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Protesting against a genocide - May 2009, London

To mark 15 years since the Sri Lankan military onslaught that massacred tens of thousands of Tamils, we revisit the final days leading up to the 18th of May 2009.

The following account is written by a second-generation Tamil from London who was involved in organising the prolonged protest on Parliament Square in Westminster during April and May 2009, the peak of Sri Lanka's genocide of Tamils. Theeban (not his real name), then in his early twenties, was studying at a London university.


I went to university that Sunday morning, April 5th 2009, for what was supposed to be the first day of revision for my finals a month or so later, and read the news. The last areas held by the LTTE that weren’t in a safe zone had been captured by the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil fighters were now trapped in the safe zone, alongside the civilians.

I knew then I wasn’t going to get any revision done. I think a lot of people at the time, including myself, were just waiting for the moment the LTTE would launch a counter-offensive. I guess, that’s when I first realised that there’s not going to be the miraculous military recovery we had expected.

The Defence Ministry website had published an animated map, showing areas captured and where battles were ongoing, as well as the safe zones and where the LTTE remained. Over the past months, this map had been a staple on our daily trawl for news. We saw the area held by the LTTE shrink steadily, sometimes on a daily basis. It was very emotional to see land controlled by the LTTE, and everything they had stood for, reduce in front of my eyes.

Nanthan anna, a senior activist, called me as I stared at the computer screen. “We have to do something now,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “I’m on my way”. As I walked out it felt like this was the end of my university life and degree, and I wasn’t bothered, what was happening there was all that mattered to me. I felt it was everyone’s duty to drop everything and give everything for the struggle. It was the endgame.

It was a sunny and relatively warm day, I sat on the grass in a park in South London, with other activists who had also been called. It was here that we came up with the plan. We would call for an urgent protest and block the road at Parliament Square.

The situation was urgent, we agreed to hold an emergency meeting for a wider circle of activists that same evening. Whilst some of us were planning the exact details of the protest, others made phone calls, contacting links in all the major organisations and inviting them to come to the meeting that evening.

Someone called me aside. A report on the Ananthapuram battle had just been published. The battle had been lost and hundreds of cadres and senior leaders were dead. I felt sick, we all did. To read the account of the deaths of these fighters especially the likes of legendary commanders such as Theeban, Durga and Vithusha was unbearable.

Around 20 people, many of whom were students, were at the meeting. Everyone agreed instantly on a continuous protest on Parliament Square, but blockading the road was met with some objections. We [the youth] were determined though. We pushed, and eventually, everyone agreed: we would start the protest at 1pm, and break out from the Square and block the road as Big Ben struck 4pm.

We discussed the logistics. I said that blocking Westminster Bridge itself would not be that effective, as the police could easily contain us there, and suggested that we block the junction between Westminster Bridge, Parliament Square and Embankment, and all four corners of Parliament Square.

Drawing a little diagram of Parliament Square, on which we marked with crosses where we were going to block the road, we created a diagram on the computer, to be printed and be ready for distribution the next day. We left the meeting feeling motivated and raring to go. That night was spent spreading the word, via text messages, phone calls and Facebook.

Westminster blockaded 

There were thousands. The sun was out and Parliament Square was just a sea of Tamils. The BBC reports vastly underestimated the numbers, saying there were only around 3000 Tamils, but it was definitely a lot more than that, probably nearing 10,000. I was shocked at the turnout, we only gave around half a day’s notice.

Everyone was there: families with their little children, mums with pushchairs, elderly people sitting around the walls of the Square, and young people - so many young people. Students from university Tamil societies and members of the Tamil Youth Organisation, Students against Genocide of Tamils and the UK Tamil Students’ Union were all there, but there were also so many young people we'd never seen before.

The sun was beating down on my skin. I remember leaving my beautiful blue Zara jacket with a girl I vaguely knew, but I never saw it again - lost in the mayhem that followed.

As we had planned the night before, we got into our positions shortly before 4 o’clock, spreading the word that we were going to block the road. A group of us stood in the northeastern corner of the Square, closest to the junction, ready to lead the people out. I was worried that people wouldn’t follow us. We had placed people within the crowd, to encourage them along, with a few, including myself, there to make sure no one got cut off and left behind.

As it turned out, all that was unnecessary. As Big Ben tolled 4pm, the crowds moved as one, spilling over into the junction and sitting down, spreading from the Boudica statue on the bridge, a few yards onto Embankment, all the way to the Square. It had worked. We had blocked one of the key junctions in central London.

