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Oppression, resistance and war

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She also spoke frankly to Tamil Guardian about the politics of gender empowerment in Tamil society and the role of the diaspora in the Tamil struggle.

Military violence against women

“Women are a voiceless people, so the Army can do anything. Women don’t even like to be alone in their houses, it’s not safe for them. But women are also scared to leave their houses because of the Army. So they are idle, imprisoned in their own homes and even there they are fearful. The Army can come quickly and quietly into their homes, do whatever they want, and get away without ever being punished.”

“Women have been comparatively more affected by living under the Army’s rule, so they are turning to the Tamil Tigers more. Rape and sexual assault is pervasive under military occupation, so women are more compelled to take arms and protect themselves.”

A change in social norm

“Our culture says that women cannot do everything men can, so men must take care of the women. Thus women have to get permission to go to work, to leave the house, to do anything. All sisters are scared of their brothers, afraid of their father and mother, very afraid of all these people who have control over them. As children, they don’t realize this is wrong, they just think it is the way of life. But now that there are women fighters, people are realizing women should be equal.”

“In old Tamil literature, women were very soft and passive. They were shown as helplessly dependent upon others. When people have been brought up in this culture, they don’t think women can use big vehicles and big weapons. In our culture, women aren’t even allowed to enter the sea for fear of ‘tainting’ the water – only men can do the fishing. But now women fight in these seas as Sea Tigers. Women also used to not be allowed to enter paddy fields traditionally, but now there are women everywhere. Women used to not even be taken to cemeteries to mourn the death of loved ones, but now women are in charge of martyr’s homes. Now female cadres even drive huge buses. No one would have imagined it.”

“The movement has shown that women can and should be equal. Before women’s liberation simply talked about these vague qualities but never had any proof that women were equal. The movement proved everything. Women have now become recognized for their talents and capabilities. People’s opinions are changing, and families give higher respect to women. They have realized society must also become equal.”

“Initially male cadres didn’t believe women could fight as well as men can. They challenged women to lift bigger bombs and so forth, and only after seeing the strength of women did male fighters respect them. There are still people saying women are not equal to men, because they grew up believing that all their lives. You can’t suddenly change that, it takes time.”

Cultural resistance

“Civilians don’t accept gender equality very easily. The Tiger leadership says to wear pants and act equally to men, but the culture is very strict. University boys may make comments. They have been brought up to think women are not equal, so people must change mentally. But since women have been fighting alongside men within the Tigers, people are beginning to realize they are equal.”

“Originally, the Tigers did not want to let women join because our cultural norms were so disempowering to women. They were accepted only for first aid work. But these women kept going to the Tiger leadership and demanding they too be allowed to fight. The Tiger leadership realized the passion and capabilities of Tamil women, and so the Birds of Freedom, the female fighters, were born.”

Theatre therapy

“There are such serious stresses upon women: so many have been sexually assaulted or raped. Some children have seen their mothers raped in front of them. Or women’s husbands have been killed by the Army. There are so many problems for women under occupied rule. So our theatre group did workshops where we would have meditations and sing songs. People would get very emotional, describing difficult feelings. This brought in their stresses from the outside, and people showed such strong feelings it would break even windows. We had a theatre temple and would discuss women’s problems and how they could improve their lives. This helped build self-confidence, and make women more active on issues they face.”

“Now looking at Tamil Resurgence Events such as Pongu Tamil, women are more active than men. After women were attempted to be raped in Jaffna, there were more women agitating at the next day’s demonstration, demanding justice. This shows Tamil women have become more empowered.”

Deteriorating security

“The Army and police do nothing to stop this violence or the crime. They don’t care about the well-being of Tamil people, so can be paid bribes to do nothing. There are problems with smaller gangs, stealing from people and houses. The Army supports this because they too profit. Before the Tigers had political officers in Jaffna, and everyone was safer then. The Tigers brought law and order to the area, and people knew there would be actual consequences if they did not obey the laws.”

The compulsion for Tamil self-rule

“We wanted to try as much as we could to resolve these issues peacefully. Our people understand this. But even after the tsunami, we tried for months to create a structure so aid could come to Tamil areas, but this utterly failed. It was needed for immediate rehabilitation, but it took seven months. Even the international community had to put great pressure on the government, otherwise former president Chandrika Kumaratunga would have dragged it out. But even after signing they didn’t implement it. Our people understand this well. This wasn’t political at all, this aid was needed solely for humanitarian work. But the Sinhala people did not want to give any help to the Tamils, and our people understand this.”

