Diaspora calls

As you read this, Tamil children, women and men – fellow Sri Lankans – are being massacred at the rate of around 43 a day. This is, sadly, a fact, not hyperbole. The International Crisis Group notes that “since fighting intensified in mid-January 2009, available reports suggest 5,000 civilians, including at least 500 children, have died, and more than 10,000 have been injured”. Current UN estimates put around 100,000 at most risk right now. The UN Secretary General, UN Security Council, India, England, France and other countries, along with domestic and foreign NGOs and humanitarian organisations just this week alone and in unison warn us of a humanitarian crisis reaching horrific proportions. Reuters notes that of those who manage to escape the last bastion of the LTTE, “some are dying in buses on their way to hospital” and “many patients are also deeply traumatised after seeing loved-ones killed in front of them.” Images, stories and video increasingly coming out from the Vanni highlight conditions on the ground so macabre that we simply switch off.

The calculation behind all out offensive by the Rajapakse regime to decimate the LTTE is fiendishly simple. Because international condemnation is growing apace with no signs of effective diplomatic counter and coffers are soon running out, the Rajapakse regime knows a victory is needed to secure its legitimacy, one it will pursue at any cost in the short-term. A ceasefire would be a huge loss of face, and this is more important in domestic politics than international condemnation, which the regime believes it can ride out and will be short-lived after a decisive turn of events in the Vanni soon. It is then precisely because of growing condemnation and media scrutiny that civilians in the Vanni are at most risk from Government offensives to decimate the LTTE right now. The more the pressure on Government, the more they will care less about collateral damage. Of course, it’s the LTTE that is killing civilians as well, and how! By firing at fleeing civilians, by using them as human shields, by holding them hostage, by firing against the Army in their midst and then telling the world that retaliatory fire were indiscriminate and unprovoked acts of violence against unarmed civilians. This then is the essence of Eelam, liberation and freedom under the LTTE, and in this article I look at the Tamil diaspora’s response to this catastrophe.

The chants first wafted in through the window, strange garbled sounds of ricocheted anger, with Sri Lanka, LTTE and genocide piquing interest. This was New York, and the volume necessary to drive echoes up to my hotel room suggested that this was not a small gathering, or a silent vigil. The group had congregated near Trump Towers, and were according to a NYPD officer I asked, around 2,000 in number. Though I could see far less, this was indubitably a large gathering of pro-LTTE Tamils armed with the usual paraphernalia – placards boldly emblazoned with Eelam, LTTE and Prabhakaran as saviours, heroes and liberators, and slogans both chiding the UN for its double standards and requesting it to bring about a halt to the genocide. The crowd was emotionally charged and I could recognise the scope for violence if, as in Australia, a pro-government or anti-LTTE group decided to contest ground realities. Not two blocks away however, I was handed flyers by a group calling itself the Sri Lanka Peace and Democracy Forum (clearly using the better known and well established Sri Lanka Democracy Forum as cover) that were addressed to Obama and Hillary Clinton, pointing to the atrocities committed by the LTTE, that it is banned by the State Department, that Prabhakaran is wanted by Interpol and stating that “Tamil Tigers disguised as freedom fighters are the pioneers of suicide bombing and use children as young as 14 for their deadly missions”. All over mid-East Manhattan that day I spotted youth, mostly male, sporting loud Eelam emblazoned t-shirts and flags with a purposeful gait and gaunt gaze moving towards Times Square. I watched from afar as some journalists covered the protest. Others who were filming looked as if they were doing so for online propaganda, focussing on only frontline faces and oblique angles that gave a heightened sense of participation and crowd strength. A woman I passed by within an earshot suggested to a TV crew that the Sri Lankan President had overseen the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Tamils, and the fate of many more hung in the balance. Bizarrely, there were others recording those showing interest in and interacting with the demonstration, even if it was to ask what it was all in support of. It was a surreal environment – a vocal section of the Tamil diaspora, clearly in favour of saving lives yet egregiously self-deluded, parading tired propaganda as fact, producing content largely for their own consumption and mobilisation and monitored by others.

A few blocks down 1st Avenue, in front of the diplomat’s entrance to the UN, five or six protestors had also gathered. They were from Moldova, protesting against gross human rights violations by Russia, bordering of what they said was fascism. The human tragedy of and politics exacerbating the Transnistrian conflict was as invisible to me as the Sri Lanka was perhaps to them. Separated by a few blocks and both tellingly appealing to the UN, the US administration and global media to urgently intervene, the large LTTE protest and the more symbolic Moldovian demonstration were humbling reminders that it is not always easy to understand and respond to intra-State conflict.

This is precisely where, in Sri Lanka’s case, many in the Sinhala and Tamil diaspora fail so miserably to address the on-going humanitarian tragedy in Sri Lanka and have been at best marginal in efforts to secure peace in the country. Through violent coercion or volition, many in the Tamil diaspora have supported the LTTE and its terrorism to the tune of millions of dollars over the years. Through ignorance or hypocrisy, many in the Sinhala diaspora suggest that the Rajapakse regime is fighting a clean war. No war is. And the regime is far from clean. Here then is ferocity in the diaspora born not out of rigorous intellectual engagement or any real sacrifice, but out of the vicious denial of fact, and a sickeningly vicarious pleasure in pyrrhic violence. Here is a dangerously believable yet exclusive rendering of ground realities, supported by propaganda and hagiography touted as verified and impartial fact. Much as they would like to think they are different, pro-Government and pro-LTTE diaspora mirror each other, their extremism feeds of each other – they in fact exist on account of each other.

It was a strange juxtaposition to see a pro-LTTE group demonstrate in front of the UN, to see such overt support of terrorism in front of an institution that represents the best of us, and our human values, dignity and rights. You don’t need to be born in Sri Lanka, or even Sri Lankan, to stand up against the massacre of civilians. Anyone, in words overused today but still resonant, can nurture the audacity to hope that even out of this carnage, there will emerge a peace that over generations, will be our burden in Sri Lanka to forge and sustain. Radical diaspora must realise and support this, with as much vigour as they decry or support the Government and the LTTE today.

Or quite simply, shut up.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 26 April 2009

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