With parents who fled pogroms against Tamils in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, it was inevitable that Viruben Nandakumar (26) was drawn to the struggle for self-determination of his people. Not on the ground in the northeast of the island south of India, but from London, where he was born. “It wouldn’t be wise to go there now”, he said with a sense of understatement. In London, he is a board member of the Tamil Guardian, a news outlet dedicated to raising Tamil voices. “We need reconciliation, and the best approach is to meet Tamil demands.”
The Tamils are a nation of some 85 million people, which makes them the largest nation on earth without their own country. Most of the Tamils, around 70 million, live in Tamil Nadu, the most southern state of India. Around 3 million Tamils live in the north and east of Sri Lanka, while the rest of the nation lives scattered around the world, with large groups in for example Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. They are all, said Nandakumar, ‘united in a struggle against violent state oppression’.
The situation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, called Eelam Tamils, draws the most attention when it comes to human rights and the plight for self-determination. Nandakumar said: “In India, there is a federal arrangement that allows for devolution. It isn’t perfect but it’s an agreement reached between the central power and the Tamil state. In Sri Lanka you have the exact opposite: a refusal to meet any demands for devolution and to frame demands for self-determination as an existential threat in itself, outlawed by the constitution. Every attempt at self-determination has consistently been stamped out since the Sri Lankan independence.”
Viruben Nandakumar became politically active around 2009. In that year, the 25 year civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end, with the defeat of the armed resistance group of the Tamil Tigers (officially Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) by the Sri Lankan army. The final offensive of the Sri Lankan army was extremely violent, with tens of thousands of civilians being slaughtered. This is known as the Tamil genocide. Nandakumar: “The Sri Lankan army relentlessly shelled food lines, no-fire zones and hospitals located in the north and east of the island in their attempt to crush Tamil independence.”
Nandakumar’s parents had already left Sri Lanka in the 1980s as political refugees. He said: “They suffered from anti-Tamil pogroms that have plagued the island for generations.” Sir Lanka became independent from Great Britain in 1948. Tensions between the majority Sinhalese community and the Tamil minority started immediately, with pogroms against Tamils starting already in the 1950s. In reaction to this discrimination, violence and suppression, in the early 1980s the armed insurgency of the LTTE had started.
The struggle for self-determination goes hand in hand with a struggle for accountability and justice for the crimes Tamils have suffered from. Nandakumar added: “And also to break the monopolistic control that has been held by the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists, which harms not only the Tamils but has lead Sri Lanka to these consistent cycles of violence and government mismanagement.”
Earlier this summer, an uprising by the people in Sri Lanka against the government, which lead to president Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaving the country, made headlines around the world. What did this mean for the Tamils? Were they involved in this uprising?
Nandakumar: “Gotabaya rose to the presidency in 2019 on a strong Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist platform and presented himself as a strongman. He came in with a two-third majority and within three years, he was chased out of the country. This is unique. However, one of the biggest issues with the protests was that there was no vision of what the protestors wanted to achieve. What it boiled down to, was this slogan, ‘Go home Gota’ [Gota being the nickname of Gotabaya], but what would come afterwards?”
The Tamils were concentrated in the south and Tamils in the north and east didn’t participate. “The protests didn’t speak to Tamil demands”, Nandakumar explained. “The protests were against economic mismanagement, while Tamils have been going to the streets day in day out facing constant harassment from security forces, demanding accountability, justice and information on where their disappeared loved ones are now. The protests didn’t speak about militarisation, didn’t speak about the need for accountability, for genocide recognition. It didn’t question the base of power. It was an understandable demonstration against a horrific economic situation but it’s also worth baring in mind that Tamils in the north and east are kind of used to this kind of economic deprivation. Having suffered deliberate blockades by the military during the war, learning how to ration food, switch to kerosine lamps, and survive without government assistance. The south always did have government assistance and now because of mismanagement, it’s hard to get by in the south as well.”
Climate of fear
What is the stage of the Tamil struggle now?
“I’m always taken aback by how organised it is and how courageous people are. What we’ve seen after the war is an increased militarisation of the north and east and a clamp down of political activists. In Mullaitivu district, where the LTTE had its last main base, there is one soldier for every two citizens, while across the north and east there is one soldier for every six civilians. It is one of the most militarised regions in the world. These soldiers are not just sitting passive, they break up demonstrations and crush every resemblance of resistance. It creates a climate of fear.”
It creates a climate of fear, but does it also creates an environment in which armed resistance could emerge again, or is that not viable?
Nandakumar: “No, I don’t think that’s viable. There is this constant attempt to incite this fear of a renewed LTTE insurrection and that’s being used to justify the military presence. So every election cycle it is suddenly that they find a stash of arms that is linked to the LTTE but upon further investigation there is little facts to substantiate it. It shows if you want reconciliation or an end to this constant strive, the best approach is to meet the demands of the Tamil people. That’s also what the Tamil Guardian tries to do: raise Tamil voices and show that there is an alternative path, and it’s pluralism and meeting Tamil demands. I don’t think there’s going to be another armed struggle, but I do fear another outbreak of anti-Tamil pogroms because of this deep fear of… others.”