An International Crisis Group report
by Ilankai Tamil Sangam, April 23, 2010
|This report poses a challenge and also opens a window for the Tamil diaspora. The challenge is to understand the mindsets, assumptions and frames through which the Tamils and their struggles are perceived and acted on by the international community. The challenge is also for the diaspora to come to a consensus on the best methods of pursuing justice, human rights and political space for Tamils.
The window is that in contesting, discussing and clarifying the contents of the report — its assertions and distortions — the Tamils will have an opportunity to engage and educate the international community. The Tamils should embark on the task of defining themselves and telling their compelling story in a manner that the world will listen to. They also have the task to looking towards the future.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), an organization dedicated to preventing and resolving conflicts all over the world, published a report titled “The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE” on February 23, 2010. The report provides an opportunity to the Tamils in diaspora to constructively engage with the ICG and others in the international community working to bring about a resolution to the conflict in Sri Lanka.
The diaspora in general appreciates the attention to an issue from the South Asia region and the engagement of the international community in a political issue of such importance to our safety, dignity and well-being.
We strongly support the report’s conclusion that, “The only way to reach a lasting peace is for the government to address the longstanding sense of marginalization, disrespect and insecurity that gave rise to the LTTE and other militant groups in the first place, while reforming the state to better respect the democratic rights of all its citizens.” We are gratified that the ICG recognizes that the diaspora is sufficiently mature to change our political positions based on the situation for Tamils in our homeland in the NorthEast and in the rest of the island.
In terms of international action, we also endorse the need for donors to “insist that money given to Colombo to redevelop the north and east is tied closely to the demilitarization and democratization of the region, including a meaningful process of consultation with Tamils and Muslims whose families have lived in those areas for generations. Donor governments and the United Nations must also insist on an independent investigation into the thousands of Tamil civilians killed in the final months of fighting in 2009, as well as press for an end to the government’s routine disregard for its own constitution and the rule of law.”
The diaspora is ready and willing to work with international actors in accomplishing these goals for the stability and prosperity of all communities on the island.
Portrayal of the diaspora
The report is an attempt at defining and describing the Tamil diaspora by an international organization. Most Tamils living in diaspora, however, will have difficulty seeing themselves portrayed in the report. The report is not about the struggles of the Tamils to adapt to their new homes or about their fears for those left behind or the indignities they often suffer living under the cloud of suspicion of being supporters of terror. Rather, the report addresses the main concern of the international community pertaining to the Tamil diaspora — the possibility that they may support renewed Tamil militancy.
Though titled “after the LTTE,” work on the report started in May 2008, before the final defeat of the LTTE. It is likely that the initial purpose of the report was to understand the Tamil diaspora’s support for the LTTE during the war. In the post-LTTE era, the report is concerned mainly with the Tamil diaspora’s support for renewed Tamil militancy. Thus the report views and defines the Tamil diaspora through the lens of security and the potential for activities that may threaten the existing order and status quo.
Tamils living in twelve countries, Tamils from Sri Lanka, government officials, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, UN officials, foreign militaries with an interest in the Sri Lanka’s insurgencies and Sri Lankan government officials were interviewed for this report. How the Tamils interviewed were chosen and whether Tamils who could not speak English were interviewed is not stated in the report. It is unlikely that Tamils fleeing the country in boats or those in immigration custody for years would have been interviewed and these are typically the Tamils who have suffered first hand the most recent atrocities, from all sides. The views of these Tamils would have likely provided a more nuanced picture of the Tamil diaspora’s heterogeneity.
The decision to exclude by design the almost 100,000 (the report states a number of 200,000 total Tamil refugees in India) dispossessed Tamil refugees living in camps in South India makes the report incomplete. These Tamils are stateless and impoverished but are a significant segment of the Tamil diaspora. Unlike Tamils in many other parts of the world, these Tamils are eager to return to Sri Lanka once conditions for their return are established. They are also likely to influence Tamil political dynamics on the island.
The title of the report is misleading. The title refers broadly to the “Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora,” but the scope, focus and methods of the effort are more limited. The purpose of the report is to examine the political dynamics in the diaspora, the level of support for continued militancy among Tamils and whether “moderate” voices have been able to speak up in the absence of the LTTE.
