The United Nations has warned of a possible “blood bath” as the Sri Lankan military encroaches on the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are now cornered in a small piece of coastal territory — along with up to 150,000 civilians.
The Tamil Tigers have long fought for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority. The civil war is one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts, and the U.N. estimates that more than 60 civilians are killed every day — caused by firing on both sides. Human Rights Watch reports that both sides are violating the laws of war, with the Tamil Tigers preventing civilians from leaving as the government fires indiscriminantly.
Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan Tamil activist who lives in exile in London. She is a member of the steering committee of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), an international network of progressive diaspora voices. Her younger sister, Rajani Thiranagama, was murdered after she broke with the Tamil Tigers and criticized their violent tactics.
She writes at “OpenDemocracy” to argue that Tamil protesters abroad need to face difficult truths about the Tamil Tigers and their tactics.
The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities
The Sri Lankan Tamil community may not be the largest of the diaspora communities represented in London or other such greatly diverse cities around the world, but the numbers and conviction they have mobilised in recent days to highlight the plight of their brethren at home have been exceptional. The demonstrations by Tamils in the centres of London, Toronto and other cities have been spectacular, defiant and spirited displays of grief and anger: men, women, and many young people have gathered with colourful flags and banners, staged sit-ins, and chanted slogans, while several of their number have promised to fast unto death.
Their slogans are simple: “Genocide!”, “Pirapaharan is our leader!”, and “We want Tamil Eelam!”. These references to the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the aspiration to an independent state in northern Sri Lanka are accompanied by the touting of images of this figure and the waving of flags showing the Tiger emblem. Several parliamentarians in Britain and Canada have voiced support for the demonstrators.
The humanitarian situation in parts of northern Sri Lanka – especially in the narrow strip of land around Mullaitivu – is indeed desperate, as the Sri Lankan army’s advances have continued and as they lay siege to LTTE redoubts where approximately 100,000 civilians are confined – the latest stage of a long war that has persisted since 1983 (see “Sri Lanka’s displaced: the political vice”, 8 April 2009).
The cries of genocide have risen with the intensification of the military campaign and a sharp turn for the worse in the fortunes of the Tamil Tigers. They have spread too beyond the official Tiger propaganda stream (radio, TV and newspapers); the blood-splattered images and messages have inundated cyberspace: via Facebook and YouTube and other cyberspace outlets, via a torrent of emails, the drenching claim is simple, direct and frightening: genocide. This campaign has mobilised even those who had never been politically involved before.
The genocide alert is at heart about the trapped civilians in Mullaitivu. But the truth about the horrific circumstances in which civilians are stranded there is not stated in full. They are caught between two armies, each of which seeks to use them as pawns in this war. The government forces have shown no inhibition in bombing and shelling indiscriminately into crowded civilian areas, schools and hospitals as long as their military objective of crushing the Tigers is achieved. But the civilians are dying not only as a result of such bombardments or in crossfire; for credible reports indicate that Tigers are not allowing civilians to move out of the line of fire and escape to government-controlled areas, and may be going further to prevent attempts to flee.
It is striking, however, that in all the demonstrations not a single cry, slogan or placard seems to demand that the Tigers should let the civilians go or cease their own assaults on them. The silence of the diaspora community on this issue is deafening. The general support for the Tamils’ cause has in the public arena collapsed into one soundbite. There is no recognition in these demonstrations of the fact that the military objectives of the LTTE are no longer reconcilable with the safety of the trapped civilians. There is a disjunction between propaganda and reality here that reflects the way the logic of Tamil Tiger propaganda has become internalised by much of the diaspora. This does nothing to help Sri Lankan Tamils.
Such spectacular demonstrations have the potential to send a powerful message to the international community about the true nature of the predicament of the trapped civilians. Why then do the demonstrators fail to highlight this. Why have they not also raised their voices against Tiger atrocities as well as the government’s? Why do they elide the horrifying predicament of the civilians with the political interest of the Tigers?
What makes these questions even more pertinent is that the huge demonstrations in the west that endorse the LTTE are in direct opposition to the waning popular support for the LTTE amongst Tamils in Sri Lanka itself.
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