“So rehabilitation work is going much slower in Tamil areas than in Sinhala areas. Non-governmental organizations which came first promised to do great work and didn’t; even some other NGOs that wanted to help were limited by the government, who made NGOs register extensively. Some NGOs would only give boats or nets to a family, and this would be useless because fishermen need both boats and nets to work. Only the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization really helped people. NGOs said they must definitely give money to the Northeast, but nothing happened. They easily got money from the international community, but this was a waste. Nothing changed. Tamils are still suffering.”

Militarised peninsula

“Because of the demarcation of areas as High Security Zones, people can’t visit their own homes. It has been more than 20 years that people have had to leave their houses, and are now living in relatives’ homes, in small small huts. In one room the mother, father and children must live, and this has been very difficult for our people. This is where cultural deterioration happened, where the father may drink too much liquor and start quarrelling with the family. So students would not be able to study in peace. If the parents died, these children would not even be able to find their own houses or land. The government gives one or two houses back, but there are so many thousands still waiting. They just return a few homes for propaganda, but don’t really accomplish anything.”

Lagging behind

“There is now more development in Kilinochchi than Jaffna. In Jaffna we need permission from the government to build and conduct projects, but in Kilinochchi there are no such restrictions. There people can build as they want, and there is even a medical college being built. This is great because we have such a shortage of doctors, since ours go abroad to work and so people are desperate for medical help. But now there are Tiger doctors who do mobile work in Jaffna. We’d love to create a medical college like that in Vanni, but the government will not allow us to even open a college. The government truck used to come daily to take the trash in Jaffna, but now the government doesn’t send these trucks. So there is lots of rubbish in the streets. We tell people to keep this in the house, but many people don’t have room in their small small houses and so they have to dump this in the streets.”

“Our model is Kilinochchi, there is no trash there. There are no children who are abandoned with no one to take care of them. The movement teaches people even if they are poor and have nothing to offer in return. There are places for mothers and fathers who are elderly and alone. There will be these welfare supports all throughout Eelam. Our model will be Kilinochchi. But only after we get a country can we achieve these greater things.”

Anger, frustration and war

“People are ready to return to war. They want to fight against the Army and the years of oppression they’ve lived under. People know if the war begins, the Army will come and indiscriminately shoot civilians, so civilians are volunteering for short trainings to learn to defend themselves. At the Jaffna border, the Tigers give training and people go on large buses from Army-occupied areas and tell the Army when they return that they have just been trained. They are not afraid. Tsunami-affected people in Vadamarachy have gone for training, and when they fish and the Army asks them to show their Identification Cards, some refuse in anger, saying they’ve been trained by the Tigers and won’t show their IC. The people are very angry at the Army and their careless treatment of Tamils and their rights. People are ready for the war, with modernized equipment and stronger will. We believe victory will come to us quickly, it will not be a long war. If the situation continues like this, with this covert war on Tamils throughout the Northeast, our fighters may lose their spirits. So we cannot wait for long.”

“Everyone wants to liberate our lands, but many people are working for their families with little time to actively work for this. Other people don’t participate because they know the government will harass those who support the Tamil cause. But everyone comes for Pongu Tamil and demonstrations like this to show they too are enthusiastic for the liberation of Tamils.”

“It will be like our last victory at Elephant Pass, where the Army fled so fast to try to go to the Sinhala areas. They were so pitiable, they had no idea where they were and went it all different directions. Many fled from Vavuniya, so now buses are checked at the Army’s checkpoint to make sure no Army soldiers are deserting.”

Reaching out to the Diaspora

“We need the help of foreign Tamils. There is such a big scarcity of skills, to build homes and so forth, because for 20 years we couldn’t build anything because the cement wasn’t allowed to come to Tamil areas. So the younger generation does not know these technical skills. People from abroad can come and help train people so we can better develop and progress.”

“The desire of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka is very clear, from Pongu Tamil and all the resurgence events throughout the Northeast. But in the media this is lost: Reuters said only 40,000 people participated but in actuality 150,000 people attended. The media does not accurately reflect the aspirations of the Tamil people. So anti-propaganda work must be done. This too is like a war, just not by weapons.”

“Even after the election, when Tamil people decided not to participate, the media tells similar lies. People decided to boycott because they saw nothing could be gained by voting, but the media said it was simply because they were afraid of the Tigers that they didn’t vote. But this was an election for Sinhala people to select their leader; we already have our leader.”

“The diaspora must tell the world the truth of Tamils. They must explain what it is truly like there, and what people truly want. From now we will not be going through the Sri Lankan government to contact the international community. Now we will only take our state, and ask the international community to recognize us. We have everything already established for our state structure, the political, economic, legal, education, human rights organizations. The Tigers have established a strong welfare state. Even in Jaffna, when people have problems they don’t go to the police they’d rather go to the LTTE. So we are asking the international community to recognize us as a state. This is the work of foreign Tamils.”

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