The Transnational Tamils in Sri Lanka are a section of Tamilians pushing for the creation of an independent Tamil-dominated nation in the north and east of the country. They have been agitating for autonomy and secession since Sri Lanka obtained its independence from The British Empire. Significant part of the ethnic group population also resides in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Denmark.
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The ethnic group has been native to the region from the 2nd century BC, having originated from Tamil Nadu in Southern India. Segments of its community had migrated to the south into Sri Lanka and soon became the most prosperous citizens there. At the peak of their power in the 12th to 14th century, a powerful dynasty, now remembered as the Jaffna Kingdom, ruled the northern half of Sri Lanka. Many of the Jaffna Kingdom rulers subdued the Sinhalese people within the country in the 12th to 17th centuries; moreover, local chiefs extracted tributes from the natives.
The Transnational Tamils have been pushing for autonomy since independence from British rule in 1948. The primary cause of the conflict between the Transnational Tamils and the rest of Sri Lanka population was the reversal of roles resulted from the departure of the British colonialists. “It is much more than a conflict between a majority and minority, or indeed a conflict between two minorities. The conflict is between a majority with a minority complex and a minority with a yearning for majority status” (Wilson, 2000, p. 55). Just as many colonialists would do in other territories such as Rwanda and Burundi, Britain identified the Tamils as a pliable minority that could facilitate its colonization of the island-state and conferred its elite with favors in exchange for cooperation. As a result, the Sinhalese majority started to detest their Tamil neighbors, viewing them as traitors. Soon the tables turned as independence approached, with the Tamils ending up on the receiving harsh treatment that they had once meted out on the Sinhalese.
Tamil nationalism was already growing during the 18th century as Hindus sought to limit Protestant missionaries from converting the ethnic group. These sentiments of nationalism grew even further when colonialists introduced a legislative council in which all communities had equal representation. This move made the Tamils realize that their small population would disadvantage them on the national stage. The most strange about that was that the Tamils and Sinhalese were actually related. According to Chattopadhyaya (1994), “It is difficult to gauge the extent of Tamil blood among the Sinhalese and it is difficult to explain why the Sinhalese language shows the influence of Tamil so strongly, and why the Sinhalese caste-system is so similar to the caste-system of South India” (p. 51).
As a result, the Tamils constituted a political party named All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) to champion their rights. Soon after independence, the Sinhalese majority government started pursuing pro-Sinhalese policies at the expense of the Tamils, increasing the Tamils nationalist polarization and making conservatives join the government and leftists move away. As a result, the ACTC split, with half of its members joining the ruling United National Party and the other half forming the Federal party in 1949 (Wilson, 1994, p.3 ). This was followed by decades of political, social and economic marginalization that increased nationalistic sentiments among the Tamils.
Sinhalese dominated governments subsequently adopted policies that further alienated the increasingly besieged Tamils, resulting in the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front, a conglomerate of all Tamil political parties. When this new vehicle failed to obtain autonomy or independence for the Tamils, they turned to militant methods to air their grievances. The TULF pushed for federalism in Sri Lanka via legal and constitutional channels, and its failure became the main catalyst in the formation of the violent groups, later crystallizing in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This militant organization began a massive terror campaign in 1983 to fight for Tamil autonomy and rights (Falk & Morgenstern, 2009, p. 236 ).
The sheer amount of violence applied by this group was unparalleled and led to tens of political assassinations, thousands of civilian deaths and millions of displacements. The international community condemned the terror campaign and numerous countries designated the Tigers as a terrorist group, preventing their citizens from dealing with it. The bloody campaign ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan army concluded a three-year offensive that wiped out the Tamil Tiger’s power in the north and east of the country. This offensive also involved the use of unconventional military tactics that resulted in the international community and Transnational Tamils Diaspora accusing the Sri Lankan government of war crimes.
