The Rajapaksa Government and the Tamil Diaspora: will the twain ever reconcile?

Rajan Philips, courtesy of the Sunday Island, 27 November 2011

On Nov. 13 I wrote about the intersecting trajectories of the Commonwealth and Sri Lanka. The Tamil Diaspora is entangled with both. Although the Diaspora is of recent origin, the Sri Lankan Tamil problem is as old as Sri Lanka’s independence and its association with the post-colonial Commonwealth. Early days, as I said last week, were halcyon days. The Tamil problem seemed permanently settled, at least going by the results of the 1952 election, when the UNP and the Tamil Congress, both part of the incumbent government, won spectacularly in their respective domains.

“The UNP is good enough for the country for twenty five years and that is good enough for me,” G.G. Ponnambalam had earlier told Colvin R. de Silva. “Many a plan of men and mice go astray”, rued Colvin and he would be proved right, not for the last time! Colvin’s more ominous prophesy came later: Two languages, one country; one language, two countries. Again, he was not heeded and again he was proved right.

By the time the Rajapaksa regime defeated the Tigers and put an end to the breakup of Sri Lanka, large numbers of Tamils had left the island. The Tamil Diaspora was born, early inductees to the era of trans-nationalism when a visa is less of a problem than earlier times, when a permanently on-the-run revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, famously wrote in his diary, “landed on a planet without a visa!”

Trans-nationalism and the Tamil Diaspora: Trans-nationalism is the other ingredient that should be added to the mix of nation-sates, sovereignty and citizens in the cauldron of globalization that defines our time on this planet. Trans-nationalism began with the proliferation of multinational corporations, the global spillover of industrial reservoirs that were, as Trotsky saw them, the foundations of nation states. The social and political sides of trans-nationalism emerged after the 1980s when citizens of one country began migrating to many different countries without severing ties to their country of origin. The movement of people is primarily from the young and populous countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and lately from Eastern Europe, to Western countries with ageing populations and, what seemed to be until the Great Recession, growing job markets.

Transnational migrants, unlike migrants in earlier times, are intimately associated with more than one country, and are part of the social and political processes in more than one country. At the social level, extended families that once made up villages are now globalized. Thanks to instant modes of communication and air transport expansion, family ties have not only survived spatial separation but are also being reinforced and renewed. South Asians and Sri Lankans know full well how their extended families are now far flung spanning continents. They are among the beneficiaries of multicultural and family reunification programs in Australia, Canada, UK and the US.

At the political level, trans-nationalism takes a narrower meaning to describe the immigrants’ articulation of the politics of their country of origin and the politics of the country of their living. While not every immigrant community does politically articulate, the reasons for those who do are generally comparable. The political circumstances in the country of origin that triggered the out-migration of people are an important reason. Their alienation in the countries of arrival is an equally important reason. The upshot of the two has been the galvanizing of immigrants, even those who have not been actively involved in politics in the countries of origin, to determined political action in pursuit of political goals in their old countries.

The political aspect of the diaspora experience of the Tamils needs elaboration. The common and also convenient misconception in Sri Lanka is that diaspora Tamils are “economic refugees” who should not have left Sri Lanka in the first place. This dismissive arrogance is part ignorance based on the outdated concept of a political refugee as someone who has suffered or been threatened with physical harm on account of one’s political beliefs or activities. It is also part denial of the circumstances of 1977, 1981 and 1983 that opened the floodgates for Tamil migration. Many Tamils also left the country to escape harassment and conscription by armed Tamil groups. The government never misses an opportunity to recall the misdoings of the LTTE (all the other groups including prominent ex-Tigers are now, in one way or another, part of the government); but the government loses credibility when it feigns amnesia about the bigger part of the Sri Lankan political reality.

While there can be no migration or relocation without involving economic considerations, the pattern of migration of Sri Lankan Tamils shows a clear distinction between the migration during the colonial period and the first two decades after independence, and the migration after the late 1970s. Jaffna society, given its economic constraints, is a good example of an out-migration society, with people mostly leaving the peninsula and hardly anyone moving to Jaffna other than those who are returning. But there was no politics, only economics, in the out-migration of Tamils to work as government servants in British colonies. It was the same in the out-migration of mostly professionals, not only Tamils but also Sinhalese, in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. If there was politics, it was the politics of language, the effect of Sinhalese becoming the only official language relegating both Tamil and English to unofficial status.

