What’s new in the Tamil diaspora? The Global Tamil Forum comes out of the shadows

Kumar David in the Island, 18 March 2013

It is to be expected that the obliteration of the LTTE would transform all Tamil polity. Armed militancy has ceased in Lanka (except the hallucinatory hypocrisy of the Defence Ministry when cracking down on rights and freedoms), and the TNA has surfaced as the main political representative of the Ceylon Tamils. (Ceylon is used here to exclude Muslims and Upcountry Tamils and the generic Tamil hereafter refers to Ceylon Tamils). The status quo was slower to change in the diaspora and remained murky, but a recent visit to London permitted me a closer view. What I had hoped would be nostalgic nightly pub crawls with old buddies, turned into seminars at the School of Oriental & African Studies and King’s College (not university events but venues reserved by student societies), on Modalities of Emergent Dictatorship in Lanka & the National Question, and Great Power Balances in the Indian Ocean, respectively. I was also an observer at the GTF Convention in the House of Commons, and moreover had the opportunity to interact with diaspora youth – mainly Tamils, but a few Sinhalese as well. It was good experience; but no more of my doings; this essay is on political trends in the Tamil diaspora, principally in London, but extrapolation to the rest of the UK and Europe would be reasonable.

There is uncertainty, flux, and thirdly a distinct emergent trend which I will discuss anon. Uncertainty is lodged in the mind of the relatively small part of the diaspora which remains loyal to the LTTE agenda – that is, to the concept of Thamil Eelam as a separate state of the Tamils in the island of Lanka. I would not venture a guess how large or small this sector is, but at my meetings only three or four people intervened such that it signalled them out as carriers of this ideology. The mood of pro-Eelam folk (LTTE loyalists and non-LTTE) was that Tamils would never get a fair deal from the Sinhalese majority; hence they would be better off in a state of their own. However, I did not meet a single person who argued that the Tamils should start again from where the LTTE left off. That is, a return to the armed struggle was deemed futile by implication; but when asked by what other realistic means Eelam could be reached, the replies were prevarications and irrelevancies.

In the past rich diaspora Tamils would pontificate for a separate state and contribute to LTTE funds, but carefully educated their sons and daughters as doctors, accountants and engineers. In LTTE times there was cannon fodder, children of the poor, of farmers and fishermen, mobilised on the ground, through whom this class could ejaculate its pent-up nationalist frustrations while remaining ensconced in material comforts of Western prosperity. Sans the LTTE, sans the “boys”, sans children of the Tamil poor to feed to the guns of the Sinhala state, this option has dried up.

The flux in the middle: It is my reading that the majority of Tamils in the diaspora are no longer bearers of LTTE ideology hence it is false to use the term LTTE-rump as though it reflected the general mood of adults or youth. There is indeed intense, even passionate commitment to what can be called “the Tamil cause”; but equally, there is realisation that armed struggle and civil-war have failed and acceptance that Thamil Eelam is now a daydream unless delivered by Washington-cum-Delhi; or issues from a great movement of global Dravidians. But diaspora Tamils are not raving lunatics like Weerawansa; they know that Washington and Delhi may be usable for enforcing human rights or political solutions, but are not standard-bearers of Thamil Eelam. Or imagine Tamil Nadu and Malaysian Tamils exchanging their present positions for an irredentist Eldorado of global Dravidianism. Heck, they must sniff crack-cocaine before it comes to that!

To put it simply, the large mass of diaspora Tamils have bitter personal experiences, are angry about the carnage in the Vanni, and determined to oppose oppression of the minority, and hence will help defeat Rajapaksa siblings and state. However, apart from negative sentiments of rage, alienation and injustice, they don’t quite know what positive strategy to pursue. If Eelam is a bit of a stretch and if the Sinhala racist state is the enemy, but if wary of democratic (and hopefully socialist) alliances with Sinhalese, Muslim and Christian progressives, where does that leave them? Much confused you might think – well not quite. The diaspora is not in stasis but in reflexive movement out of miasma and into some light; the mist is clearing and I prefer to look at the positive side.

The Tamil diaspora is in flux. It is letting go of the past but has not yet found a future. The agency which should have been a point of resonance, the left, is dead; the dead-left in Rajapaksa’s pocket is despised. Smaller left parties are noticed, but at the bottom of the radar screen; none are significant. Unfortunately, more in the diaspora than in the Tamil community at home, the JVP is perceived as alien, not overtly racist but with nothing to offer; a predicament for which the JVP is itself 101% to blame! There is grudging acceptance that with the Tigers buried, the TNA is the only game in town for the Tamils. All this may be platitudinous for some readers, but this shift of allegiance is gelling only slowly in diaspora minds.