The authors are also searching for potential, undefined new forms of violence among the Tamil diaspora, an enterprise that smacks of our own “pre-emptive wars.” The suggestion that western and other governments need be vigilant for new forms of violence by the Tamils stigmatizes a whole community when – as a community – Tamils have integrated well into host countries, and been responsible and dutiful citizens. It can also needlessly impede the healthy integration of new immigrant Tamils into their new home countries.
This report will define the Tamil diaspora for many of its readers, including those who will make policies pertaining to Sri Lanka and the Tamils in diaspora. The accuracy of the report is affected, however, by the use of imprecise language such as ‘pro-LTTE,’ and ‘radicalization,’ words that evoke different meanings and understandings among readers.
The report acknowledges its focus on what it describes as ‘pro-LTTE’ elements in the Tamil diaspora. The authors find that these pro-LTTE elements constitute the vast majority of the diaspora. The authors, however, fail to define what they mean by this very loaded and imprecise term. Such imprecision may be a tool needed for security purposes, but its use does little to clarify facts or describe accurately the community that is being studied.
While the authors do concede that the Tamil population should not be stereotyped, they divide the diaspora into those who are pro-LTTE and the rest. The LTTE is a designated terrorist group. Since, according to the authors, the vast majority of the Tamils are pro-LTTE, the implication is that the vast majority of Tamils support terrorism or are terrorist. This is stereotyping at its worst.
In recent times the phrase ‘pro-LTTE’ has been loosely used, especially by the Sri Lankan government, to characterize anyone who speaks of the problems of the Tamils. British parliamentarians (including recently the British Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) and US congressman have been painted with this label, indicating the casualness of its use. Once labeled pro-LTTE, the individual is painted as a ‘terrorist supporter’ or a ‘terrorist.’ The credibility of the individual is marred and the contents of the message devalued. Tamils live with this burden and the report lacks recognition of this stigmatization, which clouds the report.
The framing of the report is centered on the issue of security/stability and the diaspora is viewed as either pro-LTTE or not, when in reality diaspora perspectives range along a spectrum. Several Tamil organizations that would fit the authors’ concept of ‘moderate Tamils’ are not included or mentioned in the report. The authors, in viewing the Tamil community as pro-LTTE and the rest, thus are disregarding/suppressing these voices and falling into a false dichotomy.
While many Tamils did support the LTTE’s military program, what the Tamils stand for is more complex than can be described as pro-and anti LTTE. Tamils are also pro-Tamil equality/pro-human rights/pro-Tamil rights/anti-violence/etc, etc.
The meaning of being pro-LTTE in the context of this report needs to be examined. The report seems to equate the political belief in a separate state with being pro-LTTE, thereby swiftly delegitimizing both. Only at the end of the report is an aside mentioned that, Tamils have the democratic right to espouse separatism non-violently. The long struggle of Tamils for justice and equality since the independence of Sri Lanka from British rule can be separated into the initial phase of a political struggle and the subsequent phase of military struggle. The political struggle was waged peacefully with debates, peaceful demonstrations, prayer and fasting and other available non-violent means. During this phase, the Tamil people democratically and with a clear majority voted for a separate state. That vote was based on the life experience of the Tamils that they cannot find equality or justice within the unitary, centralized power arrangement that was put in place in the island by the colonial British Empire. They understood that the structure of governance imposed on them by British conquest would make them a permanent minority in the country with a majority that was hostile to them. This generation was concerned about the continued existence of their community in the face of discrimination, forced assimilation, state-sponsored demographic changes and violence. The Tamils believed that a separate Tamil state would give them what they were looking for as a community, which is security of their identity, dignity and space to democratically articulate their governance aspirations. The report does allude to this sentiment when it quotes a Tamil academic who suggests “that the idea of a Tamil Eelam has been as much a metaphor for justice as a concrete goal, a separate state being the only space where justice seemed possible for Sri Lanka’s Tamils.”