The out-migration after 1977, especially after 1983, however, has had a great deal more to do with politics than economics. This was also the time when the politics of trans-nationalism became one of the forces of globalization. The Tamil migrants after 1977 are also different from their predecessors with respect to their large numbers, their political experience, the many countries they have settled in, and their determined involvement in transnational politics in the countries where they live.

The dilemma of trans-nationalism: Transnational politics goes beyond immigrant communities, and it involves both governments and societies in the countries of origin and settlement as well as international agencies. The involvements of immigrant countries and international agencies are part of the background to the growing global concern over democracy and human rights that I discussed in my previous article. The involvements of governments and societies in the countries of origin, on the other hand, produce an opposite reaction based on the assertion of national sovereignty and critical of western interventions. In effect, transnational politics while internationalizing domestic political crises may not always be conducive to resolving those crises in the places of their origin. Herein is the dilemma involving the Rajapaksa government and the Tamil diaspora.

It has often been said that the main source of support for the Rajapaksa government within Sri Lanka is its lack of support outside Sri Lanka. Put another way, opposition to the government will boil over within the country, if detractors outside the country would severely leave the government alone for a few months. This is a copout argument by government supporters who are not happy with the government’s actions but do not want to say it publicly. It is their failure to criticize the government not merely from within the country but from inside the government itself, that creates the rationale for outside criticism. Without outside criticism, the government will be thoroughly off the hook especially on the Tamil Question.

Although the government has been clever by half in using the criticisms from outside to rally its base within the country, it cannot go on playing this game forever. For diaspora Tamils, while trans-nationalism has enabled them to do what they were not able to do from within Sri Lanka, they cannot do in Sri Lanka everything they want to do. The defeat of the LTTE has shown the limitations of Tamil trans-nationalism. Just as the government cannot go on insisting on a homegrown solution to a problem that has now outgrown its home, Tamil trans-nationalists cannot expect the world to deliver Tamil Eelam as a gift of self-determination.

To recall my previous discussion, the two year window between now and the 2013 Commonwealth Summit in Colombo, provides an opportunity for the Rajapaksa government and the Tamils to break the logjam of their dilemma. As I argued last week, TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran’s long list of concerns on the situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces provides a practical framework for the government to take the initiative in breaking the postwar deadlock. There cannot be any greater priority in Tamil politics now than addressing the concerns over militarization, state brutality, loss of livelihood, resettlement, evictions and land grabs, creation of Sinhala settlements, social issues, and legal issues facing the Tamils and Muslims in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The government must sincerely recognize the importance of addressing these matters and give priority to address them rather than undertake out-of-proportion public infrastructure projects or promote profit-seeking private businesses such as prawn farming. The northern fishermen do not require fancy inland fish farming; they are only asking to be resettled in their homes and be given the freedom to go back to their sea and restart the fishing industry that has been debilitated for decades. Similarly, conditions should be made conducive for inland farmers to restart agricultural production. Infrastructure development should be undertaken only as it is appropriate to supporting livelihood and economic activities, and not as inappropriate and ill-timed capital projects. Homes, schools and local security are more important than investment in tourist hotels. The government is dealing with war affected people crying to have their lives back. Their lives are not a curiosity that is marketable to tourists.

Equally, Tamils everywhere must realize that the Tamil question in Sri Lanka cannot be conclusively addressed or resolved without simultaneously dealing with the democratic and governance deficits in the south. Many of the concerns listed in Sumanthiran’s list are relevant to the situation in the south in general and Colombo in particular: militarization, state brutality, evictions and land grabs, social issues, and legal issues. The list of concerns provides a practical framework not only for government action but also for others to hold the government accountable,

As always, events even though they are the government’s own making, are overtaking the government. The government is playing catch-up on every initiative that has been wrong headedly undertaken. Fresh from his failure to sell Hambantota as the venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the Governor of the Central Bank has forayed into mitigating the mess that the Expropriation Act has created. The Central Bank should have no business in either fiasco. The High Court conviction of Sarath Fonseka and the commotion that followed turns the old precept about justice and appearance on its head: injustice must not only be not done, it must also not appear to be done.

As Sarath Fonseka goes to jail, the country waits for the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The allegedly leaked excerpts from the report that are doing the rounds on the internet should not dampen the expectations for the release of the official hard copies of the report. The government will have its hands full for the next two years.

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Filed under democratic measures, historical interpretation, power politics, power sharing, racist thinking, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance

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