Dear Sinhalese ‘ally’,
Often have I stumbled upon articles written by you published in liberal Sri Lankan online outlets such as Groundviews, Sri Lanka Guardian or Colombo Telegraph, where you attempt to investigate the conflict in all its complexities, nuances and potential contradictions. You want to find immediate solutions to complex issues on the ‘ground’. You are a well-meaning liberal, I know. You are impatient and wish to heal what’s been left unhealed, I know. While eagerly analyzing the roots of conflict and catalysts of war in order to find fast-paced solutions, you have often come to a seemingly unanimous conclusion: ‘The’ Tamil diaspora had and continues to have a negative impact on the conflict and the well-being of the local Tamil community. ‘They spent millions to support the war from afar but can’t spend a dime to develop the war-ravaged regions post-war’ is what you say on a good day. ‘Their secessionist ambitions terrorize local Tamils’ is what you say on a bad day.
Here I am, writing to you as a member of ‘The’ Tamil diaspora that ‘destabilizes’ your country. I’m also writing to you here as someone who has lost touch with the ‘ground’ and therefore urgently needs you to be the bridge to the country my family fled from two decades ago. I’m writing to you as a long-distance ally.
While you’ve been more benevolent towards me than your average Sinhalese, which I’m of course grateful for (how can I not?), over the years you have somehow still made your ambivalence clear towards me. I stopped counting how many times I, as a member of ‘the’ Tamil diaspora, have been accused by you (and white academics and policy makers) of being reckless or counterproductive. And I thought we had an entente cordial? From being labelled war mongers, cowards, long-distance nationalists, a destabilizing force, terrorists, stateless to bogus refugees, I’ve almost had it all. There are virtually few surprises left – unless you become creative which I’m somehow doubtful you can be.
Trusting us is difficult, I know. We’re somehow like a divorced couple, aren’t we? Once split, it’s hard to return to normalcy (thank you, Northern Chief Minister Wigneswaran, for this gendered analogy). But this isn’t a particularly new or surprising phenomenon and scenario. Not seeing us on a daily basis naturally estranges us, I know. We’re abstracted and lose any positive human traits to you. All you hear and read about us, all you are told to remember, are negative stereotypes influenced by years of propaganda. We have a name but no face. You may tend to think that’s normal. After all we have left (actually fled) the country such a long time ago. But haven’t those millions of non-displaced and internally displaced Tamils long fallen under a similar veil of suspicion? Despite their being so ‘close’ to you? As if they were cheating on you while being physically so close to you? Would it perhaps be ‘extreme’ of me to say that they were locked up by you as a response? Probably. You may feel the need to classify me now. Please go ahead if you need to. Pick and choose freely between the labels I’ve laid out before.
By now you’ve probably assumed that there is something like ‘the’ Tamil diaspora, a homogenous political apparatus and well-oiled money laundering machine that you can misrepresent for the sake of your needs and wants. But let me tell you, my Sinhalese ally, things aren’t that simple. I read your interpretations of the past and present, I read your interpretations of us in outlets across the internet and I feel like I should respond for once. May I?
My Sinhalese ‘ally’, you’ve a strong sense of feeling entitled to brush over, paint, label as well as interpret Tamil issues, people and concerns. And you’re eloquent at that. You speak, write (get published) and think as if you ‘know’ everything about us – when in reality you most likely know close to nothing. You become experts to be consulted not just by Sinhalese-run media, but also by traditionally white institutions who recycle you as pundits. Your presence, after all, demands less public scrutiny than ours: the ‘terrorists’ and ‘separatists’. Not once, but many times have I watched you intrude Tamil spaces – beyond the territorial. The societal, cultural, political and economic spaces of Tamils have continuously experienced invasions, outsider interpretations and attempts at being appropriated. That, of course, comes as no surprise. The campaign to vilify and marginalize Tamils, diasporic and local, has born its many fruits. And you’ve eagerly harvested them.