A matter of some disappointment to me is that while there is, obviously, interest in a national democratic programme, it is difficult to engage diaspora youth in socio-economics. Try and you run into a stone wall or blank heads. Am I asking for too much? Give it time, they’ve hardly got over the LTTE delusion, maybe that’s enough for a decade. Only young people who return to Lanka and soil their hands in real issues can appreciate that ivory tower exclusively-nationalist thought is sterile. Even contributions from afar to a national democratic programme will be off the mark; I refer to the writing of a new constitution, economic strategy and the IMF, and social issues (health, education and women). Since the majority of youth will not return, acclimatised as they are to a new ethos, their main contribution will be engendering international pressure for democracy in general and minority rights in particular; still valuable.

The GTF Convention: The Global Tamil Forum’s convention at the House of Commons at the end of February was more a grand event than a conference where perspectives are debated and future programmes thrashed out. In what it set out to do, it was a great success and established two gains. Firstly it displayed that the British political establishment (Tories, Labour and the Lib-Dems) were willing to throw their weight behind a political solution and that they unanimously backed a call for reconciliation as per LLRC recommendations, accountability and independent investigation. The ANC added its voice as did Erik Solheim, Yasmin Sooka and Gordon Weiss. The second achievement is that it added to the pressure building on GoSL at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva. GoSL is boxed in and under intense international pressure complicating its domestic putrefaction – impeachment travesty, Divineguma charade, senior ministers abusing the law with impunity on behalf of their progeny; a rotten catamaran long overdue to sink. These are two signal achievements of the GTF convention.

An initiative that did not work out well was the intention of inviting about two dozen progressive Sinhalese activists, leftists and journalists as a first step in building multi-ethnic mobilisation. In the end there were no more than four or five Sinhalese and no one high profile made a presentation. Never mind, these are early days and a start has to be made. People intending to return to the Island are concerned about bullying by state and chauvinists, and rightly so given the Rajapaksa government’s rampant abuse of power against opponents. Second, and perhaps more important, the GTF had done little preparatory spade work. The organisation and its programme are unknown in Lanka; how can a Sinhalese participate in a convention on a very tricky issue without transparency on the nature of the host. If a large Sinhalese contingent was to participate, the programme agenda should also have been circulated and discussed in advance. One criticism that does not trouble me at all is the charge that the GTF includes people who were once sympathisers or supporters of the LTTE. Any Tamil political organisation today will include plenty of ex-LTTE people. How can it be otherwise given the LTTE’s pervasive influence and energy for thirty years in both the diaspora and at home? Even the Rajapaksa regime includes a strong contingent of ex-LTTE cadres; vide Karuna, Pillayan, KP and paramilitaries who remain armed to this day. Douglas, though not ex-LTTE, also belongs to the tradition of armed Tamils. Every organisation, in which Tamils are present, now and well into the future, will contain former LTTErs. It is time to be plain about this and lay to rest this bogey which state, military and chauvinists use to marginalise Tamil political activity. I believe that the GTF, like the TNA and all Tamil political and non-political organisations, surely contains previous LTTE sympathisers and supporters. That’s fine by me; what’s important is the organisation’s current and future programme.

My assessment is that the GTF leadership has an understanding of the political dynamics outlined in this essay, is receptive to a genuine political solution and accepts the TNA as the on-the-ground leader, is thinking along programmatic lines including alliances in the South, and is desirous of progressive alliances with radical, democratic and leftist Sinhalese and Muslim movements. In respect of the last matter its practices are still in embryo, but will develop. The leadership often looks over its shoulder at the support base which spreads over a spectrum of maturity. Practice more than preaching will help the base to mature. I am of the view that the GTF is a forward-thinking diaspora Tamil political entity and it would be productive for activists of all communities in Lanka to relate to it, ignoring the shrieks that this suggestion will evoke from racist and chauvinist quarters and unavoidable intimidation by the Rajapaksa state.

