A Tamil Reflection
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam
June 5, 2009
(M. Junaid Levesque-Alam's
Crossing the Crescent
column appears on Wiretap every first Friday of the month and covers American Muslim identity, U.S. foreign policy, and international politics.)
Critics bemoan the United States and its allies' failure to decisively defeat Islamist militant movements, casting a pall over the policy debate and ceaseless invoking the ghosts of Vietnam. Meanwhile, a fierce insurgency that has haunted Asia for decades conceded defeat last month to the Sri Lankan government, which trumpeted its apparent victory over the Tamil Tigers by holding celebrations in the capital.
But is this a victory for peace, or merely a victor's peace?
Brintha Jeyalingam is skeptical of the Sri Lankan government's claims and intentions. A 29-year-old American activist with the organization People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka (PEARL), her family is of Tamil origin.
Tamils comprise about 12 percent of the population of Sri Lanka; historically oppressed by the Sinhalese majority, they've sought an independent homeland since the nation won independence from England in 1948.
In her youth Jeyalingam didn't witness the conflict first-hand, nor did she jump headlong into the advocacy fray based on political preconceptions. Though in her childhood days she helped prepare advocacy letters that her father sent to congressmen and senators, her knowledge of the conflict was minimal.
"I had heard my parents saying that they came to the U.S. with expectations to return to Sri Lanka one day," she says, "but it never happened and I never questioned why--I grew up living a comfortable life, ignorant to the Tamil issues."
When Jeyalingam visited Sri Lanka to see extended family, her itinerary was confined to the capital Colombo. What ultimately impelled her to broaden her scope was not political interest, but humanitarian catastrophe.
"In December 2004 I went to Sri Lanka to visit my relatives. It turned out that I landed there the day after the [Indian Ocean] Tsunami hit, killing about 40,000 people mostly on the Northeastern coast," she says, adding that she remained in the capital, "[glued] to the television like everyone else while my relatives were making phone calls to find out who survived." It was not until she returned to the U.S. a week later that she questioned why she didn't visit the destroyed villages or the surviving orphans in outlying areas. "At that point I knew I wanted to offer assistance to those affected, but I wasn't sure what it would be."
Jeyalingam researched tsunami relief efforts and, in 2005, quit her job to begin volunteering with the Colombo-based Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (which two years later was blacklisted by the U.S. government for allegedly funneling money to the Tamil Tigers). She spent time in Colombo and then in Kilinochi, to the northeast, absorbing information about reconstruction projects, relief efforts and funding opportunities.
But that's not all she learned.
"As I met more people living in the Northeast," she says, "I saw a clearer picture of the human rights abuses the Tamil population faced for the last 60 years." She learned of and soon joined a local human rights organization, the Northeast Secretariat on Human Rights, and heard people relate the horrors of life in government-held areas, "where sons were abducted by armed men in white vans within military high security zones; where daughters were raped and killed when walking nearby military bases; where families were massacred in their own homes."
Locals reported human rights violations including assassinations and kidnappings targeting key civil society members, as well as young women and children. The binding theme? "All were Tamil," Jeyalingam says.
She remembers a particularly striking experience from August 2006, when government forces bombarded an area approximately 20 miles away from where she was volunteering. "[P]eople were used to daily bombings; sometimes we would not know where it hit, but could feel the ground shake and hear the fighter jets scraping the sky," she observes. Jeyalingam learned only hours later that the bombs fell on a residential camp where high school girls were being trained in disaster relief; 53 died and hundreds were wounded.
Her touching account deserves to be quoted at length:
"Our organization started to immediately piece together a report with these accounts and collect information about the girls. We were able to get individual school photos of all the girls over the next few days and were preparing the report. My mind was racing, I was trying to comprehend what just happened, and write the report at the same time.
At one point I looked at my desk, which was covered with small 1" x 1" photos of these beautiful girls, hair tied neatly back, hope in their eyes. I wondered what each one of their dreams were, what they wished for and whether or not they were able to laugh enough in the last days before their death. In the middle of these thoughts, I picked up one photo and on the back, the name 'Brintha' was written. A Brintha with such a different and cruel fate. That forced me to think about what my role was going to be in the Tamil cause, so that the next time I see someone named Brintha, she is alive."
Jeyalingam's experiences on the ground doubtlessly inform her assessment of the government's claim to total victory. "I do not believe that the Sri Lankan government has achieved any kind of 'victory' as reported in the mainstream media," she says, adding that only genuine recognition of Tamil grievances would prove meaningful.
Is the national government committed to accommodating the Tamil minority's concerns and aspirations? Present and past indications inspire little confidence. As noted in a New York Times editorial titled "No Victory in Sri Lanka," President Mahinda Rajapaksa "callously rejected international pleas for a cease-fire to let civilians escape the war zone, while his troops shelled the area" in the waning months of the war, and his vague statements about reconciliation so far lack specifics.
While acknowledging that allegations leveled at the Tamil Tigers (as well as the army) of using civilians as human shields should be investigated, Jeyalingam points out that it was the army that refused several ceasefire offers in April and May. Citing massacres committed against Tamils in the past several decades, she believes that reconciliation will not come easily.
UN officials place the Tamil civilian death toll since January 2009 at 20,000, and, she says, the government is still preventing international aid in some camps ("every Tamil is suspected of being a 'terrorist' and has no protection"). Jeyalingam therefore believes that the government's actions thus far amount to a sort of slow-motion genocide.
She is resolved to continue to struggle for Tamil rights from wherever she happens to be, forming part of an extensive Tamil diaspora that, as one Times blog headline announced, is "not ready to surrender."
"Some analysts have claimed that a younger generation of Tamils could be 'radicalized' leading to new forms of terrorism, which I find completely absurd," Jeyalingam says. Highlighting the value of action alerts and outreach efforts, Jeyalingam says, "If one looks at the efforts of the younger generation, you will see that they are using grassroots advocacy to engage with their elected officials and human rights organizations."
Such activism, she says, offers a distinct advantage: "This is a movement that the Sri Lankan government cannot defeat militarily."
Levesque-Alam blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent. Co-founder of Left Hook, he's also a journalism graduate of Northeastern University and has worked for the daily press in suburban Massachusetts and weeklies in Queens, New York. He now works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area.