This historical fact would explain the wide support among Tamils for separatism both within Sri Lanka and outside, now and in previous years, as is evident from the results of the recent parliamentary elections. This support does not automatically translate into support of the LTTE or its methods. Tamils were seeking separation from the Sri Lankan state long before the LTTE leaders were born. Thus, phrases such as “LTTE separatism,” implying that separatism was a project that began with the LTTE, convey a wrong impression. It should be noted that almost all the Tamil groups that actively worked with the Sri Lankan government to defeat the LTTE, use “Eelam,” the Tamil name for a separate state, in their official name, indicating the widespread support for this concept even among those who actively fought against the LTTE.
Currently, this belief in a separate state is only a dream or a hope and, as the authors correctly point out, is not grounded in the realities of the situation. The authors seem to equate holding on to such dreams with being pro-LTTE and, by implication, a pro- terrorist. The Jewish people held on to such a belief of a land for themselves through thousands of years and such a belief helped to sustain them as a community through all their travails. Tamils also are sustained in their displacement by this dream and this is compatible with living as good citizens in the world. When Eelam becomes the metaphor for a space where Tamils can find justice, the dream of Eelam becomes the hope that sustains the Tamils and helps them face the new challenges of being a community broken apart and spread all over the world. Displaced communities hold on to such emotional yearnings and it should not be viewed as a non-negotiable political demand or a potential for violence.
The word ‘radical’ is also used imprecisely and without definition. This word evokes a spectrum of negative images and a section in the report is titled ‘Radicalization,’ conveying the sense that Tamils in diaspora are radical or will become radical. Such language possibly comes from concerns about ‘radical Islam’ and the authors are perhaps viewing the Tamil community through similar lens. Signs of radicalization included in the report are: public obstruction of traffic during a demonstration, fasting, a few incidences of mob violence and possible vandalism. They also include sending humanitarian relief by ship to starving and desperate people. The report does attempt to mitigate the impression of radicalization of the community by explaining that these activities characterized as radical took place during the worst brutality visited on Tamils, when tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were being killed in Sri Lanka. These acts would not seem radical to most people and acts being labeled as such are possibly due to the authors seeking examples ex ante to buttress their claim (which is not backed by empirical evidence) that renewed Tamil militancy is a serious threat. Such assertions undermine the report’s intellectual accuracy and cast doubt on its ‘neutral’ perspective.
Framing and presentation
The framing and presentation of some of the data in the report needs critical examination, as they portray a picture that is not complete or accurate.
The executive summary begins with the assertion that “for the past quarter century the Tamil diaspora has shaped the political landscape,” (in Sri Lanka). This is a misstatement of the reality of politics in Sri Lanka. It attributes power to the Tamil diaspora that it never had nor has now. The fact is that at all times since independence, the political landscape in Sri Lanka has been shaped by the majority Sinhala community, which through its electoral power has elected and controlled all governments. All the other actors have been able to only react and respond to the moves made by the Sinhala community. Diaspora Tamils have influenced the political landscape by their support for resistance to the Sri Lankan government, but could not be described as having shaped it.
There are other players who should be included in discussions about shaping and influencing politics in Sri Lanka. The Indian government, an entity much more powerful than the Tamil diaspora, has significantly influenced Sri Lankan politics. A quarter century ago the Indian army was preparing to land in Sri Lanka. The Tamils were fleeing the 1983 government-sponsored pogrom, uprooted, displaced and traversing unknown paths. India was supporting Tamil militancy and was taking in some of these fleeing Tamils, financing and training them on Indian soil and sending them back to Sri Lanka to fight the Sri Lankan government. At that time there was no Tamil diaspora as we understand it now.
The next paragraph of the executive summary states that, “following the defeat of the LTTE, the mood in the diaspora has been a mix of anger, depression and denial.” Only the defeat of LTTE is stated to be the cause of the state of “anger, depression and denial” that the authors observed. Absent from this causal attribution were, the killing of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, the illegal incarceration of 300,000 Tamils including family members of diaspora Tamils, the perceived hypocrisy of the UN in failing to live up the ideals of its charter, and the impotence of the international community to stop yet another massacre of civilian citizens by a government, all taking place at the same time. In a report that tries to define and understand the diaspora, it would have helped to evaluate these Tamil responses if there had been comparison to other communities who have undergone similar experiences of helplessness and destruction. Such comparison would have lent much-needed nuance to the picture of the Tamils.