    ***********

ALSO SEE  Shamindra Ferdinando, “Geneva vote: GTF appreciates US role, not entirely satisfied with resolution,” in The Island 25 March 2013,http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=75487

6 Comments

Filed under LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil migration, world events & processes

6 responses to “What’s new in the Tamil diaspora? The Global Tamil Forum comes out of the shadows

  1. malaka kumar

    I respect the view of this article.. But Col Karuna, Douglas and other former militants aren’t calling for War crimes against Sri Lanka.. Infact if Karuna didn’t not break away from the LTTE the war today will still be raging funded by the very people in the West Pro LTTE groups no HR activitist. and LTTE Tamil Entity (Not diaspora).. Now today for the sake of argument Prabarakaran’s LTTE and The peace process had succeed.. He would have been a Powerful Minister.. And what about Justice??? As he was a wanted man In India and in SL for countless crimes.. No doubt the Western Tamil Entity would have shielded him form any extradition and Re modeled as the Ideal Gandhian for good measure. So today we wee this ploy of justice by the western LTTE and Western Tamil entity.. who now call the LTTE terrorist yet cling and have secret admiration of every LTTE succeeful operation that bled this nation.. This is a funny kind of justice when one side is condemned and the Other get away with it..IF its a fair process of Justice Where Tamil Nadu politicians, Western LTTE Groups and Institutions are also accounted in the same way as the Lankan nation.. then we as a nation will accept this.. But not this one sided approach.. where now even the TNA thanks to the end of the LTTE have found a voice which it lost during the LTTE to help tamil citizens..And why not Also invite other Tamil Parties to the GTF and why Only the TNA???? the other parties such as Karuna, Douglas have a large support and a say.. or is it because they view them as traitors for breaking away and thus helping to end the war sooner and save many lives in the long term???

  2. malaka kumar

    We must not forget in the Early 80’s Terrorism in the North was not just carried out by the LTTE but a variety of Groups Trained in India and PLO camps.. And these Groups equally carried out Terrorist attacks much more brutally than even the LTTE.. Even later the LTTE came to dominate In sri Lanka.. These Various Groups still exist and much of their supporters are in the western capitals.. Though not the LTTE but their Goals are the same.. And today these groups have formed the umbrella Org GTF.. and they didn in the 80’s to fight in sri lanka..

  3. reddy

    Sir,

    Very insightful article.

    Your disciple
    B. Muralidhar Reddy
    The Hindu, New Delhi

  4. Mangala Samaraweera

    Excellent article. I ,too believe that the GTF leadership consists of moderates who as the author writes, ” will be receptive to a genuine political solution.” Therefore it has a very important role to play in any national democratic movement in Sri Lanka.

  5. Chandre Dharmawardana

    Kumar David’s evaluation of the GTF.

    Unfortunately, the GTF members are not Sri Lankans any more. They are a bit like the expatriate Irish who collected money in USA and Canada to fund and fuel the Irish civil war for decades; now there is a tentative peace but the sparks in Ireland are not dead. Meanwhile, the expat Irish have found themselves to be irrelevant because (a) their fund-raising capability has eroded. (b) a new generation of educated tech-wired cosmopolitan Irish have come up and taken over the politics. (c) an economic crisis has hit Ireland.

    In the Lankan case, the GTF consists of the rich Tamils who still have links with the landed gentry. As long as they keep the emotional temperature hot (with Geneva, Channel-4 etc) they have capacity to raise money, but already their abilities are getting eroded. The young Vanni Tamils who are left behind in Sri lanka are the poorer Tamils who did not have the funds to buy out from Prabhakaran and leave for Colombo and beyond. However, the opening up of the North to mercantile forces and to tourism, availability of cellphones and TV in a region where there were only Tiger-controlled opinion, etc., are creating a new generation which is over-eager to reject its orthodox roots, even more than it has been the case in Ireland.

    The upper-class educated Tamils feel that they lost the war (and indeed they did, by backing Prabhakaran , as did Kumar David and most leftist writers who swallowed a few lines from Stalin and Lenin, without looking at the ground situation where a mere 10% was pitting itself against some 80% of the population living in the economically most dynamic part of the country, with opposition from the neighbours, viz., India, Pakistan etc. Here it is useful to recollect C. B. Wijedoru’s phone interview with JRJ in the early eighties to understand how the leftists thought).

