Tamils living outside Sri Lanka are a dedicated people. They use a lot of their time to organize themselves and encourage others to help their kinsmen back home. It is my impression that most in the Diaspora feel close to those they left behind, realizing also the harassment and physical abuse they are forced to endure at the hands of many insensitive Sinhalese and their government.
Many other Tamils, especially in Tamil Nadu, India, join hands in this humanitarian struggle. Together, they have achieved a great deal of real assistance and some recognition for their kinsmen and cousins albeit no government has yet to respond with consequent solidarity for this maligned people. The potential potency of a true humanitarian, internationalist United Nations yet once again has been left unfulfilled in the interests of monetary and territorial profits.
Tamils began fleeing Sri Lanka in large numbers following the second pogrom, in 1977. Led by Buddhist monks, Sinhalese mobs destroyed many of their homes and shops and murdered up to 300. This was the second of four pogroms Tamils suffered between 1956 and 1983, in which as many as 5000 Tamils were murdered; some were set aflame alive.
The first Tamils fled to nearby Tamil Nadu where 60 million Indian Tamils live. These Sri Lanka Tamils have been poorly treated by Indian authorities. Activism led by Tamil Nadu Tamils has been based on emotional connections they have to the Sri Lankan Tamils. It peaked in May 2009 but has been sporadic since then. There are signs of revival of support for the Tamils generally among the educated class based on rational evaluation of the situation for Tamils in the island.
Most Tamils migrated beyond Asia, spreading throughout the British Commonwealth, non-English speaking European countries, and the United States. Today, there are about one million S.L. Tamils living in 20 countries or more. Their relatives back home number around 2.5 million.
Migrants and refugees did not abandon their kinsmen. Most send remittances and many helped finance liberation movements, including the armed forces of the LTTE (Tigers). They established grass roots support committees in the countries where they migrated.
One of the oldest Tamil associations in the Diaspora in the United States is Ilankai Tamil Sangam. It has a continuous history of support activities since its founding in 1977, and is now conducting a boycott campaign of Sri Lanka garments, which accounts for a quarter of foreign currency earnings. As it writes, “We know that by linking employment of Sinhalese to the human rights of Tamils we can help secure a just future for our people.”
Another U.S. group, Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), formed in 2008, hired US attorney Bruce Fein, a conservative Ronald Reagan government official, to file human rights violation charges against Sri Lanka’s defense minister, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, also a U.S. citizen, and General Sarath Fonseca, former head of the government’s war machine and also holder of United States residency.
TAG has also filed a lawsuit in US District Court in Washington for $30 million in damages on behalf of three Tamil plaintiffs, who had family members killed by the S.L. Army.
A separate legal attempt was made in the Supreme Court to annul part of the Patriotic Act that forbids offering assistance to terrorist groups, so defined by the US government. A Sri Lankan Tamil, US citizen, and lawyer, Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran, argued that supplying a liberation force, the Tigers, with “material support” is in keeping with First Amendment rights of free speech. He so contends because of perpetual discrimination by the Sinhalese governments against the Tamil population allows them no alternative but to take up arms, in order to win their rights.
On June 22, 2010, the Supreme Court denied Rudrakumaran’s case. It found, instead, that laws against “terrorism” have priority over free speech, which, for the first time, the Supreme Court has now partially criminalized.
Tamil groups in many other countries are active in boycotting Sri Lanka products—such as Act Now in Britain—and in filing lawsuits against Sri Lankan diplomats for war crimes.
Since April 2004 when the present president Mahinda Rajapaksa became prime minister, at least 34 journalists have been murdered: three Sinhalese, 29 Tamils.
Fifty-five media workers have fled into exile in that time span. Towards the end of the war, some started Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), an action group of journalists, writers, artists and human rights defenders campaigning for democracy, human rights and media freedom in Sri Lanka.
Three international organizations have started up since the end of the war with the common goal of offering hope for Sri Lanka Tamils back at home and in the Diaspora by struggling abroad for sovereignty in Sri Lanka—Global Tamil Forum (GTF), Council of Eelam Tamil in Europe (CETE), Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE). Although they all started after the defeat and collapse of the LTTE, the Sri Lanka government considers them all to be Tiger “terrorist” followers.
The GTF has committees in 14 countries. The first ones started in Britain and Canada in the summer of 2009. The GTF held its inauguration in London’s House of Commons, February 24, 2010. Several British government officials and parliamentarians were present. Foreign Secretary David Milliband spoke. He suggested that Sri Lanka embark on a “genuinely inclusive political process. Other Establishment politicians from Europe, the US, and South Africa attended as well. This event followed the EU decision to suspend preferential trade benefits (GSP) for the Sri Lankan government in protest to its brutal abuses against Tamils.