A whole section of the report is devoted to younger members of the Tamil diaspora. The report describes the situation of Tamils growing up in the West and quotes a collection of their individual opinions on the events of the last two years to support the opinions in the report. It provides little quantitative data or context to show how these young Tamils are in any way different from any other young person in these countries, especially other immigrants. The authors chose to end the section with a statement of one young Tamil activist to set the tone for that passage, who says, “…Many have lost trust in their government and no longer feel primarily Canadian…There is fear in the community of where this will lead.” In the context of the report, the implied direction of where it will lead is to possible violence and militancy. This is an inaccurate portrayal of young Tamils in the diaspora. To place such a statement in context and to accurately describe Tamil youth in Canada, it would have helped to find out whether there are young Tamils who are deeply grateful and proud to be Canadian citizens and finding thousands of such young Tamils would not have been a difficult task. It seems that such an objective inquiry was not part of the mission. The authors saw what they were looking for in young Tamils and not what these young people really are. The method used by the authors is selecting the voices represented needs be scrutinized.
The section in the report “Documenting war crimes and genocide” is biased and deeply insensitive. The authors describe the effort at documenting the violence against the Tamils as “political and more concerned with reinforcing feelings of victimization within the diaspora than seeking justice.” This conclusion is supported by the statement of a single Tamil. Opinions and statements from members of Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) have not been quoted. The report dismisses the credibility of the “Permanent People’s Tribunal,” that investigated crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka in January, 2010, because it did not pay attention to violations by the LTTE. The irony, of course, is that the LTTE can no longer be hauled to justice, whereas a democratically elected government can, and should be. The report quotes the Sri Lankan government‘s response to the tribunal, that found the government responsible for massive violence against the Tamils but does not offer the same privilege of quotation to Tamils working to document crimes committed against their community.
Acknowledgement of sustained violence against the Tamil community
A few points in response to these statements in the ICG report are relevant.
Tamils need acknowledgement of the massive and sustained violence against their communities by a government, similar to other communities subject to such violence, such as the Armenians. A truth commission will serve such a function as it did in South Africa or Rwanda.
The report claims that the TAG’s effort to document violence against the Tamils is motivated by a need to “reinforce feelings of victimization.” The report does acknowledge in a different section that “as a result of exile many Tamils justifiably feel a strong sense of victimization and injustice”. Tamils would not be in exile nor be refugees if they were secure in Sri Lanka and had not been victimized. The phrasing by ICG seems to imply that feelings of victimization are unnecessary and unacceptable. It would, of course, be more convenient for many for Tamils to ‘underplay’ their feelings of victimization. If the Tamils are to remain a community, however, they need to document and remember the injustice and brutality visited on them, like any other community in the world.
Only the Tamils will know the extent and details of much of the violence against them, a simple fact that is not often acknowledged. TAG is an organization that is documenting violence against the Tamils. Most of the Tamil victims of Sri Lankan government violence speak only Tamil, have not left the Tamil areas where they live, are buried in one of the many mass graves that dot the Tamil parts of the island or are poor refugees living in India. The Tamils have been subject to mass murders, pogroms, targeted killings, torture, detention without charge, displacements and random aerial bombing for close to two decades and they have lived through it and seen it more closely than western reporters. Most of such violence is unreported in the English media. ICG interviewers may have an opportunity to get some insight into the extent of violence against the Tamils if they decide to explore this aspect of the Tamil experience by interviewing refugees in India. They cannot expect to get this information from Sri Lanka itself where voices are silenced, especially in today’s political context and especially when the interviewer is an outsider.