The people sat on the ground in the middle of the road, whilst young people walked around with drums and loudhailers, shouting slogans. The [Eelam] flag was everywhere. Someone had climbed onto the statue of Boudica on the bridge and tied a flag to her spear. It was an incredible sight.

I remember standing under one of the arches near Westminster Underground station and looking over the crowds. It was at that moment that it sunk in: the people were going to stay. We weren’t going to stop protesting. Everyone had come to the same conclusion I had done the previous day: this is it, it's now or never.

It was a mixed atmosphere. There was despair at the increasingly dire situation on the ground, but people also seemed a bit more upbeat. The helplessness had been replaced with anger and a belief that we could have an effect: our cries for attention could make a difference to the situation.

I was also torn, happy and proud at the way the nation came together, but at the same time incredibly sad. “Conquering” Parliament Square had felt like an achievement, we could see the news crews all around us, so I was sure we would receive the media coverage we needed, but it was also heartbreaking to see everyone so desperate yet so hopeful that something could stop what was going on back home. I didn’t want them to be let down, but I was deeply worried about what was to come.

Holding ground

By now the police had pushed the people near the Square towards the junction and we were surrounded by officers from the three sides. I noticed a man filming us but didn't take much notice. Lots of people had their phones out photographing the scene.

My friend, Senthan, had noticed him too though. “Dai [hey man], there is a Sinhalese person filming us, come,” said Senthan. The man saw us and walked off towards the underground station. We ran after him and I grabbed him. I remember Senthan just kept repeating “Dai addikkaathai!” [“Don’t hit him man!”] to me. I wasn’t going to as there were CCTV cameras and police officers nearby, but I really wanted to. I asked him whether he was Sinhalese. “Yes,” he said. I took his Sony video camera from around his neck and told him to leave. He walked away. Later I saw him talking to a policewoman, pointing to the crowd, and apparently relaying what had happened. She just shook her head though. There were clearly more pressing concerns for the police.

Back at the Square, the police were only letting people out, not in. With it getting darker, and the crowds needing water and to use the toilet, the numbers began to decrease. By nightfall, around a thousand or so remained, by which point the police relaxed restrictions, allowing people to go and come as they pleased.

The community spirit was there from day one. A makeshift toilet was created for the ladies, using placards and banners, near where the Café Nero is now. The gentlemen travelled a bit further down the road, past the entrance to Portcullis House. People brought us food and water as we continued shouting slogans into the night.

As time went on, most people settled down to sleep, but some of the young people - there were so many - still walked around the Square shouting slogans and keeping watch. The police had told us they wouldn’t try to move us, but we were still wary.

I remember my friends and I lay with blankets on the curb, by the Embankment side near the police cordon, talking and planning how to second-guess the police's next move. We laughed at the situation - that we found ourselves sleeping on the road while looking at world famous Big Ben.

A fellow activist in Norway called me. She congratulated us, saying our groundbreaking protest had inspired others to do the same, and that they were camping outside parliament in Oslo. I laughed, amazed.

I drifted in and out of sleep until shortly before dawn when the sound of people shouting woke me. The police had started moving in. They were ordering us to move back to the Square and manhandling those on the frontline.

We couldn't reach them, my friends and I had been pushed between two police vans. I watched as the police manhandled uncles and aunties*, dragging, kicking and pulling us. The people at the front tried to resist, but it was too much. The police managed to push us back into the Square.

We felt let down by the police and were angry. Like an idiot, I tried to smash the window of the police van with my elbow, hurting it badly. Young men and boys were ripping off sticks from placards and throwing them at the police. My friend's sister was crying. I asked her what had happened, and she said that the police had stepped on her head. She had a large graze across her face.

I remember I found a long shaft of wood and struggled to dislodge it from the ground. “Thambi vendaam, please [Please son, don't],” I heard from behind. I looked up and saw a thaththaa [elderly man] standing on one end of the shaft to stop me from picking it up. “Thambi vendaam, please”, he repeated, imploring me to stop. I couldn't do it, he looked so upset. I stopped.

As daylight came, things calmed down. People had started arriving again, and the protest continued as it had done before, only now we were confined to the Square and some were nursing their injuries. A girl I knew had gone to hospital after injuring her arm, I saw her later the same day, with her arm in a cast.

There were more students this day than the day before, wanting to get involved. It was around this time that Parameswaran and Sivatharsan started their hunger strike - though I had lost track of time by this point having not slept in over 24 hours. A small tent was propped up for the hunger strikers. We didn't sleep at all that night either.

The next morning, a senior activist called me, asking if I was ok. I thought I might cry, exhausted and sleep deprived. Having fallen asleep whilst standing up and almost falling over, I made up my mind to go home.

