The attack on Tamil ‘Boycott Sri Lankan Cricket’ campaigners by Sri Lankan cricket fans at the Oval on June 17th was truly shocking. What began as Sri Lankan fans shouting and spitting at activists, swelled into anti-Tamil taunting followed by physical assaults, where Tamil activists were punched and kicked by a mob. This attack was not alcohol fuelled sporting hooliganism; nor was it pro-government Sri Lankans attacking anti-government activists - as the attackers’ taunting made clear, the activists were targeted solely because of their Eelam Tamil identity, not for their campaigning. The attack was racially motivated violence by ordinary Sri Lankans against Eelam Tamils on the streets of London.
The presence of British police was undoubtedly central to curtailing the mob’s attack. Nonetheless, it is deeply concerning that racist hostility was allowed to escalate into physical attacks. Video footage bears testament to the inadequacy of the police response, which left a greatly outnumbered handful of Tamils to protect themselves. Sadly, this failure to protect reinforces the prevailing Tamil assertion that the Eelam Tamil nation will never be safe, till it can protect itself. Although the resultant Tamil outrage was understandable, reports of reprisal attacks and ‘revenge’ calls by Tamil mobsters are abhorrent. Mindless, racist, reactionary vigilantism has no place in the Tamil resistance against Sri Lankan oppression. By contrast, the defiant but dignified response of the assaulted Tamil activists, who continued their campaign whilst insisting on calm and condemning ‘revenge’ violence, together with other notable Tamil community voices, was admirable. It is crucial however that the British Tamil community’s denunciation of ‘revenge’ is not undermined by the police’s failure to bring those responsible to justice.
Every nation has chauvinists. To define a nation on its bad apples would be unjust, yet how a nation responds to its chauvinists, is defining. Quite apart from the entirely predictable attempts by the Sri Lankan ministers and Sinhala press, to justify and even legitimise the attack, by criminalising the Tamils as ‘terrorists’, the response by the wider Sinhala public is alarming. As the attack unfolded hoards of Sri Lankan cricket fans cheered, chanting “we won the war”. Meanwhile, the video of the attack has prompted a barrage of anti-Tamil hate speech as well as congratulatory messages across social media networks. Crucially, the failure of Sri Lankan cricket players to condemn the racist actions of their fans is indefensible. Though the captain was compelled in an interview to concede the violence was “unfortunate”, the team’s spokesperson reportedly asserted that Tamils had got the medicine they deserved - an endorsement that is tantamount to the incitement of further violence. It is wryly apt that nothing so tangibly demonstrates why Tamil activists call on the UK to boycott Sri Lankan cricket, than the Sri Lankan response to this incident.
Contrary to the rhetoric spouted by ministers and numerous cricket players acting as country ambassadors, the incident exposes the fallacy of an inclusive ‘Sri Lankan’ identity. In Sri Lanka, anyone of any ethnicity can be embraced as ‘Sri Lankan’ if they accept (and dare not challenge) the supremacy of Sinhala Buddhism across the entirety of the island. Thus, any talented Tamil who abides by this, will be lauded as a national figure; but any Tamil who dares challenge it, however peacefully, becomes a legitimate target of the state. Sinhala mobs attacking Tamils who call for independence – a desire shared by other nations across the world, including Scotland – thereby becomes not only understandable, or justifiable, but commendable. That parts of the international press and NGOs effectively endorse this disturbing logic, by advocating to peaceful Tamil protesters to avoid holding Tamil Eelam flags, is deplorable.
The Oval incident was shocking, but not surprising. The attack was merely an extension of the ethnic conflict on the island: a Tamil attempt to peacefully resist the oppression and genocide of the nation in the North-East, is met with violence by state forces or Sinhala mobs. Just as the prevailing Sinhala response is once again indifference or even triumphalism, the Tamil response is defiance and a renewed resolve to resist. Indeed, Tamil youths who arrived at the Oval as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ wanting to support their cricket team, left as Eelam Tamils wanting to support the boycott activists. Ultimately, the incident underscores the very basis of the Tamil call for independence, that amidst Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony, the Tamil nation’s security cannot be guaranteed. Thus the enduring dynamic central to the ethnic conflict, of oppression and Tamil resistance against it, lives on.