The decision to hold this year’s International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards in Colombo was clearly a political, even geopolitical, calculation. Whereas the previous award ceremonies - held in UK (twice), South Africa (twice), Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, Holland, Thailand and Macao, China, were meant to bring India ‘to the world’, this year’s event was intended instead to bring the world to Sri Lanka – or, more precisely, to the Sinhala south. It has done that, but in ways unintended.
The controversy that has rightly erupted was inevitable. Few decisions can be more dismissive of human suffering than to hold three days of glamorous celebration amid the horrors consequent to Sri Lanka’s frenzied slaughter last year of forty thousand Tamil civilians and its continued repression of the Tamils. The outraged Tamil Nadu film industry is staying away, and in the wake of public protests in India, there are doubts over the attendance of several Bollywood personalities. The clumsy rush to whitewash the regime in Colombo has thus, perversely, served to focus attention on, and further highlight, Sri Lanka’s grotesque past and present.
The hosting of IIFA event in Colombo is, however, symbolic of a much deeper dynamic; the nature of the linkages between the Tamils and the rest of the world. Whilst Sri Lanka and its allies try to project the illusion of ‘post conflict revival’ or an ‘EmeraldIsland’, hundreds of thousands of people, on account of their ethnicity alone, continue to suffer all manner of deprivation. In other words, while the Sinhala south is showcased and touts for economic inflows, the Northeast is isolated, hidden and scorched. This is not a mere legacy of protracted war, but of a long institutionalised, racial logic.
Before Sinhala domination began in the late 1940s, the Tamil homeland had been connected in myriad ways to global flows for millennia. Quite apart from the time of South India-based imperial networks, even during Western colonial rule the Northeast was well connected to the rest of the subcontinent and other parts of the world. Since the island’s independence from Britain, however, the Sinhala-dominated state has sought not only to concentrate power in the South, but also to isolate the Northeast, making Colombo the sole gateway between the world and the Tamil homeland.
Amid the international community’s efforts today to bypass Sinhala state’s obstructions and secure access to the Northeast, what is often missed is how the Sinhala state’s denials of visas and travel permits to the Northeast, or ‘clearance’ to invest in, develop or otherwise link the Northeast to the world, is part of an inherent racialised logic. The point is illustrated, for example, by the state’s violent disruption in 1974 of the World Tamil Research Conference when it was hosted in Jaffna. The Sinhala regime had demanded the event be held in Colombo, not Jaffna, but when the organisers refused, Colombo belatedly despatched a police force to disrupt it. Eleven people died when the police stormed the venue.
For several decades - and from well before the war started - the Sinhala dominated state has systematically diverted international aid, investment and trade access to the South while excluding and marginalising the Northeast. What happened to international humanitarian assistance after the 2004 tsunami is a case in point. The only exceptions, meanwhile, have been Sinhala colonisation projects in the Northeast. (Ironically, it was Sri Lanka’s brutal pursuit of Sinhala domination that, apart from tearing up the social fabric of Tamil life in the island, triggered the refugee flows that generated today’s Diaspora and thus reconnected, in a fashion, the Northeast with the rest of the world.)
Unless the Sinhala stranglehold on the Northeast is first broken, the Tamils will continue to be largely – and deliberately - excluded from global economic flows. It is in this context that the growing call by the Tamils and others for an international boycott of Sri Lanka must be understood. Moreover, until there is a radical restructuring of political power on the island – and thus the ending of Sinhala sovereign control over all facets of Tamil life – the global flows which can help regenerate and rebuild the Tamil homeland and foster the thriving of the Tamil nation will be thwarted and blocked.
This, consequently, is the central logic of the Tamils’ continued insistence on the primacy of their right to self-determination. It cannot be forgotten that the demand for Tamil Eelam arose in the mid-seventies from the need to escape Sri Lanka’s stifling of Tamil social, economic and social life and to reintegrate with global community, free of the vagaries of Sinhala rule.