Every year as a Tamil, when I wake up and look at the date on May 1st, a faint, yet distantly familiar pain begins to arise. It is somewhat like an echo, something that, to varying degrees and at varying times, I have tried to obscure. And yet it remains, it persists throughout the year and suddenly intensifies during the month of May. As the days roll on and single digits turn to double digits, the seemingly inexplicable sorrow begins to come into focus; the mists of my own creation begin to clear. May is a painful month, I recollect. Suddenly the flashbacks come faster and more vividly. Protests, screams of anguish, wails of agony, a sea of red and yellow banners fluttering among the mess of brown bodies camped out in Parliament Square in Westminster, London. The hunger strikers, the doctors looking after them, the students leading the protests. Still the veneer of a smokescreen remains and I try to pretend that May is a normal month, like any other in the year.
By May 18th, however, that previously remote sorrow is an inescapable agony whose underlying cause has perfectly and unbearably crystallised. Conversations pass me by as colleagues are perplexed by my vacant stare. All I can picture is those images I saw sat in front of a television on this day eight years ago in 2009, as I watched the pictures flick across the screen. The smoke, the burnt out vehicles and them… the sobbing people, my sobbing Tamil people. Thousands of them, who had lost everything, and in many cases everyone, staggered across a sun-baked beach in Mullivaikal into the hands of a foreign, genocidal army that had rained death on them for the past six months (and several decades before that). Left behind were thousands more, their mangled bodies strewn among blown up schools and hospitals and showing evidence of chemical weapons and cluster bombs. Up to 75 000 Tamil civilians died in the 2009 genocide according to the United Nations including children queuing for food in so-called “No-Fire Zones” and many more according to Tamil sources on the ground. 146, 679 Tamil people living in the Vanni before 2009 remain unaccounted for to date, their relatives not having even been given the dignity of closure by the occupying state of Sri Lanka. Starved and dehydrated, they were herded like animals into open-air detention centres where many more died and thousands of Tamil women, children and even men were systematically raped and sexually tortured by the most depraved of methods.
Numbers are famously abstract and un-emotive. Most of the people reading this piece will have heard them before. My aim in writing this piece is not to remind people of what happened – deep down I think no Tamil could ever forget. But eight years on from, almost certainly, the worst thing that has ever happened to the Tamil people in our 2300-year-old recorded history, what does it all mean? Where are we now and where do we go from here?
In the aftermath of Rajapaksa’s historic election defeat in January 2015, diaspora activism has noticeably subsided. I am no exception. With the genocidal mass-murderer out of power and the opening of a small, yet significant breathing space for the Eelam Tamil people to exercise their democratic franchise, I chose to focus on my career, which had been in the passenger seat in the alcohol-filled years of depression that followed the month of May, 2009.
With him went much of the anger of the diaspora. The thrill of seeing the corporate media berate Sri Lanka died down as the Western world achieved its aim of regime change from Rajapaksa’s embrace of China to a more pro-Western regime. And yet, very little has changed for the people of occupied Tamil Eelam. Hours ago, a Sri Lankan court issued a staying order banning the public commemoration of those who died at Mullivaikal. As the Sinhala nation will celebrate “Sri Lankan Victory Day” complete with military parades of the very same instruments of war that were used to extinguish thousands of Tamil lives, the Tamil nation will not even be allowed to grieve for their loved ones in public. We should be in no doubt that it takes a special type of barbarism to do this. Not even after the horrors of WWII were Nazi war graves destroyed by advancing Allied troops. And yet today, every last Thuyil Illam (LTTE cemetery) has been destroyed, with the occupying Sri Lankan army so callous and downright inhumane so as to build new army camps directly on top of where they used to stand and thousands of Tamil martyrs still lie.
There is a growing misguidedness, which seeks to paint the genocide as some sort of unfortunate conflict that is best forgotten about, that the best chance for the Tamil people now is to put the past behind us and forget about all the shells, rapes and rockets which maimed our people for so long and sought to deny us our sovereignty and right to self-determination. To pretend that this was a conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE and to ignore the fundamental incompatibility of the Tamil and Sinhala nations both residing in a unitary Sri Lankan state. To ignore the systematic oppression and massacring of the Tamil people (which enjoyed the popular support of the Sinhala electorate) that will one day, I have every faith, be proven to constitute genocide. Those who subscribe to this belief are ignorant of history. Stability and peace has only ever been achieved through accountability and justice.
