Tamils of Sri Lankan origin across Canada overwhelmingly voted “yes” on a referendum held Saturday calling for an independent homeland in the island nation.
It's the latest in a series of such votes held in Sri Lankan Tamil communities in Europe and North America, and organizers say the purpose is to apply international pressure on Sri Lanka to devolve more autonomy to Tamils.
Political analysts say this goal is unlikely to be achieved anytime soon, but that the votes may help reinvigorate the pro-Tamil Tiger diaspora in the wake of the Tigers' devastating military defeat this year after decades of fighting.
“The referendum has been organized by groups supportive of the Tamil Tigers,” says Dr. Narenda Subramanian, associate professor of political science at McGill University, who specializes in South Asia. “They’ll use this as a way of revitalizing their pro-Tiger network outside Sri Lanka. They may be laying the foundation for a transnational Eelam government, a legitimate self-governing authority outside Sri Lanka that will one day take over a future Tamil state in Sri Lanka - in the event that ever happens.”
According to Mr. Subramanian, the decades-long war, which ended last May, only destroyed the Tamil Tigers’ military capacity and activities in Sri Lanka. He says the Tamil Tiger network outside Sri Lanka is still fairly intact, operating covertly under different front organizations even in countries like Canada that have slapped a ban on the rebel group.
Canada vote only the latest
Canada is the third country to be holding such a referendum this year. It is home to the largest Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the world, an estimated 150,000 people.
The first referendum was held last May in Norway, which is one of the few Western countries that hasn’t banned the Tamil Tigers. Norway brokered the 2002 cease-fire between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the Sri Lankan government, which was torn up formally in Jan. 2008.
The diaspora in France voted on the referendum just last weekend.
The turnout was high in all three countries, according to the pro-Tamil Tiger website Tamilnet, which also reports that the vote was 99 percent “yes” in all three countries.
In the referenda, people of Sri Lankan origin were asked to vote “yes” or “no” on the following statement: “I aspire for the formation of an independent and sovereign state of Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka on the basis that the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka make a distinct nation, have a traditional homeland, and a right to self-determination.”
The statement itself is drawn from a 1976 resolution adopted by Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka in the face of deteriorating minority rights before the island nation plunged into civil war in 1983. Sri Lankan Tamils only make up about 18 percent of its population. The origins of the ethnic conflict go back to the changing of the country’s language and education policies to favor the Sinhalese majority.
Does the vote matter?
On why it’s necessary to hold a diaspora referendum now on a resolution that was drafted 33 years ago, Senthan Nada, one of the organizers and spokesperson for the Toronto-based Coalition to Stop the War, says it’s a touchstone to determine the future path. “The 1976 resolution calling for an independent state - is this still the way to go forward to find a peaceful and lasting solution? That’s what we want to establish by a democratic vote.”
“The Sri Lankan government won’t comment on this because they don’t want to recognize this as being influential," says Mr. Hariharan. "It won't change anything in the country.” He says the Sri Lankan government is using its own strategy to win over conciliatory elements of the Tamil diaspora.
According to Hariharan, the real motive of the referenda may just be to fill the leadership vacuum created by the death of rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and lay claim to the vast financial empire the Tamil Tigers have worldwide. “The Tigers want to create some sort of legitimacy to revive the movement,” he says.
But Nada says that holding the referenda in countries like Canada, rather than in Sri Lanka among its Tamil citizens, is important. “From the viewpoint of the community here, the Tamils in Sri Lanka are disenfranchised," says Nada. "We are trying to voice their concerns because they can’t talk freely.”
Lalitha Chandra, who uses a fictitious name in the fear of reprisal for her views, abstained from voting. She has misgivings about where all this will lead because she has seen her family suffer from the civil war that claimed nearly 100,000 lives.
“I just want peace," she says. "After all these years of fighting, we know that the Sri Lankan government is dead against separation. So, realistically speaking, I don’t know how it’s going to happen, because any solution has to be worked out together between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.”