    The lower-class Tamils (i.e., not the Jaffna university undergards), especially the young ones do not seem to feel that they lost the war (here you need to go North and chat around in Tamil). For them, all they knew was that there was a war even from their young days, and they simply had to fight . They are quite content that the war is over – one way or another it is more fun now. They were not the impassioned youth (the `boys’ of the TULF) of the 1980s who chose to join the many militant groups; the LTTE was the final dominant one.

    The demographic bulge supporting the youth uprising that existed in the 1980s do not exist anymore in the North. Also, the dominance of the land-owning Tamil upper classes (already degraded by the LTTE that took some of their land) is being further degraded by new capitalists who are owners of tourist hotels, supermarkets, private clinics etc., creating a new capitalist power structure unaligned with the GTF.

    So I expect that the GTF would become increasingly irrelevant to the Northern Tamils(just as in Ireland), unless an economic crisis were to intervene and create major difficulties. This has happened in Ireland, and the peace there may indeed be jeopardized.

    Constitutional devolution would be greatly appreciated by the GTF and the land-owning Tamils as it would transfer political power into their hands. But they have not analyzed the social-political consequences.
    It would create a new round of hostilities, with funding coming from the outside. Also, sovereignty passes to New Jersy or London while the TNA in Jaffna becomes a bit of a puppet in the hands of the expats. The present process of rapid development would jolt to a halt, and a slow re-orientation bringing in new foreign (possibly expat corporate) investors would have to begin. Some `PapaDoc’ regimes in Latin America were run by US corporate interests in exactly that manner at one time. Then the political control of the younger generation in the Vanni gets yet again passed over into new hands.

    The younger generation in the Vanni has had no experience of democratic institutions for decades. Even before the Eelam wars, the social system was hierarchic and caste centered. The voting was pre-set rather than thoughtful. Social reformists and the left parties never made much headway in the North, with Karalasinghams and their likes confined to deep discussions behind the Lionel Wendt about what Issac Deutscher had said in his sleep.

    Thus `Meaningful Devolution’ or `appropriate constitutional reform ‘ may have to wait till the new younger generation in the Vanni becomes more politically savvy and able to stand on their own feet. This will happen much much faster than most people think. In the meantime, it is best to not to put down a possibly burdensome constitutional structure during times of rapid social change.

    The one constitutional change that is very badly needed, i.e., the most important one, is the getting rid of the extreme powers that JRJ invested into the executive presidency.

  6. maccy

    Insight of the People who attacked Lankan Priest and Touris in TN.. NOt the Large Number of Tamil Western Entity Membership to these Racist groups..which the GTF is Full of
    SEEMAN

    The arrested persons all from Chennai are N Saravana Prakash, 29, from ayiram Vilakku, L Prabhakaran , 24, from Kothavalchavadi and M Srinivasan, 33, from Thiruvallikerni. They are all members of the Naam Thamizhar Katchi (We Tamil Party). The party is led by Sebastian Seemon who now calls himself Senthamizhan seeman. He is currently in Geneva, Switzerland to engage in anti-Sri Lanka lobbying.

    Seeman a film director cum actor has been obnoxiously racist. He was detained in Tamil Nadu for many months for publicly threatening to kill Sinhalese in India as retaliation for Tamil Nadu fishermen being killed. He was deported from Canada some time ago for making racist remarks threatening the lives of Sinhala persons. Recently Seeman was denied entry to the USA and turned back at the John F Kennedy Airport in New York .Seeman’s movement has a leaping tiger as its symbol. His younger followers wear black tee –shirts with Prabhakaran’s portrait and describe themselves as “Karumpuligal” or black tigers. His party has thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil members from the global Tamil Diaspora. The membership fee is 100 US Dollars per year. In addition Seeman also gets hefty donations from tiger supporters abroad.

    The attacks on two Buddhist priests from Sri Lanka within three days in Tamil Nadu has angered many. The deplorable attacks have been condemned – and rightly so – severely by responsible representatives of all communities in Sri Lanka The Govt has protested to the Indian Govt and also sought protection for Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka related Institutions in Tamil Nadu.

    The attacks on the Buddhist priests cannot be viewed in isolation. They form part of an ongoing pattern of rowdy attacks by a racist rabble posing as Tamil nationalists. One of the earliest attacks was on Thirukumar Nadesan the well-known Sri Lankan businessman who is married to Nirupama Rajapaksa the MP from Hambantota and niece of Chamal, Mahinda, Gotabhaya and Basil Rajapaksa.

Leave a Reply to Mangala Samaraweera Cancel reply