Address by Jan Jananayagam of Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) at Black July remembrance event in London, 2012.
This year, as every year in the past 29 years, we have come together to remember and reflect on a watershed event in the history of the Tamil nation: Black July was the most damaging of a series of pogroms since independence against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Contemporaneously Black July was acknowledged as an act of genocide by international observers including the international commission of jurists and the British media.
It is crucial to acknowledge that Black July was not a one-off aberration: a blip in the course of an otherwise serene ethnic history.
Increasingly it is accepted that this particular horrific destruction of the Tamil community on the island formed part of an annihilatory trajectory that continues to this day.
The domestic conditions that enabled Black July to occur persist to this day: indeed they are stronger than ever.
These include a militant religious establishment that fields its own political party of monks. It includes a majority population that believes in a holy book that codifies the entitlement to life, land and citizenship-related privileges of one ethno-religious group, Sinhala-Buddhists, over all others. Furthermore this population has consistently voted along these beliefs bringing to power Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalists of varying degrees and bringing political parties of monks into parliament.
These include an ethnically pure defense establishment that is endemically racist – as demonstrated by recent international media footage. Further this defense establishment routinely relies on and is acclimatized to extrajudicial violence, against other ethnicities.
These conditions include media censorship. As well as self-censorship on ethnic issues by mainstream national media, this media is invariably owned by Sinhala-Buddhist interests.
The pogroms in 1958, 1977, 1983 in the south invariably led to refugee flows to the Tamil homeland in the North. Thus the Tamil majority areas provided safe haven from ethnic violence. The Sri Lankan state itself arranged transport, sometimes via ships, to Tamil refugees from the Sinhala majority south to the Tamil North.
Following the conquest and militarization of the Jaffna peninsula by GOSL, the LTTE, conceived of the Vanni as a safe haven from ethnic violence. And so it was – until faced with an overwhelming military attack.
Furthermore the possibility of armed retaliation by the LTTE for pogroms provided a check against this particular, mob-based form of ethnic violence.
In Sri Lanka today the challenge of safe haven and the absence of checks against ethnic violence has become again a critical concern.
As we have said, the factors that create violence remain stronger than ever: yet our available means of dealing with it has necessarily changed.
In the absence of any real power in the hands of the Tamil community locally, this challenge has to be faced head on by the diaspora and our partners.
There is no simple solution. Yet technological advances have rendered possible a local yet global vision and our ability to change the face of politics.
It is in this context that we must look to an international safety net against Sri Lanka’s annihilatory violence. We need to make available in practice a network of international safe havens to those fleeing persecution.
Today’s diaspora has a large proportion of citizens who were themselves refugees from Black July and related ethnic violence. This hugely successful diaspora is well placed to understand and propose solutions to the current and future crises.
Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka are entitled under international law to asylum. The rights of those that are genuinely fleeing persecution are undisputed.
It is the efficacy of the mechanism that is wanting. Tens of thousands of Tamil refugees who have already been accredited by the UN are waiting for many years for countries to accept them. In the interim they are held in staging areas in countries such as Thailand, Togo, Malaysia, India that are not signatories to the UN refugee convention. They are stateless, and have no rights, and are often subject to exploitation and abuse. In such countries as Togo they are held in jail for the ‘crime’ of fleeing Sri Lanka’s persecution. In the South Indian camps there is no freedom of movement. This is unacceptable.
Many thousands more are waiting for processing by the UN or have no access to processing mechanisms. The UN refugee convention pipeline is effectively broken assuming it ever worked.
These people have no effective means of transport to countries that are UN convention signatories. Many countries are passing legislation that criminalizes the transport of refugees. Thus competent personnel are not available to man the transport craft neither will owners invest in or make available suitable craft as these can be impounded. Thus many who have risked the journey from their hellish limbo to a normal life have died at sea.
In the slow-burning crisis caused by increasing militarizatio in Sri Lanka’s North, the UN mechanism is already hugely dysfunctional.
It is hard to imagine this already weak mechanism coping with crises such as Black July. Yet as shown above the factors that lead to such crises are very much alive.
It is with this in mind that the Tamil diaspora must demand immediate solutions to the asylum crises from their own countries and from the wider international community. We must demand that Europe, Canada, Australia live up to their international obligations and accept a fair quota of UN recognized refugees.
We must seek viable alternatives to people dying at sea in their desperation to reach safe haven.
Tamil civil society organizations are prepared to assist these countries in integration efforts and if needed, economically.
It is in this spirit that a consortium of Tamil organizations including TAG, TYO, Pearl and VOT have offered their assistance to the Australian government via our proposal to the expert panel on asylum seekers. Our proposal offers safe, free diaspora funded transport options to refugees. the Australian government must work out effective processing. And we will expand this approach to other governments too.
A number of countries are pro-actively seeking skilled migrants to fill gaps caused by ageing populations: yet they have very low acceptance rates of UN accredited refugees that can easily acquire those same skills. A better balance between these two categories must be sought in the spirit of a global versus local optimum.
The Tamil diaspora must demand that Sri Lanka’s key trading partners take some responsibility for the resulting refugee crisis. These trading partners directly or indirectly financed the expansion of the hugely problematic ethnically pure military. They continue to train and equip it.
So also must the co-chairs, who oversaw the failed process that has resulted in this mess take responsibility. They remain engaged in Sri Lanka in multiple ways including trade, military cooperation and sport and must also take responsibility for the refugee flows.
The international safety net is not limited to an effective safe haven mechanism. It involves far more, including a greater willingness to intervene militarily within accepted frameworks such as the r2p [responsibility to protect]. But an effective implementation of the UN refugee convention is the minimal first step that we demand. This has to be one of the highest current priorities for governments who engage with Sri Lanka.