"Referendum on Eelam is our right and responsibility"

[TamilNet, Friday, 29 January 2010, 04:42 GMT]
"Diaspora Tamils live in established liberal democratic states with freedom of the press and where the rule of law is invariably observed. This weekend’s referendum in Britain provides us with a chance to prove that the demand for Tamil Eelam is, as it always was, the well reasoned conclusion of rational, free-thinking, independent individuals. By endorsing an independent statehood, we demonstrate our commitment to our people in the island and make clear and that there can be no peace or reconciliation without a just solution, without freedom and equality for the Tamil nation; and that it is stability, not chaos we seek in our homeland," comments Sivakami Rajamanoharan, member of the TYO-UK (Tamil Youth Organisation – United Kingdom), on the forthcoming referendum in UK.

Full text of Ms Rajamanoharan's statement, issued on behalf of TYO-UK, follows:

After three decades of futile efforts to negotiate with Sinhala leaders an end to the relentlessly deepening state discrimination, the venerated Tamil leader, SJV Chelvanayagam, turned the 1977 election into a referendum on an independent state. When the Tamil people overwhelmingly backed the demand for Tamil Eelam, many believed our collective wish was seen to be now beyond doubt.

Yet our democratic voice was first ignored, then violently stifled. Another three decades and over a hundred thousand lives later, the Tamil nation is once again uniting to reaffirm our commitment to political independence. This time however our nation’s voice is being heard clearly around the world. A global chorus of referendums that started in Norway and gained momentum in France and Canada, is now upon the UK.

Whatever our party-political, religious or other beliefs, the central question of our people’s right to govern themselves unites us all as Tamils. Nonetheless, after the horrific experiences of the past year, some doubt the use of voting. Amid our undiminished outrage there is also fatigue and cynicism.

Allow me to explain why voting ‘yes’ this weekend for our nation’s independence is both an opportunity and the duty of every British Tamil.

The world is watching

Last year we huddled together in shock as the Sri Lankan state slaughtered tens of thousands of our fellow Tamils – people it claimed were its own citizens. Those who knew earlier little of the racially motivated atrocities against our nation were galvanised into urgent action. As our surviving brothers and sisters were hemmed into squalid camps, we in the diaspora, who until very recently stood on the sidelines of our nation’s struggle for survival, seized the baton.

Tragedy can bring out the best in us. Equally it can open the door for disillusionment, despair and apathy. There are no judgments to be made, however. Given how far we seemed to have fallen last year, few could honestly say that during the darkest moments of the bleakest days they did not experience the paralysis of helplessness.

“We protested and yet the world watched as they were killed,” is a widely-held sentiment. True, the mass street protests did not save our people and no sane person would attempt to argue otherwise. However they did focus the eyes of the world on Sri Lanka as never before. The genocidal logic of Sinhala power became acknowledged worldwide for the first time.

Even now, several months after we packed up our tents and placards, the international community is insisting on investigating war crimes - despite Sri Lanka’s increasingly desperate attempts to fend them off. It is not only about the slaughtered, but the living too. For the latter, penned in militarised camps and subject to abuse or resettled around army cantonments, having the world standing over Sri Lanka’s shoulder is key to their security and survival.

Ignored and violently silenced
The TULF’s 1977 electoral victory made clear the Tamil consensus that Eelam is the only solution to Sinhala oppression. Our unwavering support appears self-evident to us.

However, the international community, having long seen Sri Lanka as a flawed but still viable liberal democracy, did not believe this is what Tamils really want. Many Western liberals dismissed Tamils who sought Eelam as extremists and insisted that the majority of Tamils would settle for autonomy or federalism. They were also convinced that once the LTTE was defeated, democratic Sri Lanka would quickly address our grievances. Why wouldn’t it?

In 2004 the Tamil National Alliance won an outstanding electoral victory in the Tamil homeland after pledging their support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were fighting for independence. Even this clear consensus was explained away as the result of LTTE domination (that Tamils’ endorsement of Eelam pre-dates the birth of the LTTE has always been conveniently forgotten).

Even we the Diaspora, oceans away from the jurisdiction of Vanni, are said to have succumbed to the power of the Tiger. However freely we waved our Eelam flags, shouting for independence, our democratic voice has consistently been ignored and our free speech usurped.

In the meantime, Sinhala bigotry was tolerated and endorsed. Even earlier this week, the US ambassador expressed her hopes for a free and fair Presidential election and a unified Sri Lanka. Just one look at the shattered and subjugated Tamil people in the Northeast makes clear the impossibility of a ‘free and fair’ election. That the vision of a unified country turns on incarcerated and brutalised victims choosing between a hit man and his contractor is nothing short of macabre.

The Diaspora’s responsibility
Nonetheless, the sheer brutality of Sri Lanka’s onslaught last year against the hapless Tamil population, and the tenacity of the Diaspora’s protests, has begun to shift international perceptions. That Sri Lanka holds elections but is no liberal democracy is now starkly clear. A rethink is underway.

However, there is still a long way to go. Some in the international community feel that after thirty years of conflict most Tamils want nothing of Eelam and simply yearn for peace and to be left alone. This infantalises and belittles our people. Actually, the situation in Sri Lanka has made our demand for independence only more relevant while the decades of attempted genocide have only served to strengthen Tamil resolve. The coming years will make this clear.

Nonetheless, the fact is that the first democratic mandate for Eelam is now over thirty years old; a long time in modern politics. It is argued to have lost its relevance. We may be steadfast, but a fresh mandate is necessary.

But, the Sinhala state has made it impossible for Tamils to freely express their wishes in Sri Lanka; the sixth amendment makes making a demand for Eelam illegal on pain of savage punishment. As the scattered and traumatized Tamils of our homeland are forced into silence, we in the Diaspora are left with a solemn responsibility today.

In the wake of last year’s mass mobilizations around the world, the international community accepts that the Tamil Diaspora must play a key role in the island’s future. The world is paying attention to Sri Lanka’s crisis and we must take the opportunity to state our case clearly.

We live in established liberal democratic states with freedom of the press and where the rule of law is invariably observed. This weekend’s referendum provides a chance to prove that the demand for Eelam is, as it always was, the well reasoned conclusion of rational, free-thinking, independent individuals.

By endorsing an independent Eelam, we demonstrate our commitment to our people in the island and make clear and that there can be no peace or reconciliation without a just solution, without freedom and equality for the Tamil nation; and that it is stability, not chaos we seek in our homeland.

Not all of those who voted in the first Eelam referendum will be able to make their voices heard again. Illness, age and thirty years of brutal conflict have claimed many lives. This weekend’s referendum provides a democratic platform through which the next generation can make clear the popular will of the Tamils and thereby continue our just and legitimate struggle.

Unavoidable Politics
Many young British Tamils, as do their non-Tamil peers, profess an aversion to the morally questionable arena of politics. ‘I am not into politics; I believe in human rights’ some say. But politics and human rights are inextricably linked. To try and improve human rights whilst turning a blind eye to the politics driving abuses and repression is not only futile but foolish.

Across the world and through out history, the most serious of human rights violations have always been the result of state machinery harnessed to racist, fascist or authoritarian ideologies. In Sri Lanka democracy means the tyranny of the Sinhala majority over the Tamil minority. The long history of state abuses and impunity there is testament to this racialised logic. Sri Lanka’s problems cannot be fixed by tinkering with human rights mechanisms or monitoring.

For others, it is not human rights, but humanitarianism that drives them. When the 2004 tsunami struck, many in the Diaspora quickly rallied to the stunned survivors in the homeland. Whilst even the most brutal of regimes are incapable of invoking a natural disaster, but ethnic discrimination can have a devastating impact on subsequent recovery. Sri Lanka did just that: international aid agencies protested the government’s excluding the shattered Northeast and concentration on the Sinhala South. Despite this and state blockade, through the untiring efforts of Tamil organisations and activists, the stricken Tamil areas recovered to a great extent.

Moreover, it is how Sri Lanka waged war against the Eelam demand that has kept most of the island’s Tamils in humanitarian crisis for a quarter of a century. Where does politics end and humanitarian catastrophe begin when a government decides to indiscriminately bomb its own civilian population? What use is aid when all international agencies are expelled but the incarcerated civilians are cited in state demands for ‘rehabilitation’ funds?

Any financial aid going to Sri Lanka, from donors or the Diaspora, for ‘development’ or ‘rehabilitation’ will, in the absence of Tamil self-rule, do nothing for the Tamil people, it will only benefit the Sinhala state.

The core problem
Some ardent optimists argue that six decades of systematic discrimination in education, employment, language and culture, culminating in last year’s state-executed slaughter can be forgotten with time; that there can be ‘reconciliation’.

But the fundamental problem in Sri Lanka is the hierarchy of Sinhalese above Tamils which has over six decades become embedded in every aspect of life in Sri Lanka: governance, law, institutions, politics and security, both individual and group.

This hierarchy is rooted in an ideology by which Sinhalese are the rightful owners of the island and Tamils their inferior (the ‘Mahavamsa’). Last summer’s mass killings have their genesis in state-sponsored or abetted riots and pogroms against Tamils in the early fifties. This is why we argue Sri Lanka is a genocide in progress.

As Israel was for the only sure protection for the Jewish people and Kosovo for the Albanians, the only guaranteed protection for Tamils in an independent Tamil Eelam: the future goodwill of today’s mass murderers is a brittle basis for our people’s security.

However far you see yourself from politics if you dream of an end to the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka, you are dreaming of Eelam.

We all belong
Most of us in the second generation were raised here in Britain because our parents fled intolerable persecution in our homeland. Britain will always be our safe haven but Tamil Eelam is our origin. That is why we are comfortably both British and Tamil. We are well-versed in our Ps and Qs, but being Tamil is an equally inherent part of who we are. Our Tamilness is not only expressed through language, clothes, food and etiquette, which can be acquired or indeed forgotten, but through shared ancestry.

It is important to remember that those who suffer genocide never choose their own identity, rather it is chosen for them by their oppressor. Throughout the gruesome history of genocide, Jews, Armenians, Tamils and others have been singled out on the basis of physical appearance or ancestry. This is why Israel, for example, created the ‘Law of Return’, allowing those of Jewish descent to seek safety in Israel from persecution any where in the world, regardless of their country of birth, citizenship or place of residence. All Jews are equal.

Similarly, regardless of where we were born or raised or to which citizenry our passports say we belong, in the face of genocide, all Tamils are equal. British Tamils therefore have a rightful place in the Tamil struggle, alongside Tamils in the homeland.

Moreover, the Tamil Eelam nation is a political community. They may contribute, but language or even ancestry is not a prerequisite to belong. This is why non-Tamil spouses of Tamils are also eligible to vote in this weekend’s referendum. A nation is a group of people who share the same political values and beliefs, thus creating their own political identity.

All this talk of national identity makes some uneasy. There is an unspoken fear that to engage in the Tamil ‘national’ project is to participate in exclusivist politics. Seeking an independent Tamil Eelam appears at odds with the increasing globalisation. Instead of unity, we are voting to divide a state into two. Moreover, the notion of dividing it along ethnic lines lies uncomfortably alongside the idea of tolerance. It raises fears of racism or even fascism.

There are two sides to nationalism, however. One is fuelled by a racist belief in one’s superiority; whilst the other, ignited by oppression, is fuelled by the need to resist genocide. Unabated persecution means that Tamil Eelam is our only guaranteed protection against a state that is obsessed with Sinhala supremacy. Yet the Tamil nation is not against the existence of a Sinhala nation or people. A referendum on Eelam is not a vote against tolerance or liberal values, but a vote for freedom, equality and self-governance.

In country after country the Diaspora is coming forward to stand by the island’s Tamils in their hour of need. Tamils of Britain, this weekend it is our turn.



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