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Today the Transnational Tamils are facing numerous challenges that have accumulated over the last six decades and caused under-development in their native regions. These problems include high insecurity and unemployment, lack of access to agricultural land among those displaced during the civil war, underdevelopment in deliberately marginalized regions, lack of resettlement and rehabilitation options for displaced population and discrimination.
The problems are prevalent due to the minority status of Tamils as their relatively small population size prevents them from significantly shifting the direction of government policies, thus the country is unable to achieve progress. At the same time, violence of the Tamil tigers created an environment of insecurity that became a major barrier to socio-economic progress. Tamils Nationalism created unnecessary tensions that prevented progress on numerous fronts. These tensions and the hostility of the Tigers in turn impeded development in many regions since they settled in enclaves that the government could not reach to deliver the services.
Transnational Tamils are, therefore, among the poorest communities within Sri Lanka, and their grievances are still unaddressed. However, the government makes efforts resettle some civilians in the northern regions previously designated as High Security Zones (HSZ) that were set up to secure military installations from the Tigers’ attacks and that “have led to the displacement and economic deprivation of nearly 1,30,000 civilians” (Manoharan, 2007, p.1). These resettlements are aimed at returning the country to normalcy after decades of violence.
Transnational Tamils tend to have characteristics that are the polar opposites of their relatives in Sri Lanka. The Tamils Diaspora largely falls into three groups, the Tamils of India, Malaysia and the rest of the world. The representatives of the Tamils of India reside largely in Tamil Nadu and are considered to create the most numerous diaspora, numbering a whopping 60 million, compared to the 3 million in Sri Lanka and 1.8 million in Malaysia (Wayland, 2007). They are a force behind the socio-economic prosperity of Tamil Nadu state in India maintaining an enterprising spirit that fuels the region’s success. They tend to be less militant than their relatives in Sri Lanka and use their talents to succeed in arts, sciences, politics and business.
The Tamils Diaspora, representatives of which have settled around the world, tend to be more socially conscious and proactive than their Indian and Malaysian relatives, actively contributing to the process of self-determination of their brothers in Sri Lanka. In countries like the US and the UK, they thrive in several spheres, especially in finance. A significant proportion of remittances sent to Sri Lanka usually come from Transnational Tamils diaspora that is keen to support their relatives left at home (Skoggard, Ember & Ember, 2005, pp 492 – 500).
This group has been the impetus behind the establishment of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) that was created after the defeat of the militant Tamil Tigers in the civil war. This conflict was lasting from 1983 to 2009. Tamilians who were pushing for the creation of an independent Tamil state through peaceful means united in the diaspora. “Our organization, as well as our people do not want war. We want peace and we want to resolve our problems through peaceful means. We are deeply committed to the peace process. It is because of our sincere commitment to peace that we are firmly and rigidly observing ceasefire.” (Pirapaharan, 2003). However, the Sri Lankan government has termed the outfit as a secessionist movement that has terrorist tendencies.
In conclusion, Transnational Tamils in Sri Lanka create one of the most interesting multi-national ethnic groups found in South Eastern Asia due to their convoluted history, culture and traditions.
Chattopadhyaya, H. (1994). Ethnic unrest in modern Sri Lanka: An account of Tamil-Sinhalese race relations. New Delhi: M.D. Publications.
Falk, O., & Morgenstern, H. (2009). Suicide terror: Understanding and confronting the threat. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.
Manoharan, N. (2007). ‘High Security Zones’ in Sri Lanka. Institute of piece and conflict studies. Web.
Pirapaharan, V. (2003). Tamil Eelam Homepage. Web.
Skoggard, I., Ember, C. R., & Ember, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Diasporas : Immigrant and Refugee Cultures around the World. New York: Springer.
Wayland, S. (2007). Transnational Nationalisms: Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada. In L. Goldring (Ed.), Organizing the Transnational : Labour, Politics and Social Change (pp. 55 – 67). Vancouver: UBC Press.
Wilson, A. J. (1994). S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977. London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.
Wilson, A. J. (2000). Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.
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