Colombo, Diaspora, End of war special edition, Identity, International Relations, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Tamil Diaspora in Post-War Sri Lanka

One year ago today, the Sri Lankan army brutally and decisively ended its military campaign against the LTTE. The once hoped quiet dissolution of the national question through negotiation, devolution, and constitutional amendments were replaced by the unambiguous nature of the bullet, and the ferocity of the bomb.

From firecrackers, and dancing on the street, to quiet celebration, and outright anger and despair, Sri Lankans the world over represented the full spectrum of emotion as President Rajapaksa declared victory on local television stations. But victory, for whom? For many of the one million strong Tamil Diaspora in Toronto, Sydney, London, Paris, and the various other cities and towns they reside in, the images splashed across the international news websites, and Tamil blogs all but confirmed a long held truth of the Tamil community: that the Sri Lankan state will never provide institutional safeguards for the rights of the Tamil people. And the legitimate grievances that have unnecessarily caused a generation or two of Tamil and Sinhalese young men and women to lose their lives, remain as always unresolved.

Diaspora and the LTTE

The perception of the vast majority of Sri Lankans still living in the country, was in many ways the exact opposite of those living abroad. The black or white, Tamil or Sinhala, zero sum prism that so often dominated the political discourse only became more entrenched. Many Sri Lankans supported the war, and believed its conclusion had ushered in an unprecedented era of peace to the island, something that seemed so elusive just several years ago. For others, namely the Tamil Diaspora the images of individuals rounded up, and caged within makeshift military camps or being killed by indiscriminate aerial bombardments, proved once again the Sri Lankan Government’s desire to oppress the Tamil people through brute force. The torrent of vitriolic anger unleashed against the Sri Lankan Government manifested itself in dozens of demonstrations all over the world, with many Tamils waving and wrapping themselves in the snarling tiger flag of the LTTE, an emblem co-opted from the 3rd century Chola Tamil dynasty.

The desire to appropriate the symbols of the LTTE when demonstrating against the widespread human rights violations of the government was in many ways the innate reaction of a population far removed from the excesses and often-fascist actions of a separatist cum terrorist organization. This reaction however was intuitive, Tamil nationalism as expressed by the Diaspora community became over at least the past decade symbiotically attached to the LTTE. An expression of solidarity with Tamils suffering in Sri Lanka thus became an exercise in LTTE propaganda. This of course is not unique to the Tamil Diaspora. Many studies of Diaspora communities contend that the community’s removal from the direct consequences of conflict coupled with the trauma of displacement and past war experiences create a more hardened and extreme form of nationalism conducive to supporting armed struggle.

The consequence of articulating genuine grievances through a symbol and a group that for many, majority and minority alike represented a violent terrorist organization was that it de-legitimized their voice in the eyes of much of the Sri Lankan public. This allowed the Government to paint the Tamil Diaspora demonstrations as nothing more than a partisan gathering of terrorist sympathizers, rather than the emotional reaction of a community in despair at the plight of their Tamil brethren. The hope of a convergence of interests between the Tamil Diaspora and segments of the Sinhalese left and others to limit the excesses of the Government’s campaign sadly never materialized. The distrust between communities increased, positions hardened, and hopes for reconciliation between the Diaspora and the majority of the Sri Lankan public were dashed.

Narratives

Ethnic identity connects individuals through perceived past common experiences and expectations of shared future ones[1]. This connection expresses itself in the form of a narrative, a biased history based on a group’s selective choosing of historical facts and symbols. For decades the intransigence of the extreme forms of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism created irreconcilable existential truths about injustice, legitimacy and victimhood. Non-negotiable cultural claims, rights, grievances become the core metaphors of each group’s identity[2]. These narratives were often seen as symptoms of the conflict, now in post-war Sri Lanka they have become the obstacle to bridging the gap between the Tamil Diaspora and the Sri Lanka government.