Still today, thousands of Tamils search for their missing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. Only recently many of them went on hunger strike begging for answers from a Sri Lankan state that does not care for them. Thousands remain displaced, their land occupied by the army. Others are denied access to plentiful fishing grounds while Sinhala fishermen from the South are brought up to fish there or fertile land, which the occupying Sri Lankan army now farms. And state-sponsored colonisation, through military cantonments and the erection of Buddhist stupas, are accelerating. Such acts are not random, but calculated. By denying the Tamil people their livelihoods, the Sri Lankan state keeps the Tamil people out of employment and in poverty, many resorting to drug and alcohol abuse in the absence of any potential employment. By demographic re-engineering and removing the geographical continuity of the Tamil homeland they are systematically dismantling the Tamil Eelam nation. We are watching the fabric of our society be destroyed in front of our very eyes.
So why remind everyone of what, deep down, we know but are powerless to oppose? Because we are not powerless. Today there are 80 million Tamils living, breathing and flourishing around the world, the vast majority of who are beyond the malevolent reach of the Sri Lankan state. Given the natural dominance of Tamil Nadu, it is easy for Eelam Tamils to feel like a relatively unimportant section of the transnational Tamil nation. And yet, though many of us fail to recognise it, the growing pan-Tamil unity since 2009 is largely as a result of us, and our struggle for freedom. It was the genocide of Eelam Tamils that brought Tamils from every corner of the world together in 2009, from the tragic self-immolations in Tamil Nadu and the diaspora to the passionate protests in Malaysia and Mauritius, and the South African Tamils whose charismatic representatives have supported us since the beginning of our struggle. To date most Eelam Tamils do not realise that before 2009 the political landscape of Tamil Nadu was very different. There were the same major political parties but a near complete absence of grassroots activism that had been steadily eroding since the Dravidian movement in the 50’s and 60’s. Today the various grassroots organisations that inundate Tamil Nadu have been rejuvenated by or are splinters from groups formed to bring awareness to the atrocities being committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces on the Eelam Tamil people in 2009.
We are artists and entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers, politicians and lawyers. While the Tamil people should never succumb to the same xenophobic and exclusive nationalism that characterises the society of our Sinhala neighbours, we have punched well above our weight in numbers when compared to other South Asian groups. Of the four Nobel prizes in sciences awarded to people of South Asian descent, three of them have been Tamil. While the international establishment seek to delegitimise the Tamil resistance as terrorists, the LTTE are the most successful group in South Asian history at challenging and removing caste from society. While women were raped and subjected to violence in (almost) all corners of South Asia, in the LTTE-controlled areas, uniquely, Tamil women were free from rape and consequently they rose to power in politics and administration as freedom fighters and intellectuals. Just a cursory look at the pathetic situation of Tamil women in Eelam today and their absence from politics is a reminder that they are the subset of Tamil society who has suffered the most. While both Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces aimed sexual violence at the LTTE’s ranks, the LTTE never once resorted to the same tactic. That is a remarkable fact, regardless of the genuine crimes committed by the LTTE (which however pale in comparison to those committed by the SLA). Even today people in Tamil Nadu and around the diaspora admire and continue to dream of re-creating the egalitarian nature of Eelam Tamil society under the LTTE. It was not a utopia, especially given the lack of freedom of speech, but the LTTE were well ahead of their time on social issues.
We have consistently overcome oppression whether it is in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia or elsewhere and excelled in our personal lives. We have also been at the forefront of the socially progressive fight against oppressive systems, whether it is in the form of the Bhakthi movement in 7th century or the modern Dravidian movement, both of which sought to eradicate the evils of caste and gender oppression. Today, in the aftermath and as another effect of the May 2009 Mullivaikal genocide, caste and gender based oppression is once again being carefully examined throughout the Tamil world. Mullivaikal has also led to a reassertion of the Tamil identity and a renewed interest in Tamil culture, particularly in the folk arts and the formerly stigmatised and beautiful instrument of parai.
What do we do from here? I have some ideas, which I hope to discuss in a follow-up article. But during this painful time, this month of May, remember the Tamil people who lost their lives in defence of an ideal, the ideal of self-determination and a separate Tamil homeland, for the majority of those killed in May 2009 were those who refused to leave as they had strong links to Tamil nationalism. Remember the victims and the resistance. The Sun will shine, the rain will fall and we will rise. When the Tamil people realise their collective potential and strength, we will achieve our freedom. For over 2300 years there has been a thriving Tamil civilisation and even a powerful unifying Tamil identity if you read the famous poem by Kaṉiyan Pūngunṟanār in the Puṟanāṉūṟu. And in another 2300 years, I am confident that the Tamil language and identity will still be thriving in the two Tamil homelands and around the world.
In the words of one of the survivors of Mullivaikal,
“This is the time for us to give them our shoulders for them to climb upon. We have to fight for the rights together with our people who are remaining in the homeland.
We raise our heads, which had been lowered for a moment to respect the people who had been slaughtered in Eelam and continue the struggle for peace and freedom.
Remember! The method of our struggle may vary but the ultimate aim remains the same.”
Remember the dead and fight for the living, this month of May.
-This piece was submitted by a TC reader who has requested to remain anonymous.