LTTE gas mask (marks), Navy museum, Trinco dockyards
I wrote this for something else, but it didn’t work. So here it is.
At the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, thousands of diaspora Tamils and their supporters took to the streets of London and Toronto. They waved the flag of the LTTE, a snarling tiger flanked by bayonets and surrounded by a halo of bullets. It was a violent organization responsible for the invention and liberal use of the modern suicide bomber. Bad scene.
After the LTTE was militarily crushed, Sri Lanka slowly demined the north and resettled most IDPs. Northern Tamils remain a largely disenfranchised minority, but recent local government elections are slowly reintegrating them into the democratic mainstream. The partition of the country into a diverse south and mono-ethnic north has been averted, it seems permanently. In the global north, however, the battle rages on.
No To Sri Lanka
Of those thousands of LTTE supporters in the west many, like the young people brought together by the Mosaic Institute in Canada, have begun working towards reconciliation, some through a group called Sri Lankans Without Borders. Many diasporals and even liberals within Sri Lanka, however, reject the label ‘Sri Lankan’ entirely. To them the identity is associated with the Sinhalese race, the government, and the war. And it’s something they continue to fight.
I recently spoke on Al Jazeera and argued that Tamil problems could be solved as Sri Lankan problems, within a context of equality and unity. This debate spilled out into online forums with some saying ‘I am NOT Sri Lankan’ and others saying that they couldn’t accept a Sri Lankan identity until the government made the first move. I don’t agree with those perspectives, but they’re made within a civil and productive context. There are more hostile forces at work as well.
Many of those waving LTTE flags didn’t disappear. They instead put their considerable energies into lobbying foreign governments and media institutions to brand the Sri Lankan government as war criminals and even to push for trade and sports sanctions against the country. These measure are purely punitive and do little to advance life for anyone on the island.
One strategic course would be for all parties to sacrifice short term pride and politics for the welfare of the Sri Lankan people. This would mean Tamil Nadu pushing for investment in the Sri Lankan north, giving people the livelihoods and income they desperately need. It would mean western nations encouraging trade and tourism to give them more leverage against the generous and benign Chinese.
The lobbying from parts of the diaspora, however, is not strategic. It is founded on true injustice, true hurt, expressed as anger. Many in the Sri Lankan diaspora are there because their families were burnt out of house and home in the riots of 1983. More were casually humiliated and denied opportunities in the land of their birth. This stings, and watching the central government solidify control over the country must really add the salt. To many people in the diaspora, this conflict is personal. They truly want a partition, even if they have no intention of living there.
Productive politics, however, is strictly business, and it’s longer term. In the immediate term, the choice is between trying to punish this government or help the people. In the medium term, it is a long fight for equality. Then, in the long-term you can see a change of government under which our tragic history is objectively and productively investigated.
This, however, is not what the radical diaspora wants, and it does not sell papers or motivate donors. Instead, what moves it what always brought Sri Lanka to the world’s attention – war. This is a shame, because it’s not what truly defines this country, and it never was.
These are just bad flashbacks, of a bad past. It gives you a media buzz, but it’s not really productive, divided as it is along the separatist fault lines of the past. Actual reconciliation work is going on and has to keep going on, and no it’s not going to come from the government or the UN or Channel 4. But it is happening. And must happen, for the next generation to have something more than our suffering to broadcast to the world.
It’s my hope that Sri Lankans will someday be known as accountants or lawyers or artists or whatever we are and not as war victims or war criminals supplying war junkies here and abroad.