The Path Ahead

It is key that these divergent narratives between the Tamil Diaspora and the Sri Lanka government must be eradicated for the sake of all communities on the island and to prevent a reigniting of the ethnic conflict. Reconciliation and not recrimination – should be the order of the day. Initial steps for reconciliation have to come from both sides. For the Tamil Diaspora this means confronting their role in exacerbating the conflict. The Tamil Diaspora’s ideological and financial support of the LTTE, a terrorist organization that killed Sinhalese, Tamils and made thousands of Muslims into IDPs alienated not only the vast majority of Sinhalese but also many Tamils. The cloak of extremism must de dropped and the reality of an undivided Sri Lanka must be embraced.

The Sri Lankan Government must also take stock of its role in the conflict in particular its record of manipulating ethnic tensions for electoral gain and understand that the Diaspora was created by the policies and actions of successive Government administrations. Only once both parties acknowledge their respective roles can the narratives of both sides be changed to accommodate the other, and a new-shared vision of Sri Lanka be realized.

There are however particular steps that the Government can do to foster an environment for reconciliation. Firstly it must accept the United Nation Human Rights Commission’s independent inquiry into the human rights violations that occurred during the last phase of the war. The past is said to be prologue, and without the full revelation of the government and the LTTE’s actions during the war the country will not be able to truly move forward and close this dark chapter in its history.

The Sri Lankan Government can also build trust by ensuring that land rights are respected and ownership is given back to the IDPs and those Diaspora that have left the country due to the conflict.  Re-possession of their lands is vital for the security and rebuilding of livelihoods for Tamils in conflict-affected areas. Reports of rampant land grabbing will only result in the resurgence of ethnic tension – maybe not today or tomorrow – but in the years ahead.

Finally, the Sri Lankan Government should allow the Diaspora to be brought in as partners in the development of the country, particularly in the North and East. The Tamil Diaspora in the past has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into development initiatives, a trend which should actively be encouraged by the Government. Since reconstruction and rehabilitation after decades of war will take a substantial commitment of resources and financing, a properly coordinated campaign by the Government to reach out to its fellow Sri Lankans abroad would help enormously to build a strong foundation for the future.

Though the Tamil Diaspora and the Sri Lankan Government were central actors in the theatre of war, without their active partnership there will be no just peace.

End of War Special Edition


[1] Ross, Marc. Psychocultural Interpretations and Dramas: Identity Dynamics in Ethnic Conflict. Political Psychology, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 2001), pp. 157-178

[2] Ibid

  • well the goal is sri lanka’s side.

    As far as i can see GTF has explicitly none violent means of achivcng its goals, same as Transnational government.

    But Sri Lanka has already declared war diaspora. Sinhala government has no reason to compromise with tamils people or diaspora.

    Only way out of this situation is International pressure and sanctions on sri lanka. + IC investigation of the final war. With there will be some balance so
    negotiation can take place in the future.

  • GTF are terrorists. There is no concept called diaspora. Diaspora is a term for economic migrants. Tamils should apply for new state in Tamil Nadu, India, Not is Sri Lanka.

  • Mango

    It was all going so well, until this fatal line “Firstly it must accept the United Nation Human Rights Commission’s independent inquiry into the human rights violations that occurred during the last phase of the war.”

    You think after having defeated the EU & NGO efforts to haul SL into the HR courts in May ’09, SL govt’s going to suddenly agree to AI/HRW and the rest sitting on judgement on SL? You’ve gotta be kidding! 🙂

    Also, I hate being pedantic, but the central parties to the war was SL govt and the SL-based LTTE. The pro-LTTE Diaspora supported the LTTE financially and politically, but um.. never actually sent their able-bodied men & women of fighting age to … er.. actually fight.

  • TMama

    Path is now open for all Sri Lankans to get out of their narrow enclaves, old boy networks, feathering the nests and take a more expansive viewof their own country. Opportunities for a livelihood, let alone econmic advancement were so restricted in the post independent export crop oriented model.

    I heard a very perceptive minister say, how easy it would be develop the quality of life for the local populace with few boats for rowing in our numerous Wewas, or breed fresh water fish to get a taste and nourishing meal.

    LTTE with all their megalomaniac dreams are gone, but one good thing they did was to gain refugee status for many youngsters from the North with their propaganda. Now they are in a powerful position to provide the capital for thousands of new businesses in the North.

