Sri Lanka’s 26 years of civil war effectively ended on May 19, 2009 with a single image. Televisions across the globe broadcast a government-issue photo of slain Tamil Tiger head, Velupillai Prabhakaran, lying on a muddy patch of ground with wide eyes and a fractured skull. His life’s end terminated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s decades-long fight for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority about ten percent of the population and a cycle of violence that Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religions have been living with for decades.
For the more than 800,000 members of the Tamil diaspora spread out from Toronto to Sydney, the news was met with mixed reactions. Some are fervent supporters of the LTTE and others downright oppose the separatist movement, but grapple with publicly criticizing the Tigers out of fear of a network globally regarded as terrorists. What more Tamils living abroad can agree on is better rights for the minority still in-country. Many Tamils, who are primarily Hindu, have long claimed job discrimination and unequal political power in a nation and government dominated by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. For decades, hundreds of thousands of Tamils have endured life under the crossfire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, and still today, about 300,000 of the nation’s 3 million Tamils remain live in government camps in Sri Lanka’s north. Many ex-patriate groups are now lobbying their host governments to pressure Sri Lanka into increasing humanitarian aid to Tamils. And since the war’s end about six weeks ago, the most vocal and visible Tamil ex-pats fighting for this cause has been the youth, raised outside Sri Lanka, apart from relatives they now spend much of their free time fighting for.
For years, young Tamils have been staging protests calling for international intervention in Sri Lanka’s civil war to help establish a permanent ceasefire. Now they’re shifting their energies to persuade Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa to provide desperately needed resources to war-torn areas across the nation. Many young Tamils have grown loudly critical of Rajapaksa, who they say does not respect the rights of minority groups in the country. On June 17 in London, a 73-day protest calling for an end to discrimination against the Tamils by the Sri Lankan government ended with a series of clashes with police in Parliament Square. “I don’t see the current government in Sri Lanka has the foresight to build compassionate and prosperous society based on equality, inclusiveness and accommodating the minority aspirations,” says Keta Nannithamby, a 42-year-old Toronto resident who has frequent dialogue with Tamil youth via Twitter, the social media site through which he’s developed a following of about 350 under the avatar @TamilDiaspora, and provides frequent links to Tamil-related information.
Many Tamil youth living around the world became committed to raising awareness of Sri Lanka’s plight in the West after they visited their parents’ country between 2002 and 2008, a period of truce between troops and the Tigers, and saw how their families were living there. Vasuki Guna, a 20-year-old university student in Australia, says she can’t forget images of children running through a landmine-cleared field or an infant cousin screaming at the sound of a firecracker, confusing it with a grenade. “You come back and can’t get the images out of your mind,” Guna says. “After I saw that, I was so much more active in organizing campaigns. We have no control of Sri Lanka’s government and its corruption, but we haven’t just washed our hands. We’re determined to fix it.”
The number of young Tamils who are specifically sympathetic to the Tigers’ cause is unclear, but they, too, vocalize their sentiments. Sam Pari, a 26-year-old doctor in Australia who also visited Sri Lanka during the ceasefire to volunteer at orphanages and hospitals, regularly meets with fellow activists to plan events and rallies. After seeing what she describes as the “discrimination and racism of the government” firsthand, Pari says she understands why the LTTE’s resorted to arms throughout the conflict. “The diaspora is very concerned that the one body that protected the Tamils against oppression by the Sri Lankan government is now very much weakened.”
But many members of the first generation of Tamils who fled the country when the war began are relieved by the Tigers’ seeming end, and wish that the global Tamil youth were more critical of the LTTE. Nirmala Rajasingam, a first-generation activist with the UK-based Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, says the Tigers were “packaged as martyrs and freedom fighters” to the Tamil people, and that the diaspora’s “unquestionable support and loyalty made the LTTE more unaccountable for its military power.” Rajasingam, who has spent much of her life in exile having once been involved with the guerilla group, hopes this time following the conflict will be a time of introspection for the war’s perpetrators. Her younger sister, Rajani, was also involved with the LTTE until she dissented and was allegedly murdered by members of the LTTE, the subject of the PBS’ documentary “No More Tears Sister.”
Support for the Tigers or rejection of their violent tactics has potential to divide young Tamils. But “it’s too early to analyze and evaluate the divisions that could emerge among the youth,” says Shanaka Jayasekara, Associate Lecturer at the Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at Macquarie University in Sydney. “The extreme radical elements of the Tamil diaspora youth will continue to live in the past glory of the LTTE. The more moderate Tamil diaspora youth will use the opportunity to think outside the LTTE-centric worldview, and the less politicized Tamil diaspora youth will become conciliatory advocates promoting trust building on the ground,” Jayasekara says.
While many youth would still like to see the eventual creation of an independent Tamil homeland, their short-term grassroots lobbying is intended to get Western governments to influence Sri Lanka into resettling the internally displaced Tamils today.”We know that laws have been violated against our people,” says Siva Vimal, a 20-year-old university student in Toronto who is involved with the York Federation of Students but has helped out groups like the Tamil Youth Organization in the past. “A lot of us have never been to Sri Lanka or seen the circumstances there, but we know the fundamental laws of human rights.”
Some see another way to harness the energy of the youth movement. Ruth Kattumuri, a co-director of the Asia Research Center at London School of Economics, encourages Western Tamil youth to promote peace and development in Sri Lanka, including creating more opportunities for Tamils by teaching them skills, or helping provide medical care. “They can raise the resources they need to go there and work on rehabilitation and education,” Kattumuri said, instead of seeking out media opportunities that she says promote violent images of rowdy protestors. “It’s about creating projects which gives them employability. That way you’re empowering them. It’s about teaching them to fish, rather than giving them fish.”
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