Lankan Tamils Safer Abroad

By V Suryanarayanan

Soon after the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for an international inquiry into human rights violations that took place in Sri Lanka, Colombo began to explore new policy initiatives. In addition to strengthening relations with friendly countries like China and Pakistan, Colombo was determined to curb the increasing influence of the Tamil diaspora. It is apparent that as and when international inquiry begins, the Tamil diaspora will be in the forefront submitting evidence against the Sri Lankan government.

The Sri Lankan government has recently identified 16 organisations and 424 individuals as financiers of terrorism. As a first step, the government has frozen their assets in Sri Lanka. The regulations are based on the UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of 2001, sponsored by the US following the aerial attack on the World Trade Centre. The regulations have made it a criminal offence for Sri Lankan citizens to maintain contacts with banned outfits and listed individuals. The banned organisations include Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO). Prominent individuals listed by the government include V Rudrakumaran of the TGTE, Fr S J Emmanuel of the GTF and Tiger leaders Nediyavan and Vinayagam.

The LTTE has been proscribed, designated or banned as a terrorist group in several countries. India was the first to ban the LTTE in May 1992 following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Sri Lanka banned it only on January 7, 2009. It should be mentioned that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), at heavy cost of men and materials, had bottled up the Tiger guerrillas in the jungles of Vavuniya. The two hitherto antagonistic entities, Prabhakaran and Premadasa, came together to get IPKF out of Sri Lanka. Colombo provided large sums and arms to the Tigers, thus enhancing their fighting capabilities. It should also be mentioned that Anton Balasingham, the ideologue of the Tigers, told The Times of London, “India has no moral or legal right to talk of the security of the Tamil people. This has to be worked out between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Foreign intervention has failed to bring peace.” The honeymoon, however, did not last long. Premadasa fell victim to the cult of the human bomb perfected by the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Tamils had always been a migratory community. Since Jaffna was relatively arid, educated Jaffna Tamils, during the colonial period, migrated to Malaya, Singapore and other British colonies to take up white-collar jobs. Their remittances sustained Jaffna’s economy. In fact, Jaffna was known as post office economy. Post-independence, highly qualified Sri Lankan Tamils—academics, doctors, engineers, lawyers and technocrats—migrated to England, the US and Australia in search of greener pastures. Following ethnic fratricide of July 1983, Tamils from all strata of society began to leave Sri Lanka to escape persecution and military reprisal. The period synchronised with labour shortage in many European nations. What’s more, the governments in these nations viewed the Tamils as a persecuted group deserving compassionate treatment. Contrast this with the present policy of the Australian government who perceives illegal immigrants as “unwelcome intruders”. Today, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora numbers more than one million spread across the globe.

Unlike India, in the developed world, asylum is the first step towards citizenship and eventual integration. Thus, Sri Lankan Tamils have become a permanent feature of the demographic profile of the developed world. They are unlikely to return to Sri Lanka on a permanent basis. However, they would like to visit Sri Lanka as tourists and maintain contacts with their relatives. It should be mentioned that enlightened sections among the diaspora are taking keen interest in the rehabilitation of the war ravaged economy. They assist self-help groups, institute scholarships for the needy and are involved in restoration of temples and churches.

Experiences of refugees are traumatic illustrations of social change. They are uprooted from one socio-cultural setting and transplanted into another. In June 1998, I met Selvi, who was born in Jaffna. Her father died in 1988. Her mother died a year later. In 1989, Jaffna came under LTTE. Selvi paid three sovereigns to the Tigers as “exit tax” and went to Colombo. After working for a few years as domestic servant, she decided to migrate to Canada. She contacted a travel agent who gave her a false passport and false visa on payment on Lankan rupees equivalent to 20,000 Canadian dollars. On her first venture, Selvi and five others were detained by immigration authorities in Dhaka and sent back. Six months later she went to Singapore and reached Toronto via New York. When I met her in the Siva temple in Toronto, a favourite haunt of the Sri Lankan Hindus on weekends, she was awaiting a final decision on her asylum application.

To look at Lankan Tamil diaspora as a monolith will be a fatal mistake. After their bitter experience in Sri Lanka many have become apolitical and would like to lead normal lives in host nations. There are others who belong to the non-LTTE groups, but they had to withdraw into silence for fear of physical violence. Pro-Tiger groups had a free run and they fuelled the war machine of the Tigers.

Following the decimation of Tigers and killing of Prabhakaran, the diaspora went into a disarray. The TGTE and GTF were formed to meet the new challenges. The myth that Prabhakaran was invincible got exploded. They also realised Tamil Nadu politicians were more interested in making political capital out of the sufferings of Lankan Tamils. Complicating the situation Colombo did not make any effort to win over moderate sections among the diaspora. Colombo’s systematic negation of the 13th amendment, combined with its failure to institute a credible mechanism to inquire into human rights violations, is slowly, but surely, leading to its international isolation.

While the diaspora is hitting headlines, the continuing tragedy of Lankan Tamils goes unreported. A few years ago, well-known human rights activist Paul Caspersz visited Jaffna for a study. According to Caspersz, everyone, without exception, yearned for peace. He expressed the anguish and hope of the Tamils by quoting from a poem, The Siege of Hope, by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet. The poem opens with the lines, “There in the hillside, gazing into the dusk and canon of time, near the shadow-crossed gardens, we do what prisoners and the powerless always do, we try to conjure up hope.”

The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian

Studies, University of Madras.

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