    My feeling is that the Sri Lanka Governmant should take a back seat in the new phase except keeping a army and forces profile to prevent drugs and arms import, and racial tensions at bay to provide protection for minorities who now have come to re-possess theit old abodes, Here in the diaspora and citizens should be be empowered to form their own schools and universities like the JRJ paradigm in Colombo. THere will be many opprtunities for Jaffna to export the products and expertise to Tamilnadu and form a vibrant new economy that can rival Madras under the benevolent eye from Colombo..

  • joe

    Shamal, I have been hearing this nonsense of going to India to create a Tamil state, i really do not get the concept, if a citizen of Sri lanka, or Ceylon when these laws were passed the oppressed Tamils. Rather then taking it up with the Sri Lankian government you want them to goto India (another country ) to create a state ? Ignorance i tell you! Its ignorance that causes conflict!, and SRI LANKIAN TAMILS HAVE THE RIGHT AND THEY WILL NOT STOP TILL THEIR GRIEVANCES HAVE BEEN ACKNOWLEDGED, TILL THEN YOU WILL SEE TAMILS SUPPORTING A CAUSE THAT THEY BELIEVE IN. I guessing that you fully agree that what the government is doing is right but just because its a government does not mean its action are right, and although its might take another generation to solve the problem of sri lanka , to say goto India is being ****** IGNORANT!

  • Travelling Academic

    “The Tamil Diaspora in the past has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into development initiatives,..”

    Eh? $100M should buy quite a lot of development in SL, I would have thought. How many diaspora donated books would you count in the university library there? how many beds in the hospital, how many orphaned children can you get diaspora to sponsor? For all that flag-waving a year ago, Tamil diaspora engagement is shamefully close to nil is my guess.

    Here is an innovative idea: A great gesture Tamil diaspora could do to set the ball rolling towards reconcilliation, by starting a fund and helping the refugee muslims who were chased out of Jaffna by the LTTE, and are still living in camps! TNA take the lead, if you hear me.

  • Susantha

    The views of the tamil diaspora are not important to Sri Lanka Sri Lanka has elected a parliament and a President who will run the country in the way the people who bought them to power want .The Tamil Diaspora will have no say in the way Sri lanka is run

  • gb

    It always seems to come down to finding people guilty of war crimes before peace can be achieved. I think the LTTE financiers from the Tamil diaspora must be held to account for thier actions. If the Sri Lankan government and or military forces are expected to stand before a war crimes tribunal, the Tamil diaspora that financially supported the LTTE, should stand before a war crimes tribunal also. Every single Tamil, regardless of what country they currently live in, that financially supported the LTTE must stand before a tribunal and accept the war crime verdict of the LTTE to be thier own. Prison will be the verdict of millions.

  • niranjan

    Susantha,

    The President and the Parliament is for all Sri Lankans and not just for those who voted for them. They are also expected to act in that manner.

  • Remembering how Tamil friends and their families took to the streets last May, ordinary decent hard working people, whom I suddenly saw wearing LTTE coloured bracelets, flying the red flag on Parliament square – makes me see, quite clearly, the validity of this statement:

    “The desire to appropriate the symbols of the LTTE when demonstrating against the widespread human rights violations of the government was in many ways the innate reaction of a population far removed from the excesses and often-fascist actions of a separatist cum terrorist organization….An expression of solidarity with Tamils suffering in Sri Lanka thus became an exercise in LTTE propaganda.”

    It became quite apparent, for us who were watching events unfold at least, that what was initially a humanitarian plea did indeed become hijacked by the core group who just happened to be the loudest. Many I spoke to did voice their frustrations – in private – against this and felt saddened at how so many were swept up in the propaganda owing to the fact that there simply was no other apparent alternative to the LTTE to voice their grievances.

    However I am quite dismayed by the comment by Susantha who believes the voices of the Tamil Diaspora are an irrelevance and should hold no sway within Sri Lanka because the government is run for the people who voted for them. Would that mean then that those among the Sinhala Diaspora – my father, my mother, my uncles and aunts who came over around the same time many Tamils did – should have no say either? Or is it only the Tamil Diaspora you’re talking about? Whose overwhelming majority do want to help constructively, that should not be allowed to do so?