I went home, showered, slept and came back for the night. This continued for another 71 days.

Eelam Square 

As time went on, we established ourselves on what we had started calling Eelam Square. Food was brought to us. Tamil pizza shops, chicken shops, restaurants, etc brought bags of food and dropped it off at one corner of the Square. I saw shopping trolleys being used to distribute food. Sometimes people bought bags of McDonalds and handed it out to everyone, especially to us, the youth. Soon after a ‘canteen’ was established at the back of the Square, where basic things were made and drinks handed out to the people.

Us young people, who slept and stayed there all day everyday, received special treatment. Behind the square was a little road, where the smokers used to go. Some uncle* would come there with his van, packed with bread and mutton or chicken curry, and feed us nearly everyday.

By now, Sivatharsan had ended his hunger strike, after UK parliamentarians helped to arrange meetings between representatives of the youth and officials of the FCO, EU and the US State Department. Parameswaran continued his. His tent was now equipped with an inflatable mattress that someone had brought. I was with him nearly every day. As he became weaker, long queues formed outside the tent with people wanting to see him and thank him for what he was doing. One day a Christian group came and held a prayer meeting in front of the tent.

Another day Tamil schoolchildren of all ages bunked off from school together and came to the Square in their uniforms. It was an incredible sight. They held hands and managed the crowds queuing outside Parameswaran's tent. I remember their diligence, they wouldn’t let me and others who'd been with Parameswaran since the beginning pass to go inside the tent.

By now we generally had a good relationship with the police. We were there for 73 days, day and night, and a lot of officers were having to do overtime. We were on first-name terms with quite a few of them and many, privately, were very supportive. The people offered them tea and food, and it had become a routine sight to see police officers having a chat and a cup of tea with the protesters.

It wasn’t always pleasant though. The police initially tried to stop us from holding our flag. Plainclothes officers were handing out leaflets with anti-terror legislation, stating that anything deemed to be in support of terrorism was illegal. Most people resisted. The flag was a symbol of our resistance against what the Sri Lankan state was doing to our loved ones back home. We were not putting it down. I saw the police arrest one man who refused to cover up his T-shirt which had the flag printed across it. He was released a few hours later without charge.

By now it was May – exam time. A section of the tent was closed off for revision. I remember seeing fellow activists sat with their books, studying for their A-Level and GCSE exams, even on the morning of their exams. One of them passed with 4 As, and didn’t miss a day of the protest. Not everyone managed that though. Many failed or missed their exams, others were expelled from university or college, and many, old and young alike, lost their jobs. The only exam I managed to make, I left halfway, as I was called back to join the protests.

Slaughter continues

We blockaded the roads three times after that, each time on hearing news of another round of mass slaughter back home. The images of massacres were unbearable. All we could do was to call on the world to intervene and make the carnage stop.

April 20th was one such day. We had heard of chemical attacks and white phosphorous being used. My elder sister who lived in France and was never involved in activism previously, called in sick at work, so that she could attend the protest that day.

The police were particularly harsh that day. They started pushing us back, and the people resisted. Many were treated in ambulances later for minor injuries, before rejoining us. My sisters, who were near the front line by the bridge, told me later that the police were mocking the people, commenting on how the food and the people stank.

May 11th, when we blockaded the roads once more, was the first time the police made mass arrests. Nanthan anna was trying to discourage me from getting too involved, I was now too ‘high-profile’ he said - I didn’t listen.

A few people stayed in the Square this time, while we occupied one corner of the road around it. I saw from afar that the police were pushing mothers with push chairs on the side leading to the bridge. I went across, acting as if I was encouraging them to move away, but manoeuvring myself in between the push-chairs and the police. The police officer ordered me to move away. I ignored it. I felt him pinch me, before grabbing me by my T-shirt and pulling me to the ground. Handcuffing me, he pushed me up against the large iron fence surrounding Parliament. I turned to my right and could see a police officer manhandling another protester who was attempting to resist his arrest. It looked so painful, that I relented and just complied with the arrest.

The officer took me to the police van where other protesters were also placed and sat me down. I recognised a Tamil MP from Sri Lanka in front of me, also handcuffed. There were around 40 of us arrested that day. We were taken to Charing Cross police station, before being released on bail 6 hours later.

It wasn't just us Tamils that got arrested though. Some nights Sinhalese youths came, driving around the Square and shouting abuse at us. One day I punched a Sinhalese guy who was taking photographs of us. He tried to complain to the police officer stood nearby, but the policeman dragged him away, saying, “If you are Sinhalese, you shouldn't be here”. I saw him sitting in a police van later.

