Groundviews

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.


[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