Sri Lanka's Diaspora Won't Give Up

With the grim civil war that wracked Sri Lanka finally over after 26 years, and with the Tamil minority seeking to pick up their lives after their rebellion was crushed mercilessly, only one group appears determined to continue the fight, and that is a large portion of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils overseas.

As many as 100,000 people were killed in the civil war, out of a nation of 20.1 million. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an independent non-governmental organization, in a new 29-page report, "The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora After the LTTE" issued on Feb.23, has strongly urged the diaspora to give it up and instead seek to create a sustainable piece in a united country.

Whether that is possible is in serious doubt. The triumphalist government of President Mahindra Rajapaksa, despite statements urging reconciliation, is showing little signs on the ground of actually bringing the Tamils back to full partnership in the government. Nonetheless, the report says, any initiatives to carry on the struggle for an independent state may go forward in the diaspora, "but they must repudiate the LTTE's violent methods," said Robert Templer, the ICG'S Asia Program Director in a prepared release. "And they must also recognize that the LTTE's separatist agenda is out of step with the wishes and needs of Tamils in Sri Lanka."

Nonetheless, a series of privately funded referenda held in the Tamil communities in Norway, France, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain, to gauge support for an independent Tamil Eelam found that an overwhelmng 99 percent were in favor of an independent country, the report said. Despite the fact that most overseas Tamils agree that armed rebellion is now futile, the report says, continued calls for a separate state feed the fears of the Rajapaksa administration and provide excuses for maintaining destructive anti-terrorism and emergency laws. "Such calls could lead to more bloodshed and risk perpetuating the severe underdevelopment of Sri Lankan Tamil society."

The diaspora poured millions of dollars in arms into a rebellion that was as vicious as the ethnic Sinhalese who were trying to end it. After an international crackdown on funding and the capture of a number of arms smuggling vessels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as they were known, were ultimately driven into a smaller and smaller area until, last May, with their leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and most of his closest aides shot dead in a swamp, the Tigers finally were forced to capitulate unconditionally. The in-country leadership of the LTTE has ceased to exist.

"The Tigers' humiliating defeat, the enormous death toll in the final months of the war and the internment of more than a quarter million Tamils left the diaspora feeling powerless, betrayed by the West, demanding justice and, in some cases, wanting revenge," the report says. "Funding networks established by the LTTE over decades are seriously weakened but still in place."

It is a dream that has virtually no domestic backing. Most Tamils in the country are exhausted by decades of war and are more concerned with rebuilding their lives, the report continues, although "most Tamils abroad remain profoundly committed to Tamil Eelam, the existence of a separate state in Sri Lanka. This has widened the gap between the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka."

That is a huge population. As the war continued to devastate the country since its start in 1983, hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled. Some 200,000 to 300,000 now live in Canada, 180,000 in the UK, 60,000 in Germany, 47,000 in Switzerland and 40,000 in Australia, with sizeable populations also in France, the Netherlands, the US, Italy, Malaysia, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway. There are smaller Tamil communities in South Africa, the Gulf States, and in several Southeast Asian countries as well.

During the 1990s Canada granted asylum to roughly 80 per cent of all Tamils who applied. Today the population in the greater Toronto area is the largest concentration of Tamils outside of Sri Lanka. Community organizations formed in the 1980s and 1990s to assist new immigrants with the resettlement process have allowed significant communities to grow and prosper, and they continue to pour money into the process, the report states.

The situation for Tamils in the country remains grim, the report says. Little reconstruction money has actually appeared, but although the situation has improved since the end of the war "a climate of fear still pervades the Tamil community in Colombo. Many are routinely subjected to arrest or humiliating searches. Young men still 'disappear' – often after being picked up by government security forces not only in the country's north and east but also in the capital."

While some of those picked up may be LTTE stragglers, the report says, "this does not justify their secret detention without due process. Most of the missing Tamils are feared dead."

The report urges foreign governments, particularly India, Japan and western governments and multilateral organizations, to push the government in Colombo to address the legitimate grievances at the root of the conflict: the political marginalization and physical insecurity of most Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But the report adds, "statements made by…Rajapaksa since his January 2010 re-election suggest there is little chance the needed political and constitutional reforms will be offered in his next term."

Thus, any improvement in the political and social position of the Tamils and other minorities will be problematical unless there is tough pressure from outside the country.

"There should be no blank cheque for Colombo to redevelop the north and east without first creating a political climate where Tamils and Muslims can freely express their opinions and have a meaningful role in determining the future of the areas where they have long been the majority," the report continues. "Donor governments and the UN should also press more strongly for an independent inquiry into the thousands of civilians, almost all Tamil, killed in the final months of fighting. Their aid should be tied to an end to impunity for human rights violations and abuses of political power that undermine democracy and threaten the freedoms of Sri Lankans from all ethnic communities."

Rajapaksa, however, has not only adopted a tough line on the Tamil and Muslim minorities but on legitimate dissent in his own capital. Sarath Fonseka, the Army commander in chief who prosecuted the war to its end, was detained after he challenged Rajapaksa for the presidency in the national election held in early February. He remains in custody. Journalists have continued to be arrested or disappeared and some have been murdered, allegedly by a government that is raising increasing concern internationally for its crackdown on dissent.