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Diaspora must continue to defy

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We live in an era when the Sri Lankan state is callously trying to eradicate the Tamil nation and its identity within the borders of Sri Lanka, first through mass killings and now the forced Sinhalisation of Tamil homelands. At this time, those of the Tamil nation residing outside the clutches of the island’s government play an essential role in safeguarding the nation and vocalising its stifled aspirations for an endurable peace – a two state solution.  Sri Lanka’s bullying of the Tamil diaspora is more than an authoritative state tightening its grip on civil liberties - it is the ruthless attempt of a state to conceal its genocidal campaign.


Diaspora Tamils, the vast majority of whom fled a racist Sinhala rule as refugees and continue to live in exile, have always played an important role in supporting the Tamil nation in the homeland. They have a history of stepping in to do what the Sri Lankan state chooses to ignore, from creating orphanages to developing hospitals and schools, from rebuilding villages devastated by the tsunami to providing food to war refugees who fled with nothing. Even when, having replayed the cycles of oppression and non-violent protest followed by state sanctioned violence and mass killings, the Tamil nation took up arms to defend itself, it was the diaspora that stepped up to support the nation, financially, emotionally and morally. The Sri Lankan state, acutely aware of the diaspora’s involvement, has for a long time sought to hinder the diaspora internationally; a project that gained significant momentum after 2001.


In a world post-9/11, any armed resistance by a non-state actor became ‘terrorism’. Seizing the opportunity to quash Tamil resistance and nationalism, Sri Lanka professed to rid the world of this ‘terror’ in its backyard. Any condemnation of the Sri Lankan state, desire for an independent homeland or attempt to raise charitable funds for the humanitarian crisis in the North-East was tarnished with the word ‘terrorist’ in these ongoing attempts to oppress the Tamil people.


Many within the Tamil diaspora became afraid, scared that they were going to be targeted in their countries of refuge for being ‘terrorists’. Many who continued to speak out did so under the ‘safety’ of anonymity.  Belief in Eelam was distorted into ‘hard-line’, ‘terrorist’ ideology to the extent that even the national flag was condemned – instead of defending their legitimate right to fly their nation’s flag (and thereby the right to campaign for independence), many Tamils hoisted and honoured it in secret.


Today, despite Sri Lanka proclaiming the end of the LTTE and the separatist cause, an independent, sovereign state remains the overwhelming desire of the Tamil nation. Murders, abductions, violent intimidations and the forced deprivation of basic human necessities, such as food and shelter, may have temporarily silenced the political aspirations of Tamils in the North-East of Sri Lanka, but the call for Eelam and the cry against Sri Lanka’s war crimes continues. Moreover, it does so with an international interest hitherto unknown.


It goes without saying, that the mass slaughter of Tamils ignited this flame; but just as Sri Lanka was hoping to quietly bury the ashes, it is the diaspora that has kept it issue in the public attention. Above all else as Sri Lanka has tried to stealthily erode the Tamil identity within Sri Lanka, diaspora activities have protected it and strengthened it globally.


At first there were the veiled threats, broad policy statements in Sinhala against anyone who continued to support an independent Tamil homeland. Shady figures, armed with cameras, loitered at anti-genocide rallies and collated photographs of participants. In the lawless depths of Sri Lanka’s interrogation cells, the photographs re-surfaced to be used as evidence of diaspora Tamils partaking in alleged illegal activity. Tamils returning to Sri Lanka to visit family were threatened or blackmailed into revealing protesters’ identities. One Tamil student studying abroad, was detained on return to Sri Lanka, and punished for his alleged involvement in the protests; the deep scars slashed into his back a warning to others.


‘We will have to conduct a separate operation on that which the government has already started’ warned Sri Lanka’s military spokesman, Major General Prasad Samarasingh. Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs spokesman has started issuing regular warnings, often now in English, against ‘elements friendly to the LTTE’ working in countries around the world. The Tamil diaspora’s crime? Working to ‘carry forward the LTTE campaign’ for Eelam – voted for by over 99% of diaspora Tamils as the only answer to the decades of genocide against Tamils


Both the Global Tamil Forum and the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, organisations created to pursue independence through political means, have been condemned as ‘terrorist outfits’ and activists are demonized as ‘terrorists’. All TGTE candidates are reported to have been black-listed by the Sri Lankan government and anyone suspected of endorsing Tamil grievances against Sri Lanka is labelled ‘tiger’, such as David Milliband, who’s effigy was burnt as punishment when his approval of GTF saw him labelled a ‘white tiger’.


Alarmingly, Sri Lanka’s increasing paranoia and defensive hysteria, has led it to incite further fear and hatred amongst the Sinhalese outside the island too. Major General Prasad Samarasingh rallied Sinhala expats, saying  ‘not only the forces, but the whole nation, including the people living overseas must get together and stop this international LTTE propaganda and activities’ – a far cry from the promised peace and reconciliation. 


Bullying having proven futile, Sri Lanka is now trying to undermine the diaspora’s role, arguing that the Tamil nation is not one entity; the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka are distinct. This argument, also adopted by some misguided international analysts, follows that the diaspora has no right to partake in a conversation that does not concern them, particularly when the Tamils in the North-East want reconciliation (a claim that is unsubstantiated by any objective evidence) and therefore the diaspora should drop their goal for independence and invest their time and wealth into the development of Sri Lanka. 


Even if one was to ignore the obvious hypocrisy in the Sri Lankan state negating the Tamil diaspora, whilst including its own ‘people living overseas’ within its concept of the ‘whole nation’, responsibility without rights is an untenable argument. It is an inherent contradiction in Sri Lanka’s portrayal of the Tamil diaspora. Unlike other diaspora nations, the Tamil diaspora consists mainly of first generation refugees, not economic migrants, but people who are suffered at the hands of an oppressive, racist state. Those who have memories of directly suffering shared these with their children, the majority of whom were raised immersed in the Tamil identity. Further, the global, interconnected world we live in means that Tamils in the diaspora don’t have to wait 6 months for the boat carrying news from home – the telephone, internet and 24 hour news media make events in the homeland sometimes more visible to those outside than to those languishing in internment camps with no access to news other than what the Sri Lankan government wants them to know.


If anything, Sri Lanka’s campaign against the diaspora only serves to reassert and validate the diaspora’s role in the Tamil nation. Threats, intimidation and reprisal are not solely focused on diaspora Tamils with Sri Lankan passports; second generation Tamils have been equally targeted. And this has only served to make the second (and indeed third) generation Diaspora reaffirm their ‘Tamilness’ for Sri Lanka continuously tells the world that they cannot be anything else.


As the evidence of war crimes mounts, Sri Lanka will only intensify its ruthless clamp down on anyone who speaks out, whether they are at home or abroad. There, where freedom of speech and freedom of expression are severely limited and those who defy the state do so at a truly fatal cost, Tamils live in real danger. Outside, apprehension amongst diaspora campaigners may be understandable, but they must not allow themselves to be threatened into silence. So long as the Sri Lankan state maintains its iron grip on the Tamils at home, the diaspora is the only truly free Tamil voice the world is hearing. It must be the public face of the Tamil nation; grieve and remember what the Tamils at home are forbidden to, vocalise what they are barely permitted to think, highlight the atrocities the state is keen to bury and continue to work towards the independence that the Tamil nation desires.

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