Today, you write, narrate and produce our history as if we’ve already made it into a museum. As if we were unable to speak for ourselves. As if you are only able to find us in unmarked mass graves. But let me reassure you, we haven’t made it into a museum quite yet – leaving aside that a Sinhala-led museum would probably not be the best place to curate Tamil history. We are also able to speak well for ourselves. And in many languages. I myself can speak five. How many do you speak?
Over time I’ve watched you, liberal Sinhalese, interpret and narrate our past and present in manifold ways on a number of different platforms. Some may have been accurate; mostly, however, they have been quite uncomfortable, cringe worthy distortions made possible by way of social and geographic distance. Your narrations, however, always shared one common factor irrespective of where you fall on the political spectrum: the construction of diasporic Tamil communities as ‘the’ evil diaspora, or as some have come to call it – ‘the big bad diaspora’. Post-war, diasporic Tamils have come to be more threatening than local Tamils because of many reasons, amongst others, reversed power-relations and numeric size, particularly vis-à-vis ‘the’ Sinhalese diaspora.
Here I am writing to you as a member of the diaspora to tell you my interpretation of the status quo:
As a community we were (and continue to be) chased away by the Sri Lankan state (synonymous with the majority Sinhalese community/ies). Ever since independence, our presence in the country has been contested and undermined. Post-war, we’re also robbed of the right to interpret and narrate what little remains: our own history, memories, as well as presence and absence inside and outside of the country. Let me emphasise: Not yours, but our own. Not a Sri Lankan one, but a Tamil one. To make it clear: we struggle to narrate and place our past because of your presence.
You have, after all, claimed the few chairs available to reproduce narratives about us through forms of arts, culture and most importantly political punditry. Often you didn’t even need to make a claim to these: you were given them because of your privileged position as a Sinhalese and the constructed stigma and suspicion attached to being Tamil. In your interpretation of our ‘collective past’ (if something as a collective past exists in the first place), you are self-righteous enough to tell us our wrongs from our rights. You ceaselessly speak about us and tell us how ‘removed’, ‘distant’ and ‘different’ we are to local Tamils. And while doing so, you construct yourself as an counter image to us – the ‘evil’ us. You also never fail to inform us about how we have lost ‘touch’ and that our aims have no commonality with those of local Tamils.
Some of you do so while simultaneously working for the overall betterment of the local Tamil community. Some of you do so while travelling to the North and East to engage in humanitarian and development work. Some of you do so while going there for poverty tourism – others for military-occupation tourism. No matter what you do, why you go there, always will you, however, claim to be able to bridge the social and geographic distance that exists between the diaspora and locals better than us, diasporic Tamils. According to you, your physical presence in Sri Lanka is proof enough to ‘know’ better despite that there may well be worlds between you. It renders you an expert by default and your voice weight by geography.
Let me, however, get this straight for you:
Each time you speak for us, you take away the space for us to speak by ourselves. You translate words and interpret feelings, but will your translation ever be free from your own biases? You take photos of Tamil orphanages, schools and widows and share them on social media, but will you ever come to understand why they are the wretched and you are the spectator? Will your power relations to Tamils, diasporic or local, ever be equal? And will your privilege of being a Sri Lankan Sinhalese, Sinhalese Sri Lankan or Sri Lankan (synonymous with Sinhalese) ever cease to exist?
Considering our history, it appears problematic for you my Sinhalese ‘ally’ to continue to feel entitled to tell us what to do, what to aspire, what to believe in. Isn’t that what has led to conflict in the first place? We have our own memories, our own histories and our own voices to speak. We can articulate them in a number of languages, with a number of voices, opinions and on many different occasions. In other words, we don’t need your voice to mute ours.
For you to assume the role to speak for us and educate us on the effects of ‘our actions’ on our community back home is not just disturbing but also preposterous. The diaspora-local divide exists of course, but not along the lines that you try to constantly place it – and not to the extent that you want to frame it. For many of us, certainly for me, it’s our relatives who are directly affected by the actions of your government. Not strangers but family members, friends and neighbours. Though we are often thousands of miles away, many of us continue to hold profound and organic ties to Tamil and Muslim regions and people. Through your rhetoric, however, these ties are forcefully undermined and portrayed as non-existent, leaving us with a distorted picture that holds no resemblance to reality.
