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Armed Conflicts

Four Years after a Tamil Defeat, the Diaspora Regroups

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.

Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, an attorney and prime minister in exile of the Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, in his New York City office. Credit: Samuel Oakford/IPS

NEW YORK, Oct 25 2013 (IPS) - 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.

"[The Tigers'] strength was always that they were the only ones that were capable of standing up to the government. This mythology gave them legitimacy." -- Gordon Weiss

“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.

A Diaspora That Dates Back 2,000 Years

Tamils are originally from what is now the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu, making Sri Lankan Tamils technically part of a global diaspora reaching back thousands of years. The first Tamils came to Sri Lank over 2,000 years ago, and the country is linked to India by a series of limestone shoals, named in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana as "Rama's Bridge.” The shoals run between Pamban Island off the coast of Tamil Nadu and Mannar Island, on the north eastern tip of Sri Lanka. Most Tamils that arrived before the colonial period still live in the north and are referred to as “Jaffna Tamils.”

Tamil communities have existed for centuries in Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and Burma. During the colonial period, Sri Lankan (then Ceylon) Tamils were favoured for administrative positions throughout the British Empire in Asia. Indian Tamils, on the other hand, were brought as labourers to various territories, including Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, Indian Tamils worked on tea plantations in the central highlands and came to be known as Hill Country Tamils.

By the early 20th century, Indian Tamils outnumbered those with historical ties to the island. Though many Indian Tamils returned (often under the threat of force) to India and their distinctions diminished over the years, the two groups still live in very separate areas – Jaffna Tamils in the North and East and Indian Tamils in the central highlands.

During the Civil War, Tamil communities around the world exhibited varying degrees of support for the LTTE. The post 1983 Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is smaller and relatively new but due to the war and because they settled in the West, probably the best known group of Tamils living outside of South Asia. References to the Tamil Diaspora in this article are generally in relation to this group.

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.

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  • srivanamoth

    The LTTE were home grown arising from Sinhala Only State policies and state terrorism and had nothing to do with international terrorism. By confusing the two SL governments were able to WMDs from 34 countries with which it displaced the entire Tamil community in the north and east and murdered at least 70,000 civilians in 2009 alone. Without a full accountability process mainly of the state’s own massive governance and human rights failures under the UN the travails of the country can and will never end. The PTA even 4 years after the war is used to abduct and kill not only Tamils but also Sinhalas and Muslims!

    Always harping on the Tamil diaspora and LTTE the Sinhala Only Buddhist governments since 1958 have got away with intolerable racism, religious bigotry and mass murder by its own policies and actions.

    It is time for ground realities to supersede diatribe and diversions by people little aware of ground realities. Therein lies the real problem which can never be laid to rest without justice supreme.

  • Donald

    LTTE is the results of successive Sri Lankan racist governments systematic marginalization discrimination of Tamils from independence from British rule since 1948.
    Vilifying LTTE used child child soldiers is not entirely fair, intact few dozens underage children enlisted in late 80s /90s from rural area where the parents were killed by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) lost their means to survive, then looked after by the LTTE. These youngsters were used in propaganda as to draw youngster to the organization. Post IPKF era these image used in propaganda as this child soldiers beaten 4th largest army in the world. These pictures were later came to hunt LTTE as using child soldiers.

    When LTTE lay siege on Elephant Pass 630 LTTE cadres were killed 2 of them were age of 14 years, this made this issue debatable and then the LTTE establish a Training school for cadres under 16 sent for vocational training only released to battle when they reached 16. They were trained Sri Lankan curriculum and electronic and technology.

    LTTE also ran program with UN child agency to release all under 18s from armed service and accomplished, this Western writers need to realize that US UK, Australia and Newzeland still recruit 16s to armed forces this is a breach of UN convention using under 18 enlisting into armed forces.

    Using suicide bombing of LTTE, used this technique used for military and political targets, blanket comments on this point is portraying par with recent religious fanatics killing innocent civilians for ideology far from a nation fighting to survive Sinhalese Government on slaughter to survive for last 60 years.

    No LTTE to blame now, the reality is now elimination of Tamil nations with wold forces vested with geopolitical interest in fast phase. The world will realize this soon.

  • Nallathamby Yoganathan


    If Srilanka cannot trust the Tamils with Devolution within united island, HOW CAN ONE ASK THE TAMILS TO TRUST the Srilanka?? As soon as the British left the island, Srilanka started ETHNIC CLEANSING of minorities in the East in 48 and unleashed mass killing, raping and burning Tamils’ properties with 100% IMPUNITY and IMMUNITY to those who did the Gross BARBARIC Human rights abuses against Tamils and Muslims since 1948, Like the TNA, Tamil leaders tried each and every PEACEFUL and DEMOCRATIC way to get a limited AUTONOMY to the North and East where Tamils( Muslims also Tamils) had been living even before the Sinhalese arrived by boats as refugees from Indian mainland but Srilanka unleashed mass violence, killing, raping and burning Tamils’ own properties in 1956, 58, 67 and 77 until the Tamils frustrated and started armed struggle against the Srilannkan SIN-HELLa racist terrorism unleashed against them 30 years ago in 1948.
    In 2009, the Srilanka successfully HOODWINKED the willing victims such as India and USA and carried out GENOCIDE in 2009 against Tamils and eliminated the LTTE.
    Srilanka know the will of Tamils and that is why Srilanka very reluctant to hold election in the NORTH but now held the election due to international pressure and for the CHOGM conference not for Tamils. After the CHOGM conference and coming MARCH UNHCR meeting, Srilanka will resume atrocities against Tamils in as 300,000 SIN-HELLa racist military sill occupy Tamil areas — That is Every FOUR TAMILS are being threatened by a SIN-HELLa racist Military troop.

    As per the powers for the ILL FATED Indian UNLUCKY 13 amendment, Srilanka already sabotaged the accord signed with India by dividing TAMILS of the North and East and also took the LAND and POLICE powers out of Provincial councils after just one week after the TNA victory.

    Now TNA have a TALKING SHOP as the provincial council who cannot even raise TAXES in their province nor from the foreign countries as all money MUST COME THROUGH Srilankan state itself.

    The JUDGE CV WIgneswaran and Sampanthan are SO GULIBLE in trusting the same Genocidal Srilanka and RACIST INDIA even after more than 65 years of BLOODY HISTORY of the SIN-HELLa racist Srilanka.

  • Nallathamby Yoganathan

    We Tamils failing miserably again.
    We Tamils facing a strong ENEMY Srilanka supported by very strong forces on the earth,
    Instead of creating more and more Tamileelam groups, Tamils – living in the west more than SINHALESE- should have created Srilankan association and condemn Srilanka for human rights and genocide. One can say Tamils will lose our struggle against Srilanka if we do so but the opposite will happen bcause Srilankan envoys and embassies WILL never ever all the Srilankan association to even come to Srilankan embassies let alone contributing or conferring with the Srilankan association created by Tamils. That is, When Srilanka cannot even talk to the Srilnkan associations in the west by Tamils, Srilanka will EXPOSE THEIR RACIST COLOURS to the WEST.
    there is saying in English, IF WE CANNOT BEAT THEM, LETS JOIN THEM TO BEAT THEM.

  • sri lanka

    kill all LTTE hhaahaahahahahahahahhahahahahahhahahaha

    we did it ahahahahahahhahahaha

    love tamils

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