Globalization and Transnational Tamils: Random thoughts

Part one  |   Part two

Globalization and national question in Sri Lanka - Part III

In March 1961, the forefathers of Tamil nationalism succeeded in effectively challenging the functioning of the Sinhala government led by Sirimavo Bandaranayake, through their popular non-violent 'Satyagraha' struggle. As far as the North-east is concerned, their action virtually paralyzed the entire state mechanism.

1. Remembering the aftermath of 1961 and the remarkable changes in Post-2009

The historical campaign in March 1961 went to the extent of starting independent post offices and even printing stamps. Nonetheless, this non-violent struggle suffered a painful defeat after the state succeeded in crushing the resistance by ordering the first large scale military deployment in post- independent era. The Army, navy and police forces were deployed under the unified command of Colonel Udugama, who became the first Sinhalese military officer to commit crimes against humanity in the Tamil regions. Even though the eventual result was a total defeat to the nonviolent struggle, this was no way comparable to the scale and nature of the genocidal destruction which took place in May 2009. But in the aftermath of the defeat of March 1961, the politics of the Tamils were totally paralyzed and did not fully recover at least for a decade, until the commencement of the armed struggle.

But on the contrary, in the aftermath of 2009, even after a total defeat of the armed struggle, Tamils were able to reorganize themselves politically.They faced elections seven months after the genocide in an organized and uncompromising manner in January and April 2010. How come this was not possible in 1961 but became possible even after facing a genocidal onslaught in 2009? Why isn't Sri Lankan state able to neutralize and defeat the political potential of the Tamils internally as in 1961? Why was the victorious Sri Lankan government which was able to mobilise the entire 'international community' to defeat the LTTE, now so badly isolated as shown by the diplomatic debacle in Geneva in 2012?

What are the underlying factors of this important shift?  Have the trans-national characters of the Tamils and the effects of globalization anything to do with the new development? Why did not the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and 1977 create any international repercussions as compared to 1983 anti-Tamil riots? Unlike in earlier riots why did the 1983 anti Tamil riots, mobilize the trans-national Tamils such as those living in India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Réunion and Mauritius?

With the decisive defeat of the armed struggle in May 2009 many assumed that anything connected to the struggle will be dead for a long period. Even I emphasized that there is a need to prioritize rehabilitation and the reconstruction above any political agenda. But the Tamil people with their still bleeding wounds took a courageous political stand and voted as a politically united nation against the government in the Presidential election in January 2010 and the subsequent Parliament elections in April, which were conducted deliberately within a short period after the war's end. Tamil people, though wounded, proved that they still politically united and defiant, as far as their collective national aspirations are concerned.

While living under military occupation in the Northeast, the Tamil people took a united stand in the parliamentary elections on the basis of a common minimum political agenda by rejecting the government as well as all the Sinhala centric parties. They voted for a political solution which must be implemented with the international community's support. This seemed to have encouraged the international communities, and paving the way for chain of international actions which culminated at the Geneva resolution and shifted the conflict to a new plane.

2. Genuine Sinhala solidarity groups as a micro-minority

So far we haven't seen much agitation in the south against the plight of the Tamils living in the north and east. Most of the parties which share the dominant ideology of the Sinhala political establishment, including the sections of the Sinhala intelligentsia are trying to convince the Tamils that everything is perfect as the war is over, and that we need to look forward and learn to co-exist. Therefore, the Sinhalese society - based on our life experience - can be divided into three unchanging blocks:

1. The Oppressive Rulers and the social forces under their direct control.  

2. The silent section of the passive masses believing what the oppressive establishment is narrating without questioning.

3. A small section of Sinhala comrades prepared to sacrifice and do everything for the freedom and equality of the Tamils.

These categories remain frozen, without showing a slightest change even after the genocidal crimes which shook the conscience of the common humanity. The small section of the comrades I mentioned in the 3rd point - from comrade Edmund Samarakody to comrades of the Hiru Group and the JDS - show us the true and submerged consciousness of the Sinhalese people. This is the only unbroken link existing between Tamils and Sinhalese. These Sinhalese comrades, who dared to risk their own lives and smuggled many crucial evidences of the war crimes, succeeded in exposing the murderous character of the Sri Lankan state internationally.