While I sit in my flat in Europe, my Sinhala ally, you may well be able to frequently visit the predominantly Tamil and Muslim areas from your house in Colombo. But how much will you really see, hear and understand? Will you ever cease to be the stranger, the philanthropist, the photographer, the development worker, humanitarian, tourist or soldier who intrudes? And will you ever consider your privilege to be able to go and see places that many of us once called home but are unable to ever visit again – let alone live there?
While you have to pack your bags and become a poverty tourist to see the extent of destruction and destitution that have ravaged the predominantly Tamil and Muslim regions to understand the impact of a very geographically and racially divided war, we grew up with memories, stories, images, people and a personal stake in these places. For many of us it’s our families who continue to (unfortunately) live there, whose stories we hear and whose plight we try to help to resolve. Yes, we ourselves may have fled or emigrated – which you have now somehow come to construe as an allegation against us – but who made us flee or emigrate in the first place? How does the act of persecution, chasing someone out and silencing violence remain uncontested and un-blamed?
I’m left perplexed by you. Maybe I shouldn’t.
My Sinhala ally, I also know you are working hard to erase ethnic/racial inequalities. I know you mean well. But your approach is flawed to begin with. Superimposing a constructed civic identity (‘Sri Lankan’) doesn’t help to balance out existing inequalities between Tamils and Sinhalese.
It rather obfuscates the issues at hand and invisibilizes privilege and non-privilege between the members of the so-called Sri Lankan “community”. Though you have come to frame us all as ‘Sri Lankans’, you retain the privilege of establishing dominant views towards us, diasporic and local Tamils. I don’t really blame you though, seeing how convenient this is: while your Sinhalaness becomes further invisible, our bodies remain marked, hypervisible and vulnerable in Sri Lanka and, thanks to the global discourse on terrorism, also abroad.
But you’re smarter than that. You’ve in fact found more than just one way to replace ethnic identities: you also replace them with geographic ones (Tamil = North/Northerners; Sinhalese = South/Southerners). Is that any better than superimposing a ‘Sri Lankan’ identity? No, my dear Sinhala ally. Yet you’ve somehow successfully taught white media institutions to implement this ‘trend’. Having national institutions and financial resources (covered by foreign credit cards) behind you plays in your favour, I know. Maybe you’ll soon come to advocate, as the Sinhala right already does, for the removal of all ethnic labels (of course that doesn’t concern dominant ones, i.e. the Sinhala one) to replace them instead with the ‘Sri Lankan’ one (constructed around Sinhalaness). Sounds a bit like post-1994 Rwanda, doesn’t it (Oh no…Rwanda)?
Why bother you further though, my Sinhala ally. I’ve already taken more of your precious time than you wanted. To cut it short, this is what you may want to consider for the future:
Please don’t ever assume to speak for Tamils and to have the right to name call us – specifically in regards to the diasporic communities. Just as you claim diversity for yourself there is plenty of diversity amongst us. Most Sinhalese in fact know nothing about ‘us’. How would you though? Even local Tamils rarely do because we are taught to cope, to function and survive without sharing our stories. Do you want to know why? I bet no, but let me still say it: because things are so much worse for people (well, mostly Tamils) at home thanks to the government elected by the majority community – not ours, but virtually yours. We were historically taught to be silent but I’m not going to sit there and be silent when people feel entitled to interpret us, our histories, our journeys and our aspirations.
For someone who claims to be progressive, more so than the average ‘Sri Lankan’, I would wish there to be more understanding for what it means to have become refugees, to have become exilées, strangers in two lands and one life. Maybe we have actually lost touch with local Tamils over time, maybe we have become estranged across oceans and maybe we do need bridges between the internally and externally displaced (as is our shared communality as Tamils), but you will certainly never be that bridge between us.
So please stop pretending to be such.
*Sinthujan Varatharajah (Twitter: @varathas) is a PhD Candidate in Political Geography at University College London, University of London, and the Founder of Roots of Diaspora, a narrative and visual project on flight and emigration of Tamils from Sri Lanka. For more visit Roots of Diaspora at www.facebook.com/rootsofdiaspora