13 Apr

Letter from London

About Simon

Parvati Nair, 13 April 2009

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Simon. This is the reason why.

London has grown quiet over this Easter weekend. Traditionally, the Easter break is when Londoners stay home, visit family, plant seedlings in the garden. As is often the case in this global city, though, not everyone has been relaxing. Saturday saw some 100,000 people gather on a protest march in central London in a bid to convince the British government to intervene in the on-going massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. On the day, the protest was mentioned briefly in the news, but most Londoners still do not know much about what it was all about. Most of us Londoners do not know that since the start of this year, over 2,000 Tamil civilians have been killed, as Jaffna and other predominantly Tamil-populated parts of Sri Lanka come under relentless bombing by the Sri Lankan army and soldiers plough through these regions, murdering, raping and looting as they go, while the population struggle against shortages of food and medicine. Most of us do not know that as we plant seedlings in our gardens or hope for a sunny afternoon, a steady and very real genocide is taking place on a small island in the Indian Ocean. Closer to home, most of us do not know that outside the Houses of Parliament in central London lies Parameswaran Subramaniam, weak from a hunger strike that he refuses to lift. Subramaniam is one of two Tamil students who have, in Gandhian style, gone on hunger strikes to protest against the massacre of Tamils that is currently underway in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The other student, 21 year old Sivatharsan Sivakumaraval finally lifted his strike on Saturday, on the understanding that he would be able to travel to the United States to put the Tamil plight to the American authorities. His mother is by his side, concerned about the damage already done to his kidneys from the lack of fluids. Nonetheless, like so many other mothers of children born to oppression -Palestinian, Saharawi, Kashmiri, Kurdish, Tibetan – she understands that, whether he resists or not, her son has no alternative but find his life placed in the line of fire.

The Tamil conflict goes back many years. Since independence from British rule in 1948, Tamils in Sri Lanka have been faced by discrimination, with limited access to jobs and higher education, relegated by the dominant Singhalese to second-rate citizenship. Inevitably, and as is the case with so many communal conflicts that render the Indian sub-continent apart, the British had their part to play in the division of labours and communities in Sri Lanka. It was the British who shipped the Tamils over in large numbers from their native Tamil Nadu, in southern India, to work in tea plantations. It was the British who, until 1948, maintained control over the two communities by demarcating them and assigning them separate identities in their colonial zeal to divide and rule. Small wonder, then, that upon independence, the Singhalese majority should claim the rights to power.

The politicization of Tamil struggle first began in 1972, with the formation of the Tamil Tigers. Viewed as a terrorist group by the Sri Lankan authorities, as well as by governments in several other countries, the Tigers call themselves activists who seek a nation state of their own. Over the last thirty or more years, news of violence in Jaffna and other parts of Sri Lanka have sporadically hit the news. If the Tigers are seen as terrorists, their activities, even now when ‘terror’ has become the buzzword of our times, do not rank high in the media’s agenda. This is because, unlike Islamist action, the struggle of the Tigers is a localized one, confined to a small part of an island far away from the West.

Even near-by India is turning a semi-blind eye. If the Indian government has, in recent months, made rumbling noises of warning to the Sri Lankan authorities and vacuous promises of aid to the Tamils, then this is largely to pacify the unrest that events in Jaffna have unleashed in Tamil Nadu, where the ancestors of Sri Lanka’s Tamils came from. The truth is that strong bonds tie Tamils in India and Sri Lanka. In Hindu mythology, the Lord Rama rescued his wife Sita from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka figures large in the cultural imagination of Hindus, through its centrality in the epic Mahabharata. The city of Rameswaram, a site of pilgrimage for Hindus, is less than 40 kilometres by sea to Jaffna.. Spiritually, racially, ethnically, geographically and linguistically, Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils are pretty much inseparable. India, however, cannot afford to be too openly or too actively sympathetic. For over sixty years, India has had its own blood-soaked history of massacres in the backyard through its military occupation of Kashmir – an on-going conflict that has its roots in another violent legacy of colonially-imposed communal divisions. As the old adage says, those who live in glasshouses should not throw stones. Much that goes in Jaffna is no different from what goes on in Kashmir.  Such is the nature of state oppression.

In keeping with our contemporary form of imperialism, Sivakumaraval now hopes to turn to the powers that be, those of the United States, for intervention. It remains to be seen whether anything will change.

To return to Simon, whom I first met some thirty years ago in a small South Indian restaurant in a backstreet of central London – I wonder what he makes of the latest turn of things… Simon and I became friends as we sat eating the same food on adjacent tables, the conversation turning from the commonality of our shared Carnatic culinary heritage to events ‘back home.’ Simon, it turned out, was an ‘asylum seeker.’ He had once been a student at the University of Jaffna, where he found himself in the heart of turmoil. ‘I couldn’t live there,’ he explained, ‘too much violence. You were in trouble if you were a Tiger and in trouble if you weren’t. Nothing there… No future at all… nothing for young people.’ Over the years, we have met occasionally, always by chance and almost always in the same restaurant. Simon inevitably comes along on his own. For a while, he lived in a shelter for refugees, then in a bed-sit in a bed and breakfast place in Earl’s Court. ‘Very dirty place,’ he complained, ‘small, small mice running about everywhere at night.’ Then things got slightly better. He obrained the right of residence in the United Kingdom and got a job as a janitor in an old-age home . A room came with the job. Later, he moved in for a while into a house rented by Tamils. He had to move out. ‘Dangerous,’ he told me, ‘Two of them are Tigers and they are pressurizing me. Me, I am fed up of all this dirty game politics. I just want a normal life…If I get mixed up with them, I could get kicked out of the country and where would I go then?’ At one point, Simon entered into a relationship with an Englishwoman. It did not work out. He seemed dejected. ‘What to do? Cultural difference. She couldn’t understand about things back home.’

Simon, presumably, also could not let go of things ‘back home.’ As violence rips Jaffna apart, his words frame all those who are forced to flee for their lives and then live them out in displacement: ‘No peace at home and no home in peace.’


Tamil Tigers: 1,000 Civilians Died In Govt Raid

April 21, 2009, AP

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels said Tuesday that 1,000 civilians died in a government raid on their territory that the military says freed thousands of noncombatants from the war zone. The military denied the accusation.

As government forces have pushed the rebels into an ever-shrinking sliver of territory, both sides have accused the other of endangering civilians. Rights groups say the rebels are holding many against their will to use as human shields. But those groups have also accused the government of indiscriminate shelling in the tightly packed region in its bid to end the 25-year war.

It is not possible to obtain independent accounts of the situation because the war zone is restricted to journalists.

The international Red Cross warned that a final offensive “could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties.”

Human Rights Watch, which said between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remained stranded, warned more will die if the government launches a major attack.

“Both sides need to show far greater concern for civilians, or many more civilians will die,” said Brad Adams, the New York-based group’s Asia director.

On Monday, Sri Lankan soldiers broke through a barrier that the Tamil Tiger rebels had erected to defend their slice of territory. Some 35,000 civilians then poured out of the area and the exodus continued Tuesday. The government said more than 50,000 have fled thus far, and the figure was expected to rise.

But the rebels said in an e-mailed statement that more than 1,000 civilians died in the government’s raid and nearly 2,300 were wounded.

“And today a situation of bloodbath is prevailing,” the statement said.

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara denied the allegation.

The rebels called on the United Nations and the world community to act to rescue the trapped civilians.

The rebels have fought since 1983 for an independent state for Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Tamils. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the years of violence.

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Very interesting. Wsh Simon well.

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