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.