Comrade Edmund Samarakody lived before the modern age of globalization, when the Sri Lankan state boundaries remained impenetrable and closed. Therefore he was not able to function in an international arena. He was also not able to function within the Island as the communal forces were powerful and his political career was destroyed. I met him before his death; he was unrepentant and was still hopeful of a revolutionary social transformation. He said that one day his stand would become popular and dominant in Sri Lanka. Even though the internal situation has continued as it was in his times, the international situation is very much changed with ongoing globalization.

Our contemporary Sinhalese comrades have managed to capitalize on new factors such as the weakening of the Sri Lankan state borders and the integration of the international human right spaces, to play a pivotal role in internationalizing the truth about genocidal war crimes. In this aspect the role of the Tamils is very much secondary. This gives us the hope that whether in separation or in a federation we can peacefully co-exist with the Sinhalese.

3. Tamil Trans-nationality and modern globalization

There is no peaceful coexistence without understanding the benefits of peace with justice and equality. Therefore sovereignty is the self-determination of the people. A country cannot protect its sovereignty while denying it to a section of its people. With globalization, denying sovereignty to oppressed people is next to impossible when they have a strong trans-national character.

While globalization weakens the nation-state boundaries, trans-national cultures and communities integrate and functions as political multipliers to each other. In the Sri Lankan case, even after the defeat of the LTTE, Tamils were able to corner the Sri Lankan state in Geneva with the influence of the world Tamils e.g. South African Tamils and other Diaspora Tamil activists.

In reality, the globalization process has questioned all our older discussions based on ‘majority Sinhalese’ and ‘minority Tamils’ contained in a closed political entity named 'Sri Lanka.' During those discussions, mainstream Sinhala scholars failed to foresee the emerging phenomena of weakening of nation state frontiers, which traditionally prevented the integration of trans-national communities, such as Tamils. When we raised these questions of trans-nationality we were ridiculed and laughed off. Even now a majority of the Sinhala Scholars and politicians including Chandrika Bandaranaike (in a recent CNN-IBN interview) have repeatedly demonstrated their unwillingness to understand this reality. They continue to avoid acknowledging the significance of the intervention of Tamil Nadu and Malaysian Tamils on the decision of Malaysia and India to withdraw their support for Sri Lanka in Geneva. GoSL and some of its’ subservient 'scholars' are trying to find imaginary reasons for the above development.

As the oppressed people have a strong trans-national character, protecting the sovereignty of a country while denying sovereignty for a section of its people becomes impossible, even after the state succeeds militarily after fighting a full-fledged war.

4. Internationalizing the conflict and realizing the infeasibility of the Unitary State

Whether we live in a federalized country or two independent countries in the future, the political boundaries will not divide our environment and resources. Air, water, birds, animals and oceanic resources will not respect any ethnic or national border lines. Whether it is one country or two, our children have to live side by side in the same Island forever. They have to ensure peace to protect our fragile and unique environment, share the same resources and ensure mutual socio-economic and cultural development. This cannot be achieved with the present conceptual tools and intellectual approaches seeing Sri Lanka as a watertight compartment or entity where Sinhalese are the majority and the Tamils are minority.

Sinhalese intellectuals and politicians keep blaming each other for internationalizing the ethnic conflict. But this whole debate seems absurd, because in a context of globalization no one can prevent internationalization of our ethnic conflict because of the trans-national character of the Tamils. The 1958 and 1977 anti-Tamil riots did not get internationalized compared to 1983 riots and the aftermath. This explains partly the effects of globalization on the affairs of strong trans-national communities.  

One of the historical questions now confronting the two nations in the island is whether Sinhala and Tamil speaking people are prepared to get the advantage and benefits of the majority nature of the Sinhalese and the strength of the trans-national nature of the Tamils. This cannot be achieved without the mutual trust and a willingness to share territorial political power on the basis of political self-determination. This is the criteria for the peaceful co-existence in the island of Sri Lanka. Failing to realize this would inevitably compel us to accept other future options available in a globalized context such as North- South Sudan option or a North-South Cyprus situation.