    This is a new paradigm we live in. We among the Diaspora changed also, just like all of you, since last May. With new paradigms should come new leadership of course, and already previously cowed unifying voices are coming to the fore (I’m not sure the GTF fall into this category) but this sense that the resources we offer are of surplus – that our support for developmental, political and financial are deemed simply irrelevant?

    The war might have been won friend, but there are years worth of nation-building ahead of all of us. The least we can do is be mature in our discourse.

  • Humanist

    Guy, don’t take Susantha seriously. He is a parody of the ultra nationalist Sinhala voice. He and one of his alter avatars have been on this site for a while.

    Of course, the diaspora has a voice. Without the remittances from the diaspora, the Sri Lankan economy will collapse.

  • Humanist – you know, I’ve since noticed his other comments and came to the same conclusion. Is he an actual parody? Because he does seem to be pretty ridiculous.

  • Humanist

    Guy, last year there was his alter ego Susan Goon who also wrote the same kind of dribble – hence the conclusion. Engaged, serious commentators were speculating, is this person for real…

  • Hasan

    Dear All
    Everybody took it granted that the view of the Tamil Diaspora is the view of the noisy minority Tamils. There are many Tamils feel happy now that they can go back home without fear about war. See the latest elction for the TGTE. In Sydney, less than 10% voted. Same in Paris and London. They avoid election with negotiation with contestants to save their face. The silent majority are still feared to express their view as they will be treated as traiters in thier medias. Unfortunately most of the Tamil medias outside Srilanka are controlled by these Tiger Sympatyiers. Wait and see. Soon the majority will break the silence. It is already seen in many countries.

  • Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

    The writer says : “Firstly it must accept the United Nation Human Rights Commission’s independent inquiry into the human rights violations that occurred during the last phase of the war.”

    I don’t know how exactly to break this, but (i) there is no United Nations Human Rights Commission and (ii) there is no independent inquiry into the human rights violations etc etc– no such inquiry ongoing or mandated.

    Before one prescribes and pontificates one must get one’s basic facts right.

  • Hasan –

    “Soon the majority will break the silence. It is already seen in many countries.”

    I rather wish they’d hurry up about it in London. Many I have spoke to here in the course of making our documentary has expressed the same views and have spoken about seizing the opportunity to change public perception of them – I’m talking about the Tamil Diaspora here – but so far all is still quiet on the Western front.

    Humanist –

    That is incredibly annoying.

    Guy

  • Susantha

    Humanist and Guy
    I have never posted here under another names every body on the internet who is involved in attacking Tamil terrorists knows who I am and the cyber tigers all fear me.

  • Hasan

    Guy,
    I have no idea about the activities in London. But in Australia. both Singhalese and Tamil started to work together towards reconciliation without any help or assistance from High commission or government. It gain momentum and more and more Tamils are joining in the Forum. We hope soon we will be the voice of both diaspora communities.
    The big minus point is no media for us. Hope we will build one

  • Hasan –

    A single unifying voice is a lofty ideal but one which is the only way I see where anything constructive can be achieved. By the way, when you mentioned ‘the Forum’ – which forum is this that your’re talking about?

    The participation from both communities you spoke about in Ausrtralia sounds great – but is it sustainable without the high commission being involved somehow? Getting mindsets on the same page will be tricky but anything as challenging as this will warrant some guts on both sides.

    Oh and…

    Susantha –

    “…every body on the internet who is involved in attacking Tamil terrorists knows who I am and the cyber tigers all fear me.”

    Buddy, you are a parody of yourself.

    Guy

  • blah blah

    Stop whining about human rights violations………now that the war is over dont ask for human rights abuse investigations..What were url doin for 25 years when prabhakaran was causing havoc in the country..Sleeping?… now after the president has done a great job in finishing the war your l come and try to cause problems by asking for human rights violations investigations..

    None of the top leaders in the LTTE are alive…no one at all..and we must thank the government that the scourge is over and that people can now walk around anywhere in the country in peace without any bomb attack or grenade attack by fools what so ever so stop whining about your petitions and mind your own business or try to help the development of the NOrth and East

    and if other tamils can live wit harmony wit sinhalese in the country in perfect harmony im sure u got a big problem wit a stupid attitude

    [Edited out.]