Tamil Political Culture and International Engagement Were at Stake in the Human Rights Watch Conferences

Sri Lanka Democracy Forum

On 5 December 2004 and 12 December 2004, Human Rights Watch (HRW) held meetings in London and Toronto, respectively, to engage the diaspora Tamil community on the issue of child recruitment by the LTTE in the North and East of Sri Lanka. These discussions were based on HRW’s comprehensive 85-page report titled ‘Living in Fear Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka’, which has also been fully translated into Tamil. Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), along with other activists, helped publicize these events within the Tamil community, hoping to create a forum in which expatriate Tamils could critically discuss the findings of the HRW report.

Both events were well attended. Activists reported approximately one hundred participants in London and a fully packed hall of close to three hundred in attendance in Toronto. Such a large turn-out clearly pointed to the desire of the Tamil community to learn more about the child soldier issue in Sri Lanka. However, at both events in London and Toronto, supporters of the LTTE attempted to disrupt the meeting. This was particularly the case at the Toronto meeting, where organized gangs of LTTE supporters did not allow the meeting to start for a considerable length of time and then continued to intimidate others in the audience for the duration of the meeting.

Such a culture of intimidation is not new in the diaspora: SLDF has highlighted threats against the Tamil Broadcasting Corporation in London and Uthayam, a dissenting Tamil newspaper in Australia. In its quest to control the public sphere in the Tamil diaspora, the LTTE has gone one step further and has disrupted a meeting organized by one of the leading international human rights groups. The event in Toronto had as panelists the former Premier of Ontario Bob Rae and Jo Becker, who serves as Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights division. It was chaired by Noah Novogrodsky of the University of Toronto's Law School.

The absence of a Tamil panellist was used by LTTE supporters as a justification for their disruption of the meeting. Jo Becker explained that HRW had tried to find an independent human rights activist to speak on the panel, but many who were approached were afraid to speak in a public meeting in Toronto. If there was any doubt about the level of intimidation in the Sri Lankan Tamil community in Toronto, the events at the Toronto HRW meeting would have laid it to rest. The agenda of the LTTE supporters who demanded a Tamil representative before the meeting could begin was then to put forward their own representative. This follows the logic of the LTTE’s claim of sole-representation. Only the LTTE can speak in any forum within the Tamil community, in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world. In the London meeting they questioned the panel because the Tamil speaker was not their representative. In the Toronto meeting the LTTE wanted its own representative once it realized independent Tamil human rights activists were too intimidated to speak.

The LTTE’s intimidation and targeting of perceived critics does not end with the event. The LTTE website Nitharsanam has since attacked veteran journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj. The website claims that Jeyaraj had helped organize the meeting and at the last minute backed out. Both Jeyaraj and HRW have confirmed that neither was Jeyaraj involved in organizing the meeting nor did he agree to speak there. The article then is a vehicle of an insidious campaign through which the LTTE is targeting and slandering Jeyaraj. This is perhaps a reaction to his critical writings. In 1996, ‘Muncharie’ the Tamil newspaper edited by Jeyaraj had to close down, because of threats against advertisers in that paper and shop-owners who sold the paper, which was followed by a death threat campaign against him in 1997. Previously, in 1993, Jeyaraj was brutally beaten by LTTE thugs armed with baseball bats for his dissenting writings. He suffered head injuries and a broken leg. Such targeting by the LTTE-controlled media is of concern as individuals are named, subjected to character assassination and then sometimes physically attacked.

In the face of such repression, attacks on dissent and the imposition of LTTE’s sole representation on the Tamil community, it is important to examine what kind of engagement from the international community would be most useful. Unless the international community is willing to engage all sections of the Tamil public, not just its self-appointed “sole-representatives,” moves to protect human rights or push democratization will be ineffective. Real engagement, which stands a chance of influencing human rights and democratization in the North and East, would mean engaging with the Tamil public both in Lanka and the diaspora. SLDF applauds HRW and Bob Rae for taking engagement seriously and not falling into the trap of appeasement, which has been the modus operandi of a number of international NGOs.

Next, one has to question the political culture that is taking root in the Tamil community. In the North and East, militarization had led to the destruction of democratic spaces, the most horrifying aspect of which is the militarization of a generation of youth through child recruitment. In the diaspora, a political culture of thuggery reproduces and maintains the LTTE’s hold over the diaspora community. It is most unfortunate that with all the opportunities for critical thinking afforded by advanced education many university students are being used as unthinking intimidating thugs for LTTE organizers. Many of these youths, like the LTTE cadres in the North and East, are being trained to not think, much less participate in building a democratic society.

The HRW events in London and Toronto were not only the first major attempts to engage the Tamil public on child soldiers, one of the most pressing issues facing the Tamil community, but they were also among the first successful efforts to create public spaces to talk about human rights and democratization.

The international community, which is so eager to provide funds for development, and so eager to speak to the militarized leadership of the LTTE, should learn to engage the Tamil public as a first step towards accountability, particularly where the spaces of genuine engagement exist. In the absence of security in the North and East for such engagement with the public, and given the political and financial base of the LTTE in the West, engaging the diaspora might be one effective angle. It is only through a democratic political culture of open and critical discussion within the Tamil diaspora that these communities can reflect, and learn to use their influence in Sri Lanka responsibly. And it is such a democratic culture in the diaspora that can support the democratic aspirations of the ordinary people of Lanka, who in the end will determine the democratization of the North and East.


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