31 July 2007
I start with an admission. For many years, I have been a British Tamil. Britain has been good to me, I had taken on the citizenship of this country and I thought the matter ended there. One could say, broadly, the moral choices of Karna, having eaten of the bread of the Kauravas.
But last year has shaken the foundations of this identity. And it must do so for the tens of thousands of others who, by some accident of birth and luck are, like me, part of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. For now as never before the words of the anti Nazi poem, attributed to the Rev. Martin Niemoller come to mind:
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.
For the Diaspora, there is a version of the Niemoller poem:
"First they came for the plantation Tamils
I didn’t speak up because I am not a plantation Tamil
Then they came for the Colombo Tamils
I didn’t speak up because I am not a Colombo Tamil
Then they came for the Eastern Tamils...
I didn’t speak up because I am not an Eastern Tamil
Then they came for the Jaffna Tamils...
I emigrated, I am no longer a Jaffna Tamil..."
By definition the Diaspora are those who have at some point chosen to walk away. To walk away from the conflict of Sri Lanka, seeking for themselves and their children, safety, stability, prosperity and even happiness.
But this year, we need to ask - what sacrifices did they intend to make, what did they believe they could take with them, and what leave behind?
As for the homes and land that has almost invariably been in families for generations, did they intend to never return, or if to return, under what conditions?
For those who walked away from the violence, did they intend to leave behind their hope and dream of Eelam? If they walked away from politics, did they intend to repudiate their friends, relatives, and colleagues who still believed in Eelam?
Did they intend, in the event that the international political process has failed, as it was perhaps it was doomed to do, that they would say to their children – now you are British, Australian, American, German, Norwegian, Swiss – forget that there is a place for which people are dying, and for which many thousands have died already, called Eelam.
Did they intend to say to their children – “Well Uncle Bush/Uncle Blair (delete as applicable) knows best … and as for cousin Krishna who died in the battle for Jaffna in 1995, forget him, because Uncle Bush/Uncle Blair says he is a terrorist”, “And remember not to leave a SIM card in any of your cousins houses since who knows what could happen”, “And that tee-shirt .. didn’t I buy you one with a Panda on it ?.. no I know it’s the Chola emblem, dear, but these are difficult times.”
This year has seen the arrests of Tamil activists all over the world, from every walk of life, every religion.
It coincides with the failure of the internationally backed negotiations, and the new war of aggression of the Sinhala government against the Tamil North and East of Sri Lanka. The timing of these arrests have been nothing short of political.
And so we come to the heart of the dilemma. How far away from Eelam will you walk and where will you find your place of safety?
But this international environment has been made possible by legislation. And we come back to the root of the dilemma.
How will you accept for yourself and the generations to come the legislation of the British (substitute Australian, French, American, etc.) state in relation to issues that are essentially Tamil, in relation also to Eelam?
And so let us look at this legislation. It is an offence under the British Terrorism Act of 2006 to glorify terrorism (whether past, present or future). The praise of the activities of the South African ANC would be conceivably caught under this section. So too any statement in support of Subhas Chandra Bose. Or for that matter, the founding American fathers.
When the House of Lords debated the Act, Lord Thomas of Gresford questioned the legislation's definition of 'glorification' as "includes any form of praise or celebration."
He protested: "The word is used to refer to acts committed at any time and in any place in the world, whether going back 2,000 years or moving 2,000 years into the future, and 'any form of praise'. Nothing could be vaguer than that."
Lord Thomas went on to say: “My Lords, I have made the point before that it refers to William Wallace in Scotland, to the Welsh nationalists in 1937 .., to the Easter rebellion, and to any movement throughout the world — as I said, this applies to the whole world — where a movement or organisation takes up arms against the recognised government. We may support that movement, but in these terms we would still be glorifying it.”
The government replied that glorification was only an offence if it is about encouraging others to emulate terrorist acts "in existing circumstances".
So battles that are in the past, which are considered irrelevant to the present – such as the struggle of the ANC or William Wallace (better known as “Braveheart” of the Mel Gibson movie fame) – might be exempt. Baronness Ramsay of Scotland, speaking in support of the government said: “That (its bearing on “existing circumstance”) is what makes the difference; it is not about the ANC, William Wallace or any of the other examples given by the noble Lord.”
Which is lucky for the South Africans - they may praise Mandela for the activities that led him to a South African jail, but only because their struggle may be deemed by the British government t be irrelevant to present circumstance - and for Mel Gibson, who glorified Braveheart, but not so lucky for the Tamils who are living with the present.
While there are over 150, 000 Tamil British citizens in London, there were none present in the commons or the Lords to debate this point. Not surprisingly, for as in Sri Lanka, the Tamils are a minority in the UK, as they are worldwide. And they will continue to be.
The definition of terrorism has now been broadened. It means the use or threat of action, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, or to influence a government, which involves serious damage to a person or property, endangers a person’s life, or create a serious risk to the health and safety of a section of the public, seriously disrupts an electronic system.
So for example one may not use or threaten violence to a person or property or an electronic system – to influence any government in the world. Nor may one support, or praise a person who does this or who has done this in the past several thousand years (unless their political circumstances are utterly irrelevant to the present circumstances).
Did Gandhi 's effort to take over the salt works at Dharsana threaten damage to the property of British India? Did he cause a serious risk to the health or safety of any section of the public during his marches? What of other political struggles?
The government had initially wished to make it an offense to ‘condone’ such a past or present person, but the word condone was deleted after parliamentary and Lords debate and we are left with glorification (which means here praise or celebration).
So what does this mean for the Tamil Diaspora? It means that one may not use or threaten violence against the government of Sri Lanka. Nor praise any person who does this.
Whereas the government of Sri Lanka may use and threaten violence against the Tamil people. And one may praise it for this. Some kinds of violence – such as the bombing of the school children at Sencholai may be war crimes. But the praise of war crimes is not an offence in UK legislation. Violence and the praise and support of it, is the monopoly of the state.
One may support the idea of Eelam (and even this right is now open to question) but not support or praise the right to take up arms to achieve it. One may not praise or celebrate any of the rows and rows of dead in the Tamil homeland who have so taken up arms. But one may applaud Jack Straw praising (as he did in a recent Tamil gathering) the rows upon rows of tombstones of soldiers of the British empire from India and Tamil Nadu who fought for the British against the Germans in the first world war.
It is also an offence to support a proscribed organisation. And British Parliamentarians, among whom the British Tamils have until recently had zero representation will decide who is proscribed.
And what does support mean? It means to further the activities of a proscribed organisation. It includes addressing a meeting to encourage support for a proscribed organisation or to further its activities.
But what activities might this include? The legislation does not say. If the LTTE runs the de facto state in the Vanni, would this include all the activities of this Tamil state – the building of roads, the operation of traffic police and the local courts, the Tsunami relief, the provision of medicine at a time when the government is embargoing the North and East?
If one may not further the activities of a proscribed organisation, but the sole purpose of this organisation’s activities is to achieve independent Eelam, then may one conduct any activities in support of Eelam? Presumably one could, as long as these activities in support of Eelam were carried out by some other organisation.
But how long before the British state, for reasons of geopolitical interests, decides to proscribe the new organisation? What would an organisation in Sri Lanka have to do to avoid proscription? It would have to give up arms and, with them, the possibility of self-defence.
Herein is the Kafkaesque dilemma that tears the soul of the Diaspora. As in Sri Lanka, so it is world wide, that the Tamils will never have a voice in legislation that threatens their physical and political safety. For everywhere except in Eelam, they are a minority.
So how far will you walk away from Eelam, and for how many generations to come?