The dynamic basis of the ethnic reality of our Island, which contributes to the fluctuations of the power equations between Tamil speaking people and the Sinhalese, need to be appreciated to understand the reality of the post Geneva scenario. 

5. The dynamic basis of the ethnic reality

The four basic aspects of the ethnic reality prevailing in our Island can be defined in the following manner:

1. Sinhalese are the numerical majority in the island of Sri Lanka but have no trans-national character.

2. Tamils have trans-national characters and are thus the majority to the Sinhalese in the South Asian region as well as in the world.

3. The island of Sri Lanka have four ethnic groups/nations namely Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Up-country Tamils. Out of these four, three uses Tamil as their language.

4. North-East province/Eelam is not only the traditional homeland of Tamils (Tamils + migrated upcountry Tamils) but also of Tamil speaking Muslims and the coastal Vedas. Moreover, now it also have to accommodate the longstanding Sinhalese minority.

These four aspects mentioned above may put some light on the discourse about the military victory and the diplomatic defeat of the Sinhalese as well as the military defeat and the diplomatic victory of Tamils.

6. The Global Tamil

Before the conclusion, I also want to discuss the age-old concepts of the 'Global Tamils' or 'Ulagathamizar' which more becomes a reality within the context of globalization process. This development firstly affects Sri Lankan politics, which is very much understandable. Secondly it will affect the political stand of most of the countries where a significant Tamil population lives, such as in India, South Africa and Malaysia. This gives a meaning to the second aspect mentioned above.

This also question many concepts developed by our intellectuals about the ethnic relations in Sri Lanka, because they see the Sinhalese as majority and Tamils as a minority in the island. These arguments managed to hold some water when the national borders of the island state was strong. Even during those days there were some intellectuals such as the veteran communist leader, late N. Shanmugadhasan (the founding leader of the Ceylon Communist Party - Maoist) who attempted to explain the multifaceted effects of the trans-national nature of Tamils on the Sri Lankan ethnic relations. They said that the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex and the Tamils are a minority with a majority complex.

In this discussion they exclusively highlighted the effect on the Sinhalese and Tamil psyche within the context of Tamil Nadu. At the time they did not consider the nature of the effects of modern globalization on the trans-national integration and increasing global characteristics of Tamils.

By doing so, they attempted first of all to explain,

1) the continuing unwillingness by the Sinhalese to share political power in territorial terms with the Tamils and

2) the uncompromising nature and the continuous transcending struggle of the Tamils.

This discussion took place prior to the modern globalization when transnational Tamils lived in virtual separation within the boundaries of the nation-states they lived in. One of the Sinhalese intellectuals of that day considered this minority complex of the Sinhalese majority and the majority complex of the Tamil minority as imagined complexities.  

However, before 1980s the concept of world Tamils or ‘Ulagathamizar’ existed as a dream of poets and among a small section of hard core Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka Malaysia and Singapore. The term 'Thamilkurum Nallulakam'/ 'Tamil speaking fair world' was first mentioned centuries before the Christ was born in the foreword of 'Thozkappiyam' by Panamparanar.

This particular word - Ulagathamizar -was used to denote the Tamils who lived in various countries which existed as separate political entities in the ancient South India. The contemporary world processes of globalization are not only economically and politically weakening the boundaries of the nation states, it also removes the isolation of transnational communities such as Tamils. Since 1980s these processes are paving the way for the integration of the world Tamils.

To be continued.

V.I.S.Jayapalan is an acclaimed Tamil poet and a writer. His political involvements forced him into exile in late 1980s. His poetry books are used in Tamil Nadu universities and colleges and since 2006 he has been spending more time in Chennai, writing and acting in films. In 2011 he won the Indian National Award for his Acting in Tamil movie 'Aadukalam.' He currently lives in Norway.


Part 1: Globalization and national question in Sri Lanka

Part 2: Looking through the fire: Memories and landscapes


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.