The Forum’s leader is SJ Emmanuel, a Catholic priest and follower of Gandhi. The Forum’s vision is to seek self-determination for S.L. Tamils using principles of democracy and non-violence.
Global Tamil Forum projects include boycotts of Sri Lanka products, and aiding Internally Displaced Persons (IDP). They estimate that there are at least 80,000 Tamil widows, and many thousands of orphans. It is endeavoring to sponsor at least 1000 war orphans and provide general relief for those most affected by the war. The GTF also seeks justice for the perpetrators of genocide and war crimes. They work with the Center for War Victims and Human Rights.
In an interview with a leading participant at the inauguration, a Tamil scholar and political activist, he acknowledged that by obtaining tentative political backing by Western government officials and parliamentarians can be tricky. None of these governments have forthrightly aided the Tamil cause for self-determination or its people in any material way. Since the end of the war, U.S., EU and UN leaders have made noises about protecting Tamils’ “human rights” but have not condemned Sri Lanka or brought anyone before the International Criminal Court, as they often do to leaders of governments that they oppose. No, as I have shown in other writings herein, these Western regimes have been involved with the Sri Lankan Sinhalese governments’ genocide since the beginning in the 1950s. So, what is to be gained?
“Believe me no Tamil activist thinks of supporting US or British imperialism, just as we did not support British colonialism,” he said. “But we have to present out case wherever we can, and hope that by bringing as much pressure as we can we will one day bear fruit. In politics, there are always contradictions. Most of us are more inclined toward the liberation struggles of other peoples, such as those countries in Latin America struggling free of the United States’ `backyard´ dominance. Ironically, some of these countries have sided politically with the Sri Lankan government. I think this is misguided, but they probably have done so because they see US-EU pointing a ‘human rights’ finger hypocritically at Sri Lanka leaders. And then there is China interests over there, too.”
(The United States has invaded 66 countries 159 times since the end of World War Two. All these military operations have been aggressive—some minor, some major: Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The US has directly murdered several millions of people in military operations. Through wars and sanctions, such as that against Iraq following its first military intervention, millions more have starved to death.)
Shortly after the GFT was launched, Tamil activists in Norway and Switzerland began the Council of Eelam Tamil in Europe. They were soon joined by activists in Germany, France and Italy. They see themselves as activists, first and foremost. Many are second generation Tamils in the Diaspora.
In Switzerland, Tamil CETE activists ran for election in a national assembly to form Canton based councils. They see this as a way of uniting and strengthening the Eezham Tamil Diaspora, and putting a separate state in northern-eastern Sri Lanka on the agenda. Sixteen thousand eligible Tamil voters in Switzerland, 70% of the total number, held a referendum in January 2010. Ninety-nine percent voted yes for an independent Tamil Eelam.
Four European CETE councils, joined by Tamils Against Genocide, are filing war crimes charges against Sri Lanka diplomats sent to European countries.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) agreed to take up the case against the appointment of ex-SLA commander Jagath Dias as a diplomat to the Sri Lanka embassy in Germany. “SCET, the Norwegian Council of Eelam Tamils (NCET) and the US based NGO, Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), had filed an application to the ECHR in July 2010 charging the German government for violating EU Rights conventions by accepting a Sri Lankan military commander, Major General Jagath Dias, an accused in the war crimes,” wrote Tamil Net.
One representative of the Swiss CETE, Lathan Suntharalingam, a young activist and member of the Swiss Parliament for the Socialist Party, told me, “We Tamils have to work hard to bring our cause before the world. We are very sad and confused after the defeat in 2009. We need to combine all our forces and struggles: Tamils, Arabs, Latin Americans…We need to help each other, because we have common problems and goals.”
A prominent activist in the Diaspora, Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran, who earned a law degree in immigration rights and constitutional law from Harvard University, saw the need for international representation of Tamil rights to sovereignty. He took the most ambitious initiative to begin the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam in the United States and throughout the Diaspora. Rudra, as he is known, called together Tamils living in many countries, mainly scholars, to a conference in Switzerland, in August 2009. Two more international meetings were held before the TGTE was officially inaugurated. Consensus was reached: a) armed struggle was defeated and is not now possible; b) the fight for sovereignty must continue.
An advisory committee of 11 persons was selected to draw up a strategy for the formation of a “Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam”. “This Government will lobby for the support of the international community and people to find a political solution to the Tamil national question on the basis of nationhood, a homeland and the right to self-determination.”
