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Tamil activism and the international community’s responsibility to protect

As Sri Lanka’s violent repression of Tamil civil society intensifies, the international community must clearly and unequivocally extend concern, protection and legitimacy to all Tamil activists – including those who demand self determination.

Recent reports from Sri Lanka make disturbing reading for those familiar with the country’s history and its pattern of silencing Tamil political figures and activists. Last week Sri Lanka’s Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) summoned Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, leader of the TNPF for interrogation. This is undoubtedly connected to his outspokenness over recent clashes between security forces and students in Jaffna. Jaffna University students’ peaceful attempts to observe Tamil National Remembrance Day in November led to a violent and ongoing crackdown by the security forces. Scores of students have been arrested by the military and sent for 'rehabilitation'. Another TNPF figure, Gajendran Selvarajah, and TNA MP Saravana Bhavan who have also been outspoken over the crackdown and have been branded in leaflets circulated in southern universities as alleged leaders of a ‘Pro-LTTE & TNA/TNPF Network in Jaffna University.’

Although Sri Lanka proclaimed the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, it continues to deploy the ‘terrorist’ label to criminalise all Tamil political activism. The state’s ‘war on terror’ targets any individual or organisation, whether on the island or abroad, daring to challenge the government’s line. Recently the TID detained Jaffna physician Dr. Sivashankar. His crime is to have sought the release of a Tamil woman forcibly recruited by the Sri Lankan military. The Sri Lankan state uses the spectre of terrorism to malign, intimidate and silence Tamil civil society as a whole. Crucially, however, it has been encouraged by the international community’s history of silence and apparent lack of concern over attacks on figures associated with the demand for Tamil self determination.

Kumar Ponnambalam, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s father and then leader of the ACTC, the oldest Tamil political party, was also an outspoken advocate of Tamil self-determination. In January 1999 he was summoned for interrogation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and assassinated a year later. A few days before his murder he had written an open letter to the then President Chandrika Kumaratunge, criticizing her policies. Joseph Pararajasingham, MP for Batticaloa, another high profile advocate of Tamil national rights, was gunned down by Sri Lankan paramilitaries at Christmas mass in 2005, days after her successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took office.

The Sri Lankan state has always met Tamil critics and non-violent resistance with murderous violence. And Sri Lanka’s attacks are not restricted to its shores. In November a senior Tamil activist, Mathinthiran Nadarajah, was shot and killed in Paris. The assassination of a Diaspora figure was clearly intended to silence and intimidate global Tamil activism. Such brazen attacks repeatedly sent a clear message: there will be no place of safety for those who dare to stand up for Tamil rights.

The international community’s unwillingness to recognise and engage with Tamil demands for self rule have only served Sri Lanka’s agenda of repression, and its history of toleration has facilitated the continuation of state attacks on Tamil activists. For too long the international community has worked with the fiction that successive Sinhala leaders were willing to transform Sri Lanka from a violently repressive ethnocracy into an inclusive liberal democracy. Thus Tamil voices who peacefully advocated Tamil self determination were characterised as ‘extremists’ and marginalised by the international community. Three years after the end of the war, it should be clear that these policies have failed.

Amidst Sri Lanka's accelerating violent campaign against Tamil civil society, international actors and institutions must clearly and unequivocally extend their concern, protection and recognition to all Tamil activists – including those who demand self determination. In doing so the international community must also make clear that it will no longer acquiese to the Mahavamsa based principles of ethnic hierarchy that have underpinned Sri Lanka’s governance for the past sixty years.

In the absence of meaningful international action, Tamil voices challenging the Sinhala order will continue to be violently targetted. Meanwhile, the parallels between the current dynamics and those of the 1970s, when the futility of non-violent Tamil resistance paved the way for armed movements, are clear. The international community must act decisively if it is to convince both the Tamils and the Sinhala state that the island’s future will not be like its past.