By: Rithiga Rahulotchanan
Following the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the world saw an influx in the migration of Tamils to Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the UK. Many risked death and imprisonment, in a desperate attempt to seek refuge in the arms of these countries. The number of deaths at sea remains unknown and families continue to search for their missing loved ones through organisations such as the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The descendants of Tamil immigrants are referred to as ‘the Tamil Diaspora’. Raised in an environment where trauma runs deeply with parents who grew up witnessing war crimes, relatives with shell wounds, and grandparents with missing children, transgenerational suffering continues to affect the diaspora. Scientists describe this type of trauma as the phenomenon in which unspeakable traumas are passed down unconsciously between generations. While younger generations may not experience the same traumas as their parents, they formulate their own connections to this trauma in order to make sense of their parents’ histories and their cultural pasts.
Existing research suggests that, due to lasting effects on mental health, the transgenerational trauma penetrating the Tamil Diaspora should have led to limitations in their academic achievements however, this description seems to be far from the truth. In the years following the genocide, we have seen a movement amongst the next generation pressing for accountability for the actions of the Sri Lankan government. The diaspora’s resilience can be explained by the findings from a qualitative study of Southeast Asian American college students with second-generation refugee experiences. It was found that having seen their elders suffer from mental health issues, such as PTSD and depression, the younger generation has realised that great pain remains entrenched within their people. Many participants believed that obtaining an education was one of the few ways they could honour their parents’ sacrifices and address the structural injustices that have disenfranchised their families. Furthermore, students with access to culturally relevant resources, such as student organisations, demonstrated greater confidence in their ethnic identity.
The findings of this study explain how familial first-hand experiences of war trauma inspires the next generation in their pursuit of higher education. University Tamil societies have been established for the purpose of providing education about the genocide and supporting the liberation movement. The Tamil Youth Organisation recently addressed a letter to the Home Secretary, regarding the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka, with the support of fourteen Tamil societies. The letter drew attention to the Sri Lankan government’s recent withdrawal from its commitments to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in February 2020. The government stated that it will no longer cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council’s landmark resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored, to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka. This decision came under the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, whose regime previously orchestrated the genocidal campaign against Sri Lankan Tamils. The withdrawal from the establishment of a “judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law” does not come as shock to the Tamil community.
On 26 March 2020, a month after Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the UN Resolution 30/1, President Rajapaksa granted a Presidential pardon to Sergeant Sunil Rathnayaka, a former soldier who was convicted and sentenced to death by a five- member bench of the Supreme Court for the murder of eight Tamil civilians in 2000. Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the President can grant a pardon for any punishment imposed to any offender convicted of any offence in any court within the Republic of Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa’s decision is arguably in complete violation of the rule of law, and by allowing such a decision to go unchecked, other miscarriages of justice are likely to occur under Rajapaka’s presidency. According to former Sri Lankan Human Rights Commissioner, Ambika Satkunanathan, it must be ensured that “the power of the Executive to pardon persons is done in a transparent and fair manner, according to objective standards”, allowing for a fairer judicial system. Within a matter of days, the Tamil diaspora mobilised to challenge Rajapaksa’s decision by applying pressure to international bodies, including the UN Human Rights Office, resulting in at least three legal challenges being filed against Rajapaksa’s presidential pardon. Satkunanathan’s petition challenging this decision has been fixed for a hearing in September 2020.
Bill 104, which proclaims the seven-day period in each year ending on 18 May as ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ in Ontario, Canada, was first introduced in 2019. However, since the bill successfully passed its second reading in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 2019, it has not moved any further and the government is yet to release plans for its implementation. This delay could be due to the strong protest from the Sri Lanka High Commission, as well as the Sinhala community, against the bill. In response to the delayed implementation of Bill 104, Kunjathupatham, a member of the Tamil diaspora, launched an email campaign expressing support for Bill 104 and urging for the continuation of the necessary proceedings. An extract of the email can be found below:
"Canada is home to the largest Tamil diaspora. With your support, we are able to work on educating Canadians on our struggle for justice. We realise at this time you may receive messages from the oppressing side and we thank you for being in solidarity with us by acknowledging the pain of many of your students and families."
Supported by members of the Tamil diaspora around the world, the campaign successfully pushed Members of the Provincial Parliament, including Doly Begum and Gurratan Singh, to press for the implementation of the bill into law. The recent ‘I am Tamil and genocide is a part of my identity’ Instagram campaign, spearheaded by Pirathanya A, in response to Peel School’s withdrawal of their statement recognising the genocide was also used to raise awareness and support for Bill 104. The campaign garnered hundreds of posts, with influential figures and university societies within the Tamil community taking part.
The Tamil Youth Organisation’s letter, the ongoing campaign against Ratnayaka’s Presidential pardon, and the campaigns in support of Bill 104 are just a few examples of the diaspora’s determination to give members of the survivor generation a voice, after being silenced by the Sri Lankan government for decades.
Despite the outcome of Sri Lanka’s recent general election, which saw the victory of Sinhala nationalist party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the hope of a future right to self-determination to honour their parents’ suffering runs strongly through the Tamil diaspora, and it is this hope which fuels their revolution