Tamils in Britain and Canada vow to sustain Sri Lanka struggle

In both countries, home to large Tamil communities, a new focus on using democratic means to address grievances.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Pro-Tamil demonstrators beat a picture of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa with shoes in front of the Houses of Parliament in London on May 18.
Mark Blinch/Reuters
Gunham Veerakathipillai (r.), who has been on a hunger strike since May 3, sits in a tent as Tamil protesters demonstrate in Queens Park in Toronto on May 13.
Protesters hold portraits of the slain leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, during a rally against Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the southern Indian city of Chennai on May 21.

After weeks of watching from a distance as relatives and loved ones were caught up in Sri Lanka's final offensive against Tamil separatists, many in the world's Tamil diaspora are now in mourning.

But in Britain and Canada – home to some of the largest concentrations of Sri Lankan Tamils abroad – communities are mobilizing to play a part in what leaders describe as a new phase in their struggle for an independent homeland.

Following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the talk now is of employing democratic means to address Tamil concerns. That goal could be tested, however, by a growing number of young expatriate Tamils who have become radicalized by the oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Like others around the world, British Tamils say their priority is the welfare of tens of thousands of refugees following the end of fierce fighting in a small area in northern Sri Lanka. They want the Red Cross and nongovernmental organizations to be allowed access to their camps, where they say the Sri Lankan military has no role to play.

British Tamils have always donated generously to Tamil charities, but not without controversy. Last month, a British Tamil leader was found guilty of supplying bombmaking equipment for the Tamil Tigers.

Arunachalam Chrishanthakumar, a London property developer who was head of the United Tamil Organization in Britain until it was proscribed seven years ago, had been given a warning by the British authorities in 2004 after buying boots and handcuffs for the Tamil Tigers' police force.

In the past, Tamil immigrants have claimed that they were being intimidated into handing over "donations" of up to £50,000 ($79,000) to support the Tigers.

Radicalizing a generation

Suren Surendiran, a spokesman for the British Tamils Forum, an umbrella organization, says that in the longer term, the events of recent weeks have radicalized the younger generation of Tamils abroad.

"The first phase of the fight for freedom, from 1948 to 1983, was about political negotiations," he adds. "Then, the armed struggle from 1983 until last week ensured that the oppression and discrimination of Tamil people was highlighted on an international stage.

Mr. Surendiran says that a third phase has now arrived. He adds that this will involve the Tamil diaspora pursuing its goal through political and democratic channels, the ultimate goal being a Tamil homeland in some form.

A new generation will play a crucial role. "Second generation Tamils who were born overseas have now become separatists in a way that they were probably not before," he says. "They live and breathe the culture in which they were born into and they will approach the struggle from that perspective."

Driving force behind protests

Young second-generation Tamils have been the driving force behind a largely peaceful occupation of Parliament Square, in front of the House of Commons, although protesters have clashed with police when hundreds of demonstrators attempted to block traffic during peaks in the recent fighting in Sri Lanka.

Scuffles have broken out as police confiscated flags bearing images representing the LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), a group outlawed in Britain.

Michael Martin, who resigned Tuesday as speaker of the House of Commons, has accused the protesters of "hijacking" Parliament Square and preventing others from "exercising their democratic duty to demonstrate."

Thusiyan Nandakumar, of Students Against Genocide of Tamils (SAGT), said: "With the fall of the LTTE militarily, the British government has no excuse but to act. They kept calling the Tigers 'terrorists,' but now this is about the plight of thousands of civilians.

"It's true that this has changed us. I know of a lot of people who might have been even anti-LTTE in the past, and even they are talking about taking up guns.... At the same time, people can see that the armed struggle was necessary."

Among those camped outside of Parliament this week was Yalini Naguleashwaran, a teenager who left Sri Lanka with her family at the age of 5 and who has been unable to return because of the war.

"People have been really desperate over the past few weeks, not knowing if their relatives are dead or alive," she says. "We get reports of people going missing from the camps.

"Members of my own extended family were inside the zone and we don't know what has happened to them."

To date, the British government itself has been active on the world stage, calling for a cease-fire in recent weeks between the LTTE and Sri Lankan forces.

But protesters in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, attacked the British High Commission Monday and burned an effigy of David Miliband, the foreign secretary, accusing Britain of supporting the rebels.

Quebec as a model for Tamils?

Across the Atlantic in Canada, home to the world's largest Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, community leaders are holding up Quebec as a path for resolving Sri Lanka's ethnic problem.

"This model of autonomy could work for us," says Ramani Balendra, an ethnic Tamil from Sri Lanka who is a member of the Tamil Action Committee that has been organizing protests in recent weeks.

Members of the diaspora in Canada haven't been the only ones to propose this. In a BBC interview, R. Sambandan, a legislator with the Tamil National Alliance, a party backed by the Tamil Tigers, lauded Canada's asymmetrical federalism. "The French-speaking people [of Canada] are recognized as a distinct society and have a federal arrangement in which in the areas of their competence, they are supreme."

Sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle has in fact been highest among Quebec's nationalist intellectuals, according to Narendra Balasubramanian, an associate professor of political science at McGill University who has been studying the conflict. "The Quebec nationalists feel an affinity with Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism," he says.

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon earlier this week said Canada was prepared to assist Sri Lankan efforts to "find political reconciliation and a lasting peace."

Raising money for refugees, not war

Professor Balasubramanian, however, says Canada's role will be limited to humanitarian assistance, and perhaps monitoring. Tamils have already approached the Canadian chapters of CARE and the Red Cross to provide relief for the displaced.

According to Balasubramanian, any money the diaspora now raises will be for the rehabilitation of refugees, and not to revive the armed struggle. "These people are half a world away. It would be tough for them to build up insurgents in Sri Lanka," he says.

Ms. Balendra insists the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers isn't the end of the road. Reports of human rights abuses in the war zone, she says, have deepened the community's desire for a homeland. "Even people who never came out before are coming out and saying, 'We need a land of our own.' "

University student Vinoth Navajeevanantha belongs to a generation of Sri Lankan Tamils born and brought up abroad, but he shows a passionate interest in the fate of his parents' homeland. "I might have been brought up here, but [the Tamils of Sri Lanka] are my people," he says, adding that the conflict could reignite if the Tamils are not given their rights in Sri Lanka. "When you have a people that aren't being heard, it creates a need for rebellion."

A political struggle

Balendra thinks the new struggle will be political rather than armed. She emphasizes the need for a foreign mediator in finding a lasting solution. "I feel Canada should be the country because it has the largest diaspora." Canada has an estimated population of 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils.

Balasubramanian isn't sure how far Ottawa will be drawn into all of this. "The Sri Lankan diaspora is an important lobby group, but it doesn't dictate government policies."

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