Diaspora, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Reconciliation

A Wobbly Bridge (Or Is It A Footpath?) From The Tamil Diaspora

For a long time I didn’t think of myself as being a part of the Tamil Diaspora. I had this vague feeling that I was going to go back home some day.  Even when it was pretty obvious that I was not going back, I still didn’t want to identify myself as a member of the Diaspora.  For me, acknowledging that I was a part of the Diaspora meant closing the door on my life in Colombo.  Forever.  After this past year, I am humbled and grateful to be able to call myself a part of the Diaspora (and furious, sad, and horrified, like much of the Tamil Diaspora, by the plight of Tamil citizens callously sacrificed to the Sri Lankan State’s all-out war against the LTTE).  Still, it has not been easy to find my place in this amorphous and evolving Diaspora and to figure out my relationship to Sri Lanka from within it.

Until now, it seemed to me that identifying oneself as part of the Tamil Diaspora involved having to articulate where one stood on the LTTE and on Eelam.  And there, I think, lay the crux of the dilemma for many Tamils living abroad.  But because I am reluctant to speak for anyone else about such personal, complex, and explosive emotions, I am going to speak only for myself.

For me, taking a position on the LTTE was not easy.  Over the years, as I came across mounting evidence of the increasing and systematic human rights abuses by the Tigers, I gradually and quietly pulled back from supporting them in any way.  But I could not bring myself to denounce them.  I have asked myself why and I am not sure I have the answers.

Part of it was loyalty, because they fought for us when we were left unprotected and exposed by what was supposedly our own government. I knew that fighting a guerrilla war against the might of a State created an uneven battleground and so I did not condone, but despairingly understood, the tactics they employed.  I didn’t want Eelam (I loved my childhood in multicultural Colombo), but I didn’t feel I could judge those who felt the need for it.  Because I grew up in Colombo, I had many close Sinhalese friends and didn’t see the Sinhalese race and its people represented in the State’s actions. But being Tamil, many people in my life that I loved and respected had vastly different experiences that led to them supporting the LTTE and believing in the need for a separate State for Tamils.  In the end, it was hard to denounce the LTTE without feeling like I was somehow sanctioning the Government of Sri Lanka and its actions by doing that.  Taking a principled position for a unified Sri Lanka with equal rights for all minorities, I could do.  And in an ideal world, that is what I want.  But the truth is that I did not, and do not, believe in its plausibility.  And I was too angry with the Sri Lankan State for the misery and rootless life it was forcing on Tamils everywhere, to find it in me to work towards anything that I saw as helping them in their fight against the LTTE (even if I no longer supported them).

So I chose to stay out of Diaspora and Sri Lankan politics altogether and focus instead on maintaining my ties to my large extended family, now dispersed all over the world.  It became the surrogate for my commitment to Tamils.  The rest of it was just too painful and complicated and morally compromised to confront and negotiate.

I write this because I feel that the Tamil Diaspora is viewed today by much (not all) of the non-Tamil Sri Lankan universe as a monolithic, extreme, out-of-touch, LTTE-loving group of fringe maniacs. The Dark Side waiting in the wings to ruin Sri Lanka by funding and creating a neo-LTTE any moment now.  This is not the Tamil Diaspora in my life.

Lost somewhere is the enormity of the anguish and alienation that Tamils abroad have had to endure over the years, while living with the bitter realization that there is no going back home.  Ever.  And many Tamils still have relatives living in the war zones, now in IDP camps; relatives who were killed both before and after the war; and relatives who continue to disappear from the camps.  The Diaspora’s fury is not without just cause.  Still, I don’t purport to begin to understand anyone in the Diaspora and what motivates them, or the ways in which their myriad traumatic experiences, large and small, manifest themselves and where it leads people to put their energy.  But I do know that our collective loss is vast and deep.

Yes, I know we all (Sri Lankans from every ethnic community) have lost much and I know Sri Lanka as a country has suffered greatly.  But let’s not get started on who began what, when, and how, whose fault it all is, who betrayed whom, and whose pain and loss is greater.  None of it negates the reality of the tragedy that is the Tamil Diaspora’s to bear.

So this is simply my request to you (dear readers), to try to see the Tamil Diaspora in its complicated, diverse, proud, and traumatized entirety, and see it in light of the tortuous journey its people have traveled for at least the last twenty-six years.  I don’t have much hope for a rapprochement of any kind between the larger Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lanka given the way the government has treated Tamils in the IDP camps just in the few months since the war ended.  It has only served to affirm the worst fears of the Diaspora, that Sri Lanka will always treat Tamils as second-class citizens and cannot be trusted to protect them.

But from the sliver of the Diaspora that I speak from, I am making a modest attempt at a dialogue that I hope will help me sort out my relationship at least with civilian Sri Lanka.  Maybe even find a path of reconciliation.  For no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to call any place else home.