The Sri Lankan government’s proscription last week of 15 Tamil diaspora organisations and over 400 individuals was a brazen attempt to instill fear into the Tamil people. Over and beyond those specifically named or officially affiliated to the organisations, given the organisations’ mass membership, the proscription criminalises a quarter of the Eelam Tamil population, and all Tamils living on the island who engage with them. It is the mass banning of Tamil civil society. Sri Lanka’s broad definition of ‘terrorism’, including those demanding Tamil political rights and those that criticise human rights abuses by the state, effectively encompasses any threat to Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Any remaining faint hopes of reconciliation, are made even more unlikely. Ultimately and entirely in keeping with the Sri Lankan state’s overarching and long-standing project of consolidating its hegemony, the proscription – ironically only made significant by virtue of the nation’s very inextricable connectedness – is an attempt to dismantle the Tamil nation and thereby seek to extinguish the nation’s political aspirations.
Days after an international inquiry was secure at the UN Human Rights Council, the proscription is both a reactionary retaliation at the international community and punishment of the Tamil groups for their prominent role. It is, however, also a deliberate attempt to stop the outflow of information regarding on-going atrocities in the Tamil areas, to the international community via diaspora networks, precisely at a time when it is critical. Indeed in 2009, as the mass civilian slaughter ensued, it was the diaspora, not international bodies such as the UN, that provided the most accurate portrayal of events on the ground. It is no coincidence the proscription comes at a time of escalating and intensifying military repression of the Tamil people in the North-East through on-going abuses, large scale search operations and mass arrests. Restrictions not seen since the end of the conflict are once again being imposed on the Tamil population such as fishermen requiring permission from the security forces to go out to sea.
Given the Sri Lankan government’s categorical refusal to cooperate with the upcoming investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the proscription is undoubtedly calculated to disrupt and de-legitimise efforts to obtain evidence from the ground via diaspora networks, and record witness testimonies from Tamils who having sought asylum abroad since 2009, who are now themselves ‘diaspora’. In addition to the obvious threat of arrest and freezing of assets, the publishing of home addresses, disturbingly reminiscent of the electoral lists carried by Sinhala mobs during the pogrom of 1983, is an incitement to violence, not only on the island, but around the world. It is thus imperative that the international community ensure the immediate security of, not only Tamil political figures who have engaged closely with the now banned organisations, but also witnesses to Sri Lanka’s atrocities. The continued deportation of Tamil asylum seekers meanwhile, is now without question particularly irresponsible. The longer term focus must however be on urging the abolition of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and create political space in the North-East through immediate demilitarisation.
Effectively criminalising any political engagement between Tamils in the homeland and diaspora, the proscription is aimed not only at curtailing public events such as conferences and fund raising activities, but insidiously de-constructing the powerful network of Tamil political activists. The overarching goal of the proscription is to sever the nation, and in doing so, undermine its collective resolve and strength to work towards fulfilling its political aspirations. The intended exclusion of the diaspora by the Sri Lankan government from any dialogue on a political solution to the ethnic conflict is to ensure that the expression of these aspirations is kept within the confines of its draconian legislation – the Sixth Amendment and the PTA, which criminalise the very legitimate desire, shared by peoples the world over, for independence. That some Tamil representatives have responded to the proscription by retorting not all of the banned organisations advocate for an independent state of Tamil Eelam, displays a disappointing level of short-sightedness.
It is wryly apt that the proscription of the key diaspora groups comes almost five years to the day that tens of thousands of Tamils in the UK, outraged by the escalating slaughter of Tamils, blockaded Parliament Square and demanded international action. The protest, which continued for an unprecedented 72 days, triggered identical protests in capital cities across the world. At that moment, though not immediately apparent, the Tamil struggle for freedom became internationalised in a way it had not been previously, and the diaspora’s role became central. The government’s current attack on the diaspora therefore, particularly given its history of systematic, criminalisation of Tamil resistance to oppression even through non-violent means, comes as little surprise. Indeed this latest act of Sri Lankan state terror, is only unprecedented in its envisioned cross-border reach. Equally unsurprising meanwhile, is the immediate and unanimous resolve expressed by diaspora groups to resist. Tamils in the diaspora have vowed to continue the fight against Sri Lankan oppression, with outrage over the proscription fueling renewed vigour. The struggle continues.
|Illustration by Keera Ratnam|