The ICG report has not commented or contested the content or accuracy of the documentation compiled by TAG. The report’s main criticism of the TAG effort is that TAG fails to do similar documentation of LTTE violence. There is no denying that the LTTE did carry out violent actions against civilians. Equal and comprehensive documentation of all violence in the island, by both state and non-state actors is important for the country to move forward. However, thus far there has not been such equal treatment. The abuses of the LTTE are well documented and are available from the Sri Lankan government and many other sources. Such information has been the basis for designating the LTTE a terrorist organization. The LTTE has been judged, destroyed and its leaders killed. Sri Lanka continues as a member of the world community. Information about the intensity and extent of the violence against the Tamils is only partially known to the world. Much of the violence has not been reported, given the government’s control over the media and the difficulty that victims have in getting their stories out. TAG’s effort is an attempt to get some of this unreported information into the public realm. It should also be noted that ICG’s view regarding TAG’s documentation of violence against Tamils as hard to take seriously does not seem supported by the many statements made by individuals like Phillip Alston, (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions) and Human Rights Watch, among others which echo TAG’s major conclusions.
The uncritical use of quotations from individuals or representatives of organizations to establish a fact without cross-checking also diminishes the credibility of the ICG report. The authors quote a counter-terrorism official who estimated that roughly between $10-20 million per year was raised among a wealthy group of Tamils (presumably for the LTTE) in the US. This is an unlikely figure and a simple check on the number of “wealthy Tamils” might be a way to assess the accuracy of such assertions. Figures like this exaggerate the power of the Tamil diaspora. Inaccurate information presented by another intelligence officer resulted in a Sri Lankan Tamil being kept in jail for four years, including some time in solitary confinement. The Tamil was released through the efforts of a civil rights organization which won a court action on his behalf by presenting evidence that the officer’s testimony was not accurate.
Seeing ourselves as others see us
The ICG has published many reports that have highlighted the dysfunction of the Sri Lankan government and injustices meted out to the Tamils. The report in question here, however, fails to capture the motive, spirit and struggles that push ordinary Tamils to sacrifice and raise their voices against heavy odds in the hopes of achieving simple justice and dignity. The fact that this well-intentioned and respected organization would produce a report such as this is significant to the Tamil diaspora, whose challenges include seeing themselves as others see them.
Tamils are essentially powerless and the obvious manifestation of this is that despite six decades of struggle by different means, they still continue to be deprived of safety, equality and dignity in Sri Lanka and still continue to flee their homes. They live and cope with the reality of powerlessness. This makes it difficult for them to understand how others perceive them. They have difficulty understanding that even those with power have anxieties. The ICG report is a window to understanding some of these anxieties of the international community with regard to the diaspora Tamils. The Tamils may be sustained by the belief that only a separate state can deliver the dignity and justice for which they yearn. They do have to also understand that this belief causes ‘anxiety,’ not only in Sri Lanka but also in the international community.
The international community not only wants stability and order but also seeks good governance, justice, and space for the Tamils to live in dignity in Sri Lanka. It is this aspect of the international community that gives space to the Tamils in the West to articulate the aspirations of Tamils and the need for them to be protected in Sri Lanka. However, Tamils have to understand the limits of their space. This space is available within the guidelines of the international community and is limited to working within the status quo, unless the perception of the Tamils or the ongoing destruction of their community in Sri Lanka changes these guidelines. Tamils should realize that the overriding anxiety that determines the actual policies of the international community towards the Tamils is preservation of the existing order. There is, however, a slow but growing recognition that preserving sovereignty and the existing order at the expense of human rights and by various methods of repression is not to be supported without question.
This report poses a challenge and also opens a window for the Tamil diaspora. The challenge is to understand the mindsets, assumptions and frames through which the Tamils and their struggles are perceived and acted on by the international community. The challenge is also for the diaspora to come to a consensus on the best methods of pursuing justice, human rights and political space for Tamils. The window is that in contesting, discussing and clarifying the contents of the report — its assertions and distortions — the Tamils will have an opportunity to engage and educate the international community. The Tamils should embark on the task of defining themselves and telling their compelling story in a manner that the world will listen to. They also have the task to looking towards the future. The Tamils can undertake this task confident in the hope that in the post-LTTE era there will be a greater receptivity to listen to their side of their story of displacement, dispossession and demonization. The world is ready to accept that the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of the Tamils is neither just nor good governance. That will need to change if Sri Lanka is to move forward.
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA