It was interesting to welcome a member of the massive Tamil community to the podcast series I make for Medya News about their struggle for self-determination. The conversation with Viruben Nandakumar, who is in the editorial board of the Tamil Guardian, was very insightful. The similarities I saw with the Kurdish struggle were remarkable, but I saw an important difference too – a difference that strengthens my belief that laying down arms before a political settlement is reached would lead to a catastrophe.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve known that the Kurds are not, as they often claim, the largest nation on earth without their own country. Those are the Tamils, with more than 80 million souls, twice as many as the Kurds. It’s not a competition, of course, but that such a large nation (as many people as there are in Turkey or Germany) is generally overseen, says a lot about which nations make it to the conversation and which don’t.
The Kurds may have few friends, but their location in the world automatically makes them part of the conversation and they have, especially in the last decade or so, managed to define the conversation with their skills and determination on the battlefield and their humane resistance against oppression. The Tamil homelands are of less geo-strategic and economic importance, which makes it even harder for them to draw attention to their fate.
Like Kurds, Tamils originally live in different countries: the south of India and the north and east of Sri Lanka. Most Tamils live in India, some 70 million, and more than three million live in Sri Lanka. Besides that, again like Kurds, there is a large diaspora, with significant Tamil communities in for example Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, the United States and Britain. Viruben Nandakumar said the Tamils are united in a common struggle for self-determination.
The level of this self-determination differs between India and Sri Lanka. India is a federal state, with an imperfect settlement between the central government and the Tamil community (mostly living in the state of Tamil Nadu), so that Tamils can govern themselves to a certain extent, while in Sri Lanka suppression is complete. Any resistance against the state is considered separatism. Ring a bell?
We talked about the uprising that happened in Sri Lanka this summer too, in which common people managed to send the president into exile. When I asked what this meant for Tamils and whether they participated in the demonstrations, he pointed out that the protestors were mainly from the South, a part of the country that had in general been served well by the state. They wanted the president gone, but didn’t have a real vision for what should come next. “The slogan was ‘Go home Gota!’ [referring to president Gotabaya Rajapaksa], and that was the most important goal. There was nothing about recognition of genocide or Tamil demands for justice,” Nandakumar said.
Ring a bell? I lived in Diyarbakır when the Gezi protests happened [in Istanbul] in spring and summer 2013. You won’t hear me saying the Gezi protests weren’t important because they were, but the slogan ‘Hükümet istifa!’ (Government resign!) didn’t reveal much vision about an alternative to the destructive nature of the Turkish state. ‘Kürdistan faşizme mezar olacak!’ already sounds more comprehensive – Kurdistan will be the grave of fascism. While Tamils and Kurds alike have known the state for decades (the Tamils since 1948, when Sri Lanka became independent), the dominant group in society just doesn’t seem to see how deeply flawed the foundation of the state is, and demonstrates against the outcomes that affect them instead of against the root of the problem.
But let me talk about that genocide in Sri Lanka. It happened in 2009, when the 25-year-long civil war ended with the final defeat of the armed resistance group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, in short the Tamil Tigers. It was an explosion of state violence, in which thousands of civilians were slaughtered. Of course, there is no accountability from the perpetrators, and the UN has written some report but hasn’t given any sign that it actually cares for justice. The Tamils are on their own.
They continue their struggle in any way they can, not just in the diaspora but on the ground as well, but it’s hard. The district of Mullaitivu, in the east, where the Tamil Tigers had their last base, has one soldier for every two citizens. The rest of Tamil lands have one soldier for every six citizens, which makes it one of the most militarised regions in the world. Every dissent is suppressed, whoever speaks out is a ‘terrorist’, and the state uses the fear among Sri Lankan citizens of the Tamil Tigers as an excuse to suppress the whole Tamil community, left without self-defence.
The Kurdish armed resistance is alive. Turkey is doing everything it can, both within and outside its borders, to crush the armed movement. The Sri Lankan experience shows what this takes and what it leads to: genocide, and even harder suppression of defenceless people under full militarisation. The end of armed resistance without a political settlement doesn’t mean peace, it means absence of open conflict but intensification of the denial and annihilation of a nation. Kurdistan becoming the grave of fascism is a much better option.