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All for one and one for all

For the past few months, people across Sri Lanka’s Northeast have been attending a series of rallies under the ‘Tamil Resurgence’ slogan. A number of smaller events – and one major event in Brussels – have taken place in Diaspora centres also. Since July, major rallies have been held in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee. The last district with a significant Tamil population, Amparai will hold its event this month.

There are common themes to the rallies, outlined in the first of the present series, held in Vavuniya in July. The participants demanded that “occupying Sinhala forces must vacate Tamil land and sea areas with immediate effect” and proclaimed that “an environment must be created to enable us to decide our destiny.” They asserted: “our people are continuing to rise as a force to procure the goal of a sacred and higher life of freedom”. Participants called on the international community to recognise their “basic rights to a life of freedom with peace” on the basis of their traditional homeland, nationhood and right to self-rule.

Inevitably, some have dismissed these mass rallies as charades organised by the Liberation Tigers. They argue that the LTTE’s hegemonic presence in the Northeast leaves no room for civil political activity that is not influenced to a great degree by the LTTE. While it is true that the LTTE has significant sway in the Northeast, it is too simplistic to just ignore expressions of civil opinion on this basis. While the LTTE was undoubtedly in the background of the Resurgence rallies, the crowds were not mere rent-a-mobs or threatened into attending. Indeed, among the organising structures were prominent civil groups, including student bodies and community organisations and their attendant networks.

On past occasions – during the ‘Pongu Thamil’ rallies, for example – some Sinhala newspapers dismissed those participating as doing so under duress. But the sheer number of attendees brings suggestions of force into question. Furthermore, counter-coercion by Sri Lankan security forces and army-backed paramilitaries is also very real – indeed, grenade attacks on organisers and harassment by troops of civilians travelling to the rallies have occurred frequently in the past weeks.

And the issue of coercion definitely does not apply to the Diaspora events, where expatriate Tamils also turned out in significant numbers to back calls for self-determination - the only ‘coercion’ at play here is that by the governments of the host states in which they reside, underlined most forcefully by bans on supporting the LTTE, for example.

Given Sri Lanka’s political dynamics, where issues of Tamil self-determination or collective rights cannot be discussed without triggering a violent reaction from the Sinhala polity, for many people these gatherings are the only practical means by which to express their sentiments (apart from the elections in which they backed the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance). Indeed, it is not only the ‘core’ political issues but day-to-day frustrations stemming from slow resettlement, the lack of rehabilitation aid and so on, that have driven participation.

But then there is a question as to whether the gatherings will have the desired effect?

While the call at all the proceedings was for action by the international community, there has been complete silence in response. Either the international community is not listening or is not prepared to address the demands being made on it. The attitude is reflected in the non-Tamil press’s coverage: the first few events were ignored, and while the sheer scale and magnitude have prompted limited coverage of recent ones, it was dismissive and cynical.

Even if the Resurgence events are being monitored by the international community, this is not say foreign governments either care or are prepared to consider the demands. The call of the first Pongu Thamil event four years ago was for the withdrawal of Sinhala troops from Tamil population centres and recognition of the Tamil right to self-determination. The same calls are still being made. Nothing has changed in the intervening years to suggest that the international community is now more willing to act.

This inevitably leads to the suggestion that those participating in the rallies are living in a fool’s paradise. Why, as some have mockingly asked, do the Tamils continue to engage in these futile mobilisations when the reaction is uncompromisingly indifferent?

But perhaps it is not that the Tamil people expect the international community to actually respond to their call. Perhaps the rallies can be viewed as having achieved their objective simply by being held.

Local factors arguably drove participation at each event – be it the humanitarian needs of those on the ground, or the political constraints of those in the Diaspora. But the sense of community engendered as a result of the rally series transcends the value of each event on its own. People in Trincomalee might have been seeking resettlement and those in Brussels might have been trying to ward off punitive measures by their governments. The point is they did so as part of the wider Tamil body politic.

The series of events taking place in every corner of the Tamil homeland and the Diaspora have contributed to the sense of a united community with one aim. Divided by geography but united by purpose. Diaspora Tamils are linked to ‘the ground’ while Tamils of the Northeast see their brethren abroad rising in support. As a result, the series as a whole has become the manifest expression of the Tamil national body. In this way, large numbers of people come to participate in their locality, in a national project.

Both the sentiments expressed (the call for liberation of the Tamil lands) and the trappings (flags, anthems, silence, speeches) have served to reinforce the connection across the distances. It is in this process that the indifference of the international community and the non-Tamil press becomes a contributing factor. The common feeling of being isolated and ignored wherever we are protesting serves to unite us, forging even stronger ties of a distinct identity through a shared sense of alienation and neglect. The international community, both as the target of our various appeals and by impassively ignoring us, contributes to our national identity.

This resulting reinforced sense of unity thus makes these events a success for the Tamil national struggle, irrespective of the response or otherwise of the international community. They suffice, therefore, as an expression of Tamil solidarity and a reaffirmation of intent to stand together as the only reliable support the Tamil people have known – each other. In this way, the rallies are a critical part of the Tamil nation building project.