collective terms) of history since Independence in 1948, they saw no other alternative. There had grown, over years of repeated failure and disappointment, of unleashed mob and state terrorism, the desperate need to believe in a deus ex machina, in a much needed, longed for and long awaited saviour who would lead Tamils to freedom, equality and dignity. Tiger tyranny would, in turn, be combated and dismantled once this ‘promised land’ had been reached, and the ‘dream’ made reality.

Replying to a reader who complained that he had avoided a full explanation of his protagonist’s motives, Anton Chekhov wrote that only fools and frauds claim to know the whole truth. In other words, truth is contradictory and complex, manifold and elusive. A part, or parts, must not be mistaken for the whole.

Mindful of this, I offer the above explanation (of the desperate need to believe in and support) not as an assertion but as something to be considered, reflected upon and, perhaps, discussed.

Secondly, it is but one possible strand out of a complex of factors. For example, what part did unease, if not a feeling of guilt, play in the reaction of some Diaspora Tamils? Something on the lines of: “I’ve escaped and am now safe in an economically developed, politically stable and, by and large, a socially decent country (be it Canada, the US, Europe or Australia) while other Tamils back in what was once also my home, suffer in various ways. I must help”.

Thirdly, the explanation proffered does not apply to all in the Diaspora who ‘stubbornly’ supported the Tigers, admitting no fault or failure on the latter’s part: there were, and are, different individuals and groups with differing impulse and motivation.

Fourthly, as I say in Reign Of Anomy, to understand is not necessarily to excuse or exculpate. Those of the Diaspora who heedlessly supported the Tigers must carry their share of the heavy burden of responsibility in true existential spirit — not only for their attitude and action but also for their silence and inaction — and for their consequence.

Finally, we will never know whether the withholding of help by the Diaspora would have had any appreciable influence on the thought and conduct of the LTTE leader and, therefore, on history. Like other dictators, he was not renowned for being open to discussion or for being amenable to advice: as in Greek tragedy, “character is fate”.

(With thanks to Liebetraut for her disagreement and strictures)