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Monday, January 23, 2017
This article is the first of a two-part series on the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in the years since the civil war ended in 2009. The second installment will examine allegations of war crimes and genocide and the legacy of the LTTE in the reconciliation process.
- Seated at a desk piled high with court documents and yellowed newspapers, Visvanathan Rudrakumaran remembers leaving Sri Lanka and coming to New York for the first time, three decades ago.
“My friends and everyone else, they went to the UK,” Rudrakumaran told IPS. “But I chose to come here because I was interested in the Bill of Rights and I wanted to go and practice constitutional law in Sri Lanka.
“That was my goal when I left the country. But then the ‘83 riots changed everything.”
Today, when he isn’t representing clients in court, Rudrakumaran is the prime minister in exile of the Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE). By his window overlooking the Garment District is a small plastic plaque depicting the group’s logo, a wish-bone outline of what was, for a brief period in the 2000s, a de-facto state – “Tamil Eelam” – at peace in northern Sri Lanka.
Until their sudden and overwhelming defeat by government forces in May 2009, Rudrakumaran served as legal advisor to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the group’s supreme commander, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The conflict’s roots were deeply embedded in the historical treatment of Tamils by the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community.
From independence in 1948, Tamils and other minority groups were persecuted and deprived of linguistic and political rights by successive Sinhalese governments. The 1956 Sinhala Only Act came to represent Sinhalese dominance in all Sri Lankan affairs.
For the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who fled Sri Lanka after murderous anti-Tamil pogroms in 1983 transformed simmering ethnic tensions into full-blown civil war, the erasure of Tamil Eelam and the LTTE left an existential void.
The ground the diaspora had stood on for three decades – the promise of return, and a guarantee of political rights and self-determination – was unceremoniously pulled out from under it.
“People are disillusioned and don’t have a clear direction,” admits Rudrakumaran.
Tamils in Sri Lanka and their supporters abroad have had to reimagine non-violent alternatives for achieving political and economic freedom on the island.
Yet the LTTE’s legacy can have a crippling effect on post-war reconciliation among fractious Tamil groups, let alone with the government itself.
Protesting Rajapaksa’s September speech to the General Assembly, Tamils gathered outside the U.N. held pictures of Prabhakaran, one telling IPS “Prabhakaran is still our leader.”
“The Tigers maintained an iron grip on diaspora politics,” said Gordon Weiss, spokesperson for the U.N. in Sri Lanka during the final years of the war.
“It was dangerous to be associated with anyone else. The Tigers were relentless with anyone who didn’t agree. Their strength was always that they were the only ones that were capable of standing up to the government,” Weiss told IPS. “This mythology gave them legitimacy. That disappeared.”
Funding the war from abroad
Part of the current dilemma Tamils both inside and outside Sri Lanka face stems from the outsized influence the diaspora maintained during the war. The LTTE was funded mostly not by sympathetic governments but instead by individuals living abroad, in countries like Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the UK.
Supporters established vast networks of clandestine and legitimate businesses and instituted informal but in effect mandatory taxes on many Tamil refugee communities in those countries, funneling money back into the war zone through shell companies and official charities.
By 2000, the LTTE could rely on wealthy members of the diaspora to donate millions of dollars through front organisations. The most prolific of their supporters was Raj Rajaratnam, the wealthiest Sri Lankan in the world and founder of the Galleon Group, a New York hedge fund firm.
Before he was arrested on insider trading charges in 2009, Rajaratnam gave more than 3.5 million dollars to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), a charity whose assets were later frozen by U.S. authorities for ties with the LTTE.
While Tamils outside Sri Lanka were willing to finance the war, it was those still inside the country that bore its terrible physical burden.
The LTTE could uproot residents as it fit their military strategy, one that was notorious for the use of child soldiers and suicide bombings. The constant suffering and political uncertainty experienced by Tamils on the island contrasted starkly with the often comfortable lives of LTTE’s funders.
“Some would say that those who were able to leave Sri Lanka and go abroad and establish themselves tended to be better off and better educated and those from higher casts,” said Weiss.
The Sri Lankan permanent representative to the U.N., Palitha Kohona, himself accused of war crimes by Tamil groups in the U.S. and Switzerland, stressed this point in an interview with IPS.
“The word diaspora is a misnomer,” he said. “The vast majority [of Tamils] left voluntarily and many were economic refugees.”
Time and distance moved the diaspora in a more radical direction.
“A lot of Tamils in Sri Lanka are less nationalist than those in the diaspora,” said Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“If you look at diasporas around the world, they almost always end up being more radical in their demands than the home communities,” Keenan told IPS.
After 9/11, the LTTE found itself lumped into the global war on terror and Western governments began cracking down on its funding network. U.S. authorities classified the group as a terrorist organisation and froze their assets as various fronts were uncovered. The financial decline of the LTTE would presage their ultimate military defeat.
Engagement or resistance?
Central to the current plans of all Tamil diaspora groups is focusing international attention on alleged war crimes committed by the forces of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the final months of the conflict when, according to U.N. estimates, at least 40,000 civilians were killed.
The TGTE, though it recognises a military solution may be untenable, maintains that a separate state is the only outcome that can ensure a lasting peace and guarantee rights for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) scored a significant victory when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that in light of human rights concerns, he would not attend the November Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo.
The CTC, which represents the largest national group of diaspora Tamils, has spoken in favour of engagement in the post-war political process in Sri Lanka.
Despite reports of widespread voter intimidation, Sept. 21 Northern Council Provincial elections, the first in 25 years, saw the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) win an overwhelming majority of the vote in Tamil-dominated areas.
In a press release published just before the vote, the Global Tamil Forum, of which the CTC is a member, stated it was “important that an administration run by the elected representatives from the region could play a significant role in restoring the confidence and dignity of our people.”
Immediately following the elections, a fight broke out over how the results should be interpreted.
In a September editorial, the Tamil Guardian, an influential British publication, called the council election “a vote for liberation” and sought to “dispel the often propagated notion of a dichotomy existing between the political aspirations of Tamils in the homeland versus those in the diaspora.”
“This was not a vote for the TNA. It was a vote for resistance,” the editorial concluded.
Part Two of this series can be found here.