The Politics of Free Speech: Muralitharan and the Sri Lankan State

Sri Lanka’s Tamils are rarely given a fair hearing on the world stage. But on the occasions when their voices do gain some momentum, there will always be some among them who use their privilege and status to dismiss and deride their concerns. From denying the racism and oppression rife within Sri Lanka, to undermining the decades-long struggle of the families of the disappeared, no one has been more willing to do that than Muttiah Muralitharan. Writing on the Muralitharan biopic controversy in online Indian magazine The Wire, Tamil Guardian co-editor Abinaya Nathan outlines how appeals for...

Hope and Trepidation: A Biden administration - Newsletter, 16 November 2020

"Hope and trepidation" is how our editorial this week characterised responses to the prospect of the new Biden-Harris administration in the USA. Indeed whilst Biden has vowed to renew American leadership and champion the spirit of liberty in the face of "the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberalism"; past failures of the Obama-Biden administration has tempered Tamil optimism. Sri Lanka's leadership, for its part, has been lukewarm in its response to Biden's electoral victory. As the statement by both Sri Lanka's Prime Minister and President, highlights, they would...

What does a Biden-Harris victory mean for Sri Lanka?

The election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, as well as Kamala Harris as the first Black and Tamil female Vice President, has been touted as a victory for international multilateralism and the “restoration of America’s moral leadership” in the world. In Biden’s manifesto , he announces that within his first year in office he will host a “Global Summit for Democracy” a key aim of which will be “advancing human rights” and “defending against authoritarianism”. In an era in which the international community is backsliding on its commitments to Eelam Tamils and to human rights in Sri Lanka more generally, “moral leadership” is in dire need. However, the question remains will a Biden-Harris administration follow through?

Praise without pressure - Newsletter, 2 November 2020

Sri Lanka’s prime minister and accused war criminal, Mahinda Rajapaksa featured as the ‘Chief Guest’ at a UN virtual event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the global body. Human Rights Watch called the move a “slap in the face for victims of human rights abuses and war crimes.” “Instead of focusing on them, the UN chose to honour one of the people implicated in their suffering, the country’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa…To add insult to injury, the government has opposed victims’ demands for justice- something the UN strongly supports,” the rights group said. Honouring Rajapaksa at...

'Sri Lanka’s president is amassing personal power'

Sri Lanka’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa “has made explicit the link he sees between an all-powerful state and the centrality of Buddhism, whose more chauvinist priests he courts,” writes the Economist this week, as it warned that Rajapaksa is “amassing personal power”. “Gotabaya’s message of security and competence, along with jabs at the Muslim and Tamil minorities designed to please the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, propelled him to the presidency,” wrote the Banyan columnist. “A Gotabaya presidency makes a return to the earlier hounding of critics possible,” the column added. “Out of...

Sri Lanka moves towards autocracy – Deccan Herald

Commenting on the passage of Sri Lanka’s 20 th Amendment (20A) to the constitution, the Deccan Herald writes that Sri Lanka has “taken a decisive step towards becoming a constitutional autocracy”. In their statement, they note that the passage of the 20A has diminished the role of the Prime Minister to a “ceremonial one” and that “parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp”. They further note that this “distressing affair” has ostensibly been done to empower the presidency to “improve governance” however, they note that, “the concentration of power in the hands of one authority has never...

'The exodus was a colossal human tragedy'

The exodus was a colossal human tragedy, unprecedented in its proportions. Heeding the appeal of the LTTE cadres and realising the imminent danger to their lives from the invading enemy troops, the entire population of Valigamam - more than five hundred thousand people - stepped out onto the roads carrying their bare essentials and dragging along their children, the elderly and the sick. Everyone knew they would be safe if they could just crossover the Navatkuli bridge into Kaithaddy, Thenmarachchi. This realisation led to a headlong rush to cross the bridge before the enemy blocked the evacuation of the Jaffna population. The roads leading to Chavakachcheri were jam-packed with masses of desperate, frightened people. Bicycles - the only mode of transport - became a burden as the movement of the multitude ground to a halt with the cramming and congestion of people. The overcrowded processions of people extended for miles and it took several hours to move a few hundred yards. Adding to the tragedy, it started to rain. Teardrops from the weeping sky provided only a tiny relief to the many thirsty, dehydrated mouths. children cried with the agony of starvation as their parents watched helplessly. The elderly stumbled along the roads, often stopping to draw breath. Deprived of food and water and exposed to the weather, the sick became sicker. strained and stressed by the emotional and physical upheaval of the event, a pregnant woman lay down on the side of the road to deliver her baby, unattended in open air. Despite the physical hardships suffered by the people there was a sense of determination and urgency to escape from the clutches of an unpredictable and dangerous enemy who was nearing the gates to Jaffna.

Democracy or Security – Sri Lanka’s false binary

Political commentators have attempted to depict Sri Lanka’s debates over the 20 th Amendment as a conflict between “democracy” and “security”. Proponents claim the need for “strong government” to ensure national security and a prosperous economy during an exceptional period; whereas, opponents of the measure claim that this is an unprecedented break from Sri Lanka’s proud tradition of inclusive democracy. What these discussions often fail to highlight is the racial dimensions behind these proposals as well as the deeper historic context in which they arise. Sri Lanka’s imagined history of...

What does the Vijay Sethupathi fiasco tell us about Tamil Nationalism?

The recent controversy over actor Vijay Sethupathi’s announcement that he would be playing Muttiah Muralitharan in the Sri Lankan cricketer’s biopic escalated rapidly. No sooner did Sethupathi tweet that he was ‘honoured’ to be part of the film than a barrage of opposition began to pour in, with the actor seemingly forced into withdrawing from the project just days later. Though Muralitharan is a person who used to elicit the wrath of Eelam Tamils on account of his long-standing support for Sinhala-Budddhist extremists, the incident became a cause célèbre not just in these quarters, but also across Tamil Nadu. The episode throws the limelight upon the growing sway of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu and the deep solidarity with the Eelam struggle, particularly amongst the youth of the state. Tamil nationalism, across the global Tamil community, has considerable strength. Whilst this bodes well for the ideology in the political sphere, the episode also gave rise to certain questions from the counter-opposition. It is asked, what is wrong with making an apolitical film that charts the growth of Muralitharan’s cricketing career? The problem lies centrally with Muralitharan himself. Over the years, he has gone on to give ringing endorsements to those that led the massacre of the very people to whom the film is intended to be peddled. It should have sounded crass to the makers. It would have been impossible the portray the man without his politics.

Murali's tainted legacy

Sri Lanka’s famed cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan has always been a controversial figure. With tens of thousands around the globe airing their discontent over a Kollywood biopic to be made on the athlete, he has once more been pushed into the spotlight and sparked larger conversations over his legacy, Sri Lankan identity, and how sports and politics on the island are intrinsically entwined. As an athlete, Muralitharan broke several records. His unusual bowling action, which brought him fans as well as detractors, made him an international sensation. He toured the world, shrugging off the ‘chucker’ chants and abuse, to become the most successful bowler in test history. Despite his impressive record, he was never appointed captain of the national team - a fact simply accepted by many as simply part of the immovable everyday racism that all Tamils in Sri Lanka have to endure. Regardless, the fact that he was a Malayaga Tamil on a Sri Lankan team dominated by Sinhalese, won him fans. And though there was a small sense of pride that Muralitharan was the Sri Lankan cricket team’s lead wicket-taker, for many Eelam Tamils his rise to fame was coupled with a deep discomfort.