The TGTE is not to be confused with a “government in exile”, as there had been no independent state with a government that later sought relocation. It will be formed like a transnational corporation or NGO, and will campaign through political and diplomatic channels. The real government will be established in the homeland when that is physically possible.
The traditional homeland of Tamils is swarming with military personnel and camps, effectively an occupied territory. Systematic gerrymandering of electoral districts occurs. Four Tamil members of parliament, representing Tamil political parties, have been murdered under Rajapakse’s regime. Murderers of Tamils whether military personnel or police or civilians enjoy full impunity. The state prohibits equal rights for Tamils with the Sinhalese. In such circumstances, international law recognizes a right to self-determination and a right to secession. And when powerful nations back a people’s demand for sovereignty, such as in Kosovo, they get it.
TGTE strategy is to work with all existing local, national and international Tamil organizations in the Diaspora, and to create a power centre for diplomacy with all governments possible. It also seeks to work in partnership with Tamil leadership inside Sri Lanka but has not been able to establish ties, at least not officially, given the belligerent nature of the S.L. government.
The advisors’ reported on January 2010. They said that a transnational government is “rationalized on the lack of political space for the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka to articulate their political aspirations and realize their right to self-determination and exercise their sovereignty.”
They devised an elaborate democratic procedure to elect delegates where Tamils live in the Diaspora, in order to shape a Transnational Constitutional Assembly, appoint a cabinet, and draft a constitution. One of the main provisions in a constitution will assure the special rights of Muslim Tamils, “who seek their identity based on Islamic religious faith” and are Tamil-speaking people.
- The report also recommended a monitoring body to protect the guiding principles and ensure that the Transnational Government “does not act in a manner contrary to the Guiding Principles”:
- 1. Commitment to achieve Eelam, an independent, sovereign State—nationhood, homeland and right to self-determination.
2. Tamil Eelam will be a secular state.
3. TGTE shall assist in establishing health facilities in the homeland, homes and refuges for those affected by the war; promote cultural activities stressing Eelam Tamil distinctiveness. Much of this work will have to be done indirectly as the TGTE cannot be in Sri Lanka.
4. Promote education in the homeland.
5. Promote economic welfare.
6. Conduct foreign relations through lobbying.
7. Seek prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
8. Protect the equality of women and all Tamils.
9. Provide welfare of families of martyrs, former combatants and families affected by the war. One practical project is to establish monuments for martyrs in the Diaspora since their memorials and graves have been destroyed by the Sri Lankan government.
The advisors established procedures to elect 115 Elected Representatives (ER) by direct ballot where there are contests—otherwise the sole candidate for an area automatically became an ER—in the main population centers (16 countries), and 20 Delegates to represent countries or regions where conducting elections is not feasible because of small or diffuse Tamil populations, or there exists difficulty of access. Some Delegates could be non-Eelam Tamils coming from India, primarily.
The numbers of ER and Delegates is proportional to the numbers of Tamils. For instance, Canada has the largest number, 25, to represent about a quarter million Tamils, followed by the UK with 20, for some 200,000 Tamils.
Those wishing to vote in the TGTE Constituent Assembly must be 17 years old or older and connected to Eelam Tamil culture by descent, marriage or adoption.
In the spring of 2010, elections were held in 12 countries. In some cases, the proposed candidate met no competition and so there was no election. The fact that only about 5% of the Diaspora, around 35-40,000, voted does not indicate a lack of enthusiasm since in some cases there was no need for an election. Nevertheless, participation was lower than hoped for.
Fifty-six of the 89 ER and Delegates elected gathered, in Philadelphia, to officially form the Transnational Constituent Assembly, on May 17-19, 2010. Not all countries or regions had held elections. Their spots will be filled in time.
On June 17, following the first sitting of the Assembly of the TGTE, Rudrakumaran wrote the following in a news release.
“The fact that the first session took place in Philadelphia at the same site where the US Declaration of Independence was promulgated and the US Constitution was drafted symbolized, to the world, our passion for freedom. While the Government of Sri Lanka proclaimed that [it] crushed the Tamils’ struggle for freedom…we demonstrated our thirst for freedom to the world through the setting up of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. The manner in which we linked elected members of TGTE situated at venues in London and Geneva…portends the transnational character of the struggle we intend to take further.
The first session of the Assembly saw the election of an interim executive committee along with several action committees in order to address the immediate concerns until the time a formal constitution of the TGTE is drafted and ratified.”
The TGTE Assembly met again between September 20 and October 1, in the United Nations Plaza Hotel, New York City. Representatives in N.Y. were joined via teleconference by others from London and Paris. They ratified its Constitution.
“The opening plenary was addressed by former U.S. Attorney General Mr. Ramsey Clark, Deputy Chief Minister of Penang (Malaysia) Professor Ramasamy, Professor David L. Philips from Columbia University and who also served as UN and U.S. State Department adviser, and Mr. Ali Beydoun, Executive Director of UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic of the American University’s Washington College of Law. UNROW recently published a report on Sri Lanka War Crimes which was submitted to the UN.
After the opening session the Assembly turned to the challenging task of discussing the draft constitution. They debated and settled on a parliamentary model. The Parliament decided that the head of the government would be the Prime Minister. They also chose to create three Deputy Prime Minister posts. The Deputy Prime Ministers will be joined in the cabinet by seven other ministers.
The TGTE Parliament will have a bicameral legislature. It will consist of the Parliament of elected representatives and the Senate. The Senate will serve as an advisory body as well as provide expertise. The Parliament also codified the recall mechanism of the elected members.
After the Assembly ratified the constitution, and unanimously elected Mr. Pon Balarajan from Canada as the Speaker of the Parliament, and Ms. Suganya Puthirasigamany from Switzerland as the Deputy Speaker. The Parliament unanimously elected Mr. Visvanathan Rudrakumaran as the first Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam.
On November 3, the TGTE announced its first cabinet. Of the 10 ministers and 10 deputy ministers, five are women. The Secretariat is in Geneva. The ministries are: finance; welfare; education-culture-health; internal affairs; information; political & foreign affairs; welfare of women, children & elders; economic affairs-environment & development; investigation of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes; and IDPs, Refugees and POWs.
The cabinet meets every 14 days. It will be issuing national membership cards and a quarterly journal, plus an international website.
On the foreign relations front, the TGTE feel a victory for its recognition by being sent an invitation from the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) leadership to be official guests of the new nation-in-formation, the Republic of Southern Sudan, in the July 2011 inaugurating ceremony.
In another area of rebellion and repression, the TGTE called upon the United Nations to protect Libyan civilians, as well as their own people. On February 25, 2011, this statement was issued:
Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) today urged the United Nations not to fail in protecting Libyan civilians like it failed to protect Sri Lankan civilians in 2009, when around 60,000 Tamil civilians were killed. The failure of the international community to take concrete actions to protect civilians in Sri Lanka has given the green light to regimes around the world that they can also massacre civilians without any fear of consequences.
What we are witnessing today in Libya is the result of indifference the international community exhibited during the massacre in Sri Lanka and not brining Sri Lankan leaders to face war crimes charges”, said Political and Foreign Minister of Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Mr. Thanikasalam Thayaparan.
UN should take immediate steps to bring Sri Lanka leaders to Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and War Crimes to show its resolve to hold those committing mass killings.
Among the TGTE challenges and weaknesses, which I see and have discussed somewhat with key participants, are:
1) The need to raise a treasury while avoiding the historic problem of Diaspora contributions being associated with the armed struggle of the Tigers, seen by many Tamils as having succumbed to acts of terrorism and, of course, being condemned as terrorists by many of the governments that TGTE is trying to persuade to assist it. So, it is the most active members who are paying for travel and other expenses. For now, they will not ask Tamils for money, in general. Perhaps some NGOs and grass roots groups might raise money. They must be careful about choosing their NGOs, as many are paid for by governments with special political interests—NGO imperialists, some call them.
2) TGTE must be careful about how it conducts its lobbying with governments of the “international community”, a common reference to the US and its big capitalist allies. This is a reference to what I raised earlier regarding the Global Tamil Forum. In this context, it is noted that while the SPLM has a legitimate demand for a separate state, it allowed itself to be supported economically, militarily and politically by the United States.
3) While practically every Tamil in the Diaspora still wants a sovereign nation inside the Sri Lanka island, there are strategic and tactical differences. The TGTE takes up where the LTTE ended but by using non-violent tactics. Not all in the Diaspora have yet admitted that the LTTE will not return, or that another armed struggle is impossible or unnecessary. Most GTF members support the TGTE, as do many in the CETE. But some activists wait in the background before deciding to cooperate with the TGTE; a few are against it.
While Lathan Suntharalingam is skeptical, he did help organize a Country Working Group and an election for the TGTE in Switzerland.
“We supported the election, in April 2010, for delegates to the Constitutional Assembly. I am a bit confused about it, though. I wish more action. The TGTE needs more time. I see us getting well together in two to three years.”
4) Finally, how can the TGTE become a true representative for the Tamils in Sri Lanka? How can it get feedback and backing from this frightened and suffering population? I see a related problem. All ministers are scholars or businessmen while most Tamils at home and in the Diaspora are workers. This too has to be adjusted as the credibility and trust people hold towards the government improves over time.