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Beginning of an Era: Tamil Occupation of Parliament Square

Article Author: 

"Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Tamil Occupation of Parliament Square in protest against the actions (or lack of any action) of the Sri Lankan government, the UK government and other key international actors at the time."

Check out full blog post by JP here. Extract reproduced below:

"Today for me is a day to be celebrated. It marks the coming of age for not only me but a whole generation of Tamil activists. It is a testament to the power of collective action, creating a voice in the public space for the previously voiceless, opening up dialogue and raising awareness.  For me, it honours the unity of a community that had previously stood isolated and what the force of that unity can achieve. It was the beginning of a new era, although we did not entirely know it then. It set in motion of wheels for a new political age for the liberation struggle for Tamils in Sri Lanka. Although many believe it was a wasted effort, and certainly what followed soon after was definitely not something to be celebrated- the death of at least 40,000 Tamils by conservative estimates, the protest in itself is.

The occupation lasted from April 6th 2009 until June 17th 2009- a total of 72 days despite numerous attempts by the police, various MPs and Westminster City Council, amongst others, to move us on. Led entirely by the youth and replicated pretty soon with mass protests in other countries with large Tamil Diaspora populations, it was certainly a phenomenon. One that in our haste and excitement and inexperience we did not document near as well as we should have done- yet that is remediable.

Most of us who populated Parliament Square for those 72 days were not seasoned activists- we were young and perhaps largely apathetic to general politics. We had some aims which in retrospect appear a bit unrealistic, somewhat vague and not very well thought out. If my memory serves me right, someone wrote it down on a spare bit of paper on the first night very quickly and how they eventually crystallised into “the aims” remains a bit of a mystery. We certainly did not have a strategy- it was all a bit play it by the ear. We had Facebook- the age of Twitter had not yet dawned. And we had a lot of anger. We also had a lot of hope- perhaps the most dangerous element. Anger can be spent quite rapidly- hope has a habit of living on.

The occupation itself clearly did not rapidly die out. Perhaps the reason for this lay in its nature- it was definitely not just a passive sit-in. It was dynamic and fluid and characterised by a wide range of innovative, anger-fuelled actions. Yes, we slept in Parliament Square all night with the beating of drums and chants to accompany us. We would wake up in the day and organise, talk to media, talk to politicians and generally agitate. But there was more.

There were roadblocks, including an overspill onto Westminster Bridge the very first day. Starting at 3pm, we were able to secure the bridge and stay until around 7am the next day when we were brutally beaten off by riot police and kettled into Parliament Square, where we were to remain. There were numerous roadblocks since that point in time, normally fuelled by anger and desperation as news from Vanni filtered in- there had been a phosphorus attack, there has been a report of an artillery attack on a makeshift hospital and other reports of a similar nature.

There were hunger strikes, some longer than others and some garnering more media attention than others.
On the first night a fellow student jumped off Westminster Bridge in desperation. When I tell some people this now, they find it funny. What was his purpose they ask? Did he think he would really die? I don’t know about his purpose. I don’t know if even he knew what his purpose was. What I do know is that even I did things at that time that were not led by strategic concerns or an identifiable purpose. Many people did. This was a movement first spurred by emotion and by urgency and only later morphing into an organised campaign.

And I know he definitely thought he was going to die. While manning the lines that night (there were 3 vital points we could be attacked by the police from- we had to ensure a steady stream of young fit men and women were holding these lines against the police at all times) – I remember standing at the one closest to the river, when the aforementioned student remarked to another friend “Look after my family” (presumably in the event of his death) and ran so fast and jumped so quickly that even the riot police were not fast enough to catch him. [Luckily, a boat below was to pick him up out of the water. After a very brief stint in hospital to check he hadn’t contracted any illnesses, he was declared completely healthy and discharged.]

People were arrested- even on that first night, and many more over the course of the campaign.  Many were injured, mostly at the other end of a police baton. And people went on to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things. A rather large group went and handed themselves into the police claiming they were members of the LTTE (they were not. I don’t even believe the police knew what to do with them). There was a “balloon protest” where huge balloons with various slogans were floated into the sky. There was a day set aside for small school children to boycott school for the day and come and stand in solidarity with those of their age who were dying back home. There were meetings. And many of them. With MPs, with David Milliband, with various party political and non-party political figures. There was media. Everywhere. Which is strange because prior to taking such drastic steps, no one appeared to be interested.

There was a lot of hand wringing and soul searching about identity. It was clear that the vast majority of us, at that protest anyway, could not identify with not only the Sri Lankan government, but the entity of Sri Lanka as a whole anymore. We had rejected them like they had rejected us, our culture and our politics. Many people criticised the waving of LTTE flags at the occupation- and at consequent Tamil protests since. Whatever the merits of what people perceive as the flag of the LTTE- it is actually supposed to represent the nation of Tamil Eelam and not the organisation LTTE- that deserves another post altogether, the presence of so many flags (which no one tried to police apart from the police themselves- this being a spontaneous, grassroots led protest with no enforced hierarchy) showed to me, the rejection of the Sri Lankan state and identity itself.

For me personally, the identity crisis went beyond that. Having been born and brought up in the UK, with no personal experience of Sri Lanka myself (something Sri Lankans frequently contest as giving people such as myself no right to comment- this also being worthy of another post soon), I had always identified with Britain as my home and as my country. And all of a sudden there was a clash. “My” country was not helping “my” people. But my people were not of my country and my country was not for my people- not the way I identified each at that point. What made it worse was that Britain’s reasons explaining its reluctance were not adding up in my 18 year old brain. Was this not the Great Britain who liberated the world having fought the fascists in 1945? Had my history lessons lied to me?

Moreover, having just lost a family member to a completely unrelated incident, death was very close to my heart at the time. And so many people were dying. People not in comfort, or surrounded by their family or loved ones or in peace. But in anguish, in fear, in pain. Needlessly. As the campaign progressed, I found many parallels in my personal life to that in the political life of this protest and of the Eelam struggle. And as it grows still, my consciousness of all the aspects of both my personal and political lives continues to grow too. I, like many others although I can only speak for myself, feel the campaign has opened my eyes to wider injustice, to power struggles, to oppression- in many forms, not just that of Sri Lanka against the Tamils. And although I came out of it battleworn, I came out of it at least a little wiser.

Yes I questioned everything I had ever known- and it was good for me. It helped form me into the person I am today. 

Much has happened since the end of those protests- both in the Tamil community in the UK, in Sri Lanka and in terms of international movement on the issues in question. Sri Lanka, instead of calming down as many probably predicted, has upped its ante. It seeks other minorities to persecute while all the while continuing (what I and many others perceive as) its genocide against the Tamils on its island. There has been a lot of international interest since- there have been big documentaries by big media organisations, there have been UN resolutions- but as of yet, no solution. Not even a situation close to a solution.

Currently as I write about one student led mass protest, there is another taking place in Tamil Nadu, India in relation to the same issue.

For all our disillusionment, sense of betrayal and loss of hope, it appears hope is flourishing again. There may still be anger- there will be until at least there is an acceptable solution and an end to the problems Tamil still face. But it is the hope that is dangerous. Four years or forty- hope has a habit of living on.