Diaspora of doom

How expats are fueling a bloodbath in Sri Lanka. By Nirmala Rajasingam Since April 2009, hundreds of Tamil expatriates have been protesting the recent escalation of fighting in Sri Lanka in unprecedented numbers across the world’s capitals. Demonstrators filled a Toronto park on May 13, and 100 Tamils marched outside the White House this week. ...

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585802_090515_tamil12.jpg

How expats are fueling a bloodbath in Sri Lanka.

By Nirmala Rajasingam


How expats are fueling a bloodbath in Sri Lanka.

By Nirmala Rajasingam

Since April 2009, hundreds of Tamil expatriates have been protesting the recent escalation of fighting in Sri Lanka in unprecedented numbers across the world’s capitals. Demonstrators filled a Toronto park on May 13, and 100 Tamils marched outside the White House this week. In Britain, at least 500 Tamils held a sit-in protest outside of Parliament.

Yet the demonstrators are almost exclusively Tamil; there are no faces from the local host communities or the other Sri Lankan ethnicities at the demonstrations. Why has the situation in Sri Lanka failed to attract wider concern?

Certainly, there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions in Sri Lanka today. More than 50,000 Tamil civilians are trapped between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. While the government has shelled civilian areas, the LTTE has used those same civilians as human shields. Hundreds are dying and countless more are injured without medical assistance.

The government of Sri Lanka refuses to accept the extensive humanitarian assistance offered by the international community, and has refused a temporary cease-fire that could allow the trapped civilians to safely exit the combat zone. This is a war that the Sri Lankan state has fought against the Tamil Tiger rebels over two decades — one it never thought it could win. Now, with a possible end in sight, even a temporary pause is out of the question. Despite international condemnation, the government shows little sign of budging.

But if the government garners little sympathy these days, the Tamil Tigers evoke even less. For 20 years, the Tigers have positioned themselves as the sole representative of the Tamil people, an ethnic group in north east Sri Lanka that was marginalized by a Sinhala nationalist majoritarian state in post-colonial times. As they tell it, the Tigers are brave rebels fighting for national liberation. In reality, the LTTE uses suicide bombs, civilian shields, and assassination to win political and territorial turf.

The LTTE, despite its decreasing popularity with Tamils within Sri Lanka, has been able to survive this long owing to one thing: the unquestioning support of the global Tamil diaspora. For more than two decades, the pro-Tiger diaspora has fueled the conflict in Sri Lanka, raising funds for the insurgents through coercion and threats. The LTTE gradually brought under its aegis most Tamil businesses and cultural organizations, sealing its control over community life in countries such as the United States, Canada, and Britain. Influential nationalists have carefully developed this pliant support base. Thus, it was easy to mobilise thousands of protestors for prolonged periods of time on the Tigers’ behalf.

This is precisely why others have been loath to join in the protests throughout the Western world. The Tamil diaspora community is isolated by its own nationalism. Co-opted by the LTTE, it has made no contribution to peace. While the ravages of war encouraged Tamils in Sri Lanka to rethink the LTTE’s secessionist project, the diaspora embraced it even more firmly, not having been affected by the collateral damage of that war directly.

Unfortunately, the international community bought into the notion that the LTTE represented the Tamils for years. During the last cease-fire agreement signed in 2002, negotiators — hesitant to risk a new outbreak of violence — were silent as the Tigers brutally repressed Tamil dissent and alternative leadership. If the LTTE are indeed crushed, as the government promises, there will be a political vacuum at the helm of the Tamil community. Searching for someone to fill the void, Western policymakers have turned to the pro-secession representatives of the diaspora. Hence, the government, which does not hesitate to conflate Tamil civilians with the LTTE, has cynically presented international mediation efforts as tantamount to support for the Tigers. The government sells this case to the majority Sinhala community — whose support it needs for the war. And when it looks to China, India, and Iran for support, it can claim to be standing up to the bullying tactics of the ex-colonial, neo-imperial powers.

As Sri Lanka’s humanitarian crisis unfolds, the international community must make its message clear and forthright. The Tigers and the diaspora that supports them have no claim as the “sole representation” of the Tamil people. Nor is secession a reasonable option. Anything more superficial than this firm engagement will play into the hands of the LTTE lobby in the West — and inflame Sinhala nationalists in Sri Lanka. Only this firm message will serve the cause of peace and democracy.

Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan Tamil activist who lives in exile in London. She is a member of the steering committee of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF).

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

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