Final onslaught

As the days went by, the mood darkened and became desperate. Our people were dying in their thousands, and many of the people on the Square were mourning the loss of their loved ones. One man I knew lost eight members of his immediate family as the Army moved further in.

News of Charles Anthony’s death had filtered through, and Sri Lankan media were publishing photographs of him. The people on the Square were enraged, any last vestige of hope quickly disappeared.

Nanthan anna spoke to me, in tears and was shocked that Prabhakaran was still in Mullivaikkal with his family. It was May 15. I felt numb. I had expected we would lose territory, but I didn't expect the end of the LTTE and the Tamil armed resistance.

By the next day, we knew it was all ending. Sri Lanka declared victory, and video footage showed the Sri Lankan army divisions stationed at the north meeting those from the south on the shores at Mullivaikkal.

The last time we blocked the road was May 18, after the army declared victory. This blockade was different. It was not pleading or asking the world to help, it was raw anger. The rage was palpable. The police used large, reinforced barriers to try and contain us. We lifted them up and used them to push back against the police. We tried to push towards the entrance to Parliament as much as possible but failed.

A bus was deliberately trapped amidst the blockade. Some people tried to smash its sides before the others pulled them away. Cars were trapped too initially, but people relented and let them drive away.

I think everyone I knew was there: my mum, my sister, my brother-in-law, other relatives and my friends. Everyone had come prepared with blankets and umbrellas, expecting to stay the night. Just as we settled in for the night, the police hit us harder than ever, without warning. Several people were injured. We smashed up the bus.

Eventually, we were forced back into the Square. I was pushed against bollards alongside others who were standing, squashed against the spiky chain interlinking them. I couldn’t breathe properly. People were scrambling around us, trying to climb over the chain to get back into the Square.

The police surrounded us and refused to allow anyone to leave the Square. One man walked up to an officer and urinated in front of him in protest. All I could hear was screaming and crying. It wasn't because of the police though, it was helplessness and anguish. We knew it was over. Our people were now at the mercy of the Sri Lankan state. The only force that had protected them, was defeated.

That night it rained. I remember lying on a piece of cardboard next to a friend under an umbrella, soaking wet. My mum was sleeping somewhere else. The next morning the police placed large sandbags around us, acting as barriers, so we couldn’t break out.

I went home to freshen up and turned on my computer. Photographs of Prabhakaran's body flashed on to my screen as breaking news. My sister ran upstairs on hearing me crying. She broke down too. Soon my whole family was in my room, crying whilst my brother-in-law tried to console us telling us it couldn't be true.

Nanthan anna called me. I picked up, still sobbing. It was his wife. She cried, asking me to come quickly. I could hear him screaming in the background. I went downstairs, GTV was broadcasting a black screen with a candle and the words, 'Veeravanakkam Methuga V Prabhakaran' written underneath in white. My mum and sister started crying again. I left.

As I walked through Nanthan anna’s front door, I could see broken glass and pictures of deities smashed on the ground. Others arrived, trying to calm him as he cried inconsolably. We all got in the car and left to go to Parliament Square. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Nanthan anna sobbing silently. By now I was acting like I believed Prabhakaran had made it out - I wanted to believe he had made it out.

The mood at Parliament Square was the exact opposite from the beginning of April. People were sitting in small groups, crying. We were crushed, defeated. Many people were also in denial, however, saying that Prabhakaran was still alive, and the armed struggle would continue.

Struggle goes on

A few days after we held a vigil, with photographs of the dead and candles. As I was laying down a flower, looking at the photos, I felt as if I’d been hit by a train.

Not only had we lost so many, but it was also the end of the LTTE. The movement that the nation stood behind and trusted to take our struggle forward, had ceased to exist. That was the first time I broke down in public.

The mourning did not go on for long though. The government had imprisoned people in camps, and reports of rape and torture were already filtering through. Meetings were called and seminars arranged to discuss how to take the struggle forward.

Looking back, I realise we weren’t crushed then. We went through immense trauma, but came out stronger, and more determined, knowing that our people back home had no one to protect them.

It was just like it was before, only this time there was a vast group of young people, who had seen the massacre against their people in Vanni unfold day after day whilst they protested in Westminster, and the LTTE was no more.


(* 'uncles and aunties' is commonly used within the English-speaking Tamil community to refer to Tamils of one's parents' generation).

This account was originally published in May 2014. Names have been changed in order to protect the identity of individuals not already within the public domain.

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