Four years ago on the 6th April, hundreds of British Tamils burst onto the streets of Westminster, outraged at the massacre of Tamils in the North-East. An unprecedented, global, mass mobilisation of the Tamils followed. The protesters’ demands were encapsulated within the slogan: “Stop Genocide. Free Tamil Eelam”. Four years on however, with the decimation of the Vanni, the military defeat of the Tamil armed resistance movement, and the on-going persecution of the Tamil people in the North-East, the absolute objective of the protesters evidently failed. Yet nonetheless the 2009 protests remain a milestone in the long Tamil struggle – a defining moment that seeded the next generation of Tamil activists.
The significance is not merely in the sheer numbers of those who came out onto the streets or that they returned day after day – many losing jobs and failing exams as a result – but that the protests dispelled long-standing attempts to negate the Eelam Tamil nation’s political identity, by arguing it was antithetically divided along age, class, caste, village, gender or homeland versus diaspora lines. The row of Tamil mothers blockading Westminster bridge with a line of pushchairs, the grandfather participating in a sit down protest, and the female university students shouting through loudspeakers, could no longer be dismissed as ‘radicalised’ angry young men.
The theory of a great crevice dividing the homeland and the diaspora also proved untenable. The diaspora displayed itself to be an ever-evolving transnational extension of the homeland that is defined by the oppression of the Sri Lankan state, be it through the entrenched state discrimination that resulted in the economic migrants of the 60s-70s or the violence that results in refugees right to the current day. Whilst economic stability, social foothold and the security of a non-Sri Lankan passport empowered the second generation Tamil youth to take a lead, the protests included a new first generation of Tamils, who had more recently sought asylum or come abroad in search of educational and employment opportunities not available in Sri Lanka. The case reports of torture in returned asylum seekers and Tamil students stand as distressing evidence of this. It is also often forgotten that as the days went by, many Tamils in the diaspora were protesting whilst mourning for the loss of immediate loved ones back home. Indeed, it is a macabre irony that as the violence escalated in 2009, it was the ‘disconnected’ diaspora that provided one of the most accurate reflections of life on the ground, and warnings of what was yet to come.
The 2009 protests broke out in the context of the proscription of the LTTE and associated arrests, and thus fighting the ‘terrorist’ slur became a pre-requisite to the right to protest. For years the majority’s political aspirations had been marginalised as ‘extremist’ by a cohort of international actors and vocal handful of Tamil ones. A palpable sense of fear prevailed, as the diaspora found itself criminalised as ‘terrorist sympathisers and fund-raisers’. Whilst the protesters’ demands were ignored, their unprecedented defiance, could not be. Despite persistent attempts by the police to arrest protesters with ‘terrorist paraphernalia’,‘Stop Genocide’ placards, t-shirts of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and a red-yellow sea of Tamil Eelam flags became the iconic images of the 2009 protests, and by extension, an uncensored illustration of Tamil political aspirations. It is a cogent point that for all the allegations of LTTE coercion and intimidation of the diaspora, the largest and most uninhibited display of Tamil nationalism came at a time when arguably the LTTE’s focus on diaspora activity was at its least.
What was long dismissed or vilified as ‘extremist ideology’, proved to be not only irrefutably ubiquitous but a rationale response to legitimate grievances. The nation had come together and its voice was clear: resistance in the face of genocide and the Eelam Tamil nation’s right to self determination – the same two threads that formed and remain the basis of the Tamil struggle today. As the anti-Tamil policies and the civil disobedience movement defined one generation, and the anti-Tamil pogroms and the emergence of armed resistance movements defined another, the new generation of activists – an increasingly well connected blend of Tamil youth living in the North-East, as well as first, second and third generation youth living abroad – is defined by 2009. As this generation comes to the fore, it is looking to the international community for justice, accountability, and a political solution that will ensure Tamils’ security. Four years on however, as Sri Lanka runs amok on the global stage and the structural genocide of the homeland continues, that new generation has seen little progress on either front, and their struggle continues.