Tamil protesters in central London
If you've heard anything about the persecution of Tamil people in Sri Lanka, it's likely you've only been exposed to the tip of a very large, very depressing iceberg. The country's authorities have systematically attacked the Tamil population for over 60 years, engaging in a prolific campaign of sexual and human rights abuses, most notably the murder of at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in 2009. The Tamils believe that their people have been the victims of a genocide.
A report by Tamils Against Genocide alleges that 12 counts of genocide can be traced to direct orders made by the most senior levels of the Sri Lankan government, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has held that position since 2005. However, not a single arrest has been made and there is no sign of any independent investigation into war crimes being launched. The Tamil Tigers – the paramilitary group fighting against the Sri Lankan government for an independent Tamil state – may be responding to institutional discrimination, but they are no angels either and have been classified as a terrorist organisation by 32 countries. Simply put, the situation is a mess.
It was against this backdrop that this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in the Sri Lankan cultural capital Colombo last week. The Canadian, Indian and Mauritian prime ministers all decided to boycott it, owing to the fact that rape, torture and mutilation of Tamils is still happening, despite "peace" being declared in May of 2009. David Cameron, however, decided to show his face – ostensibly to "shine a spotlight" on the regime, but arguably because one of the largest donors to the Tory Party has been shown to have close links to the Sri Lankan president.
Cameron left the CHOGM early, setting a four-month deadline for the Sri Lankan government to investigate the war crime allegations. The Sri Lankan government said it would "take its own time", saying "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones".
A protest against Britain not boycotting the event was planned for last Friday. Before that happened, I interviewed some young Sri Lankan Tamils to see how the violence has affected their lives and those of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils left in the country. (The people I interviewed wished to remain anonymous, fearing retribution against their families back home in Sri Lanka.)
VICE: Do you still have family in Sri Lanka? How have they been affected?
Aaditya, 23, civil engineer: Yes, in Jaffna and Colombo. Loads of people in my family have been affected at stages, in 2009 and moreso in the 1983 riots. My father’s house was burnt down during Black July. It’s weird, because it’s been going on for so long that you can always find some kind of effect on your life.
Do you think there's been enough coverage of the conflict in the media?
I think it’s been covered more recently, but there's still an issue about the way they cover it or the lenses they see it through. There is a structural problem in the Sri Lankan constitution: Tamils just aren’t recognised as equal. They called it a "war without witness", but that’s because there were no international NGOs there at the final stages, just handfuls of Tamil journalists putting out stories. But their narrative got ignored.
London Tamils protesting against the CHOGM on Friday the 15th of November
Nalan, 23, works in housing management: My grandpa and uncle were shot on the same day by the Sri Lankan army, and most of my family left Sri Lanka after that. We lived in a refugee camp for two years in India, then my aunt paid some money and took us out of the camp. I lived in India for the next ten years. I went back to Sri Lanka when I was 17 and moved to the UK on a student visa when I was 20. I should have come as a refugee, but I couldn’t escape Sri Lanka that way so I took a student visa. I can’t go back to Sri Lanka because the army would shoot me. They already went to my house searching for me.
What are your thoughts on the Tamil Tigers?
People can blame the Tigers for different things, but the reason I'm alive is because of them. If my family can live, it is because of them. If the Tamil community can ask for some rights, they have the voice to do so because of the Tigers' resistance. I would join them in an instant if I could. If international forces helped us, then a democratic struggle would work. But they aren’t, so it won’t. They just don’t care. A Sri Lankan politician cannot say they will give rights to Tamils as [that will make them lose] an election.
I’ve read about sexual violence towards women being a big problem in Sri Lanka.
Rape is a really serious problem. It wasn’t just used in 2009 or after 2009 – it's been used since 1977 by the Sri Lankan army. When I lived there, I knew of girls who had been raped. Their mothers would come and sob to my mother. We would pretend we couldn’t hear what they were saying, because I didn’t want to embarrass them. It is pretty common. In one family my parents knew, they arrested the husband and took him away and raped his wife. I don’t know what happened to them.
A woman with "blood" on her hands at the CHOGM protest
Hi Padma. What do you think about suggestions that Tamils are slowly being given rights? Like the fact that Tamil has been accepted as an official language in Sri Lanka, for example?
Padma, 23, works for a university: I wouldn’t agree with that. Even now, no Tamil people in Sri Lanka can speak to any foreign media. If the Sinhalese [Sri Lanka's largest ethnic group] speak up for Tamils, then they disappear or are killed.
When you tell people about the problems you've faced, what are their reactions?
To be honest, most people don’t even know the genocide has taken place. It’s very worrying that a huge number of people can be wiped off the planet and people don’t even know. In 2009, we were out protesting and I couldn’t believe it – no one knew what was happening in Sri Lanka, no media picked it up.
At the CHOGM, the Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed chairperson of the Commonwealth for the next two years. On Friday the 15th November, hundreds of Tamils living in the UK held a protest in central London against that piece of news. I headed along to speak to the protesters.
VICE: Why are you protesting here today?
Raj Vakesan, Advocacy Coordinator for British Tamils Forum: I’m protesting while David Cameron is in Sri Lanka because we’ve been calling for a boycott of CHOGM but he didn’t listen. The prime minister always said that by going there he could shine a spotlight on the Sri Lankan human rights situation, but this has actually acted as PR for the Sri Lankan government. He said he would call for an international independent investigation or some sort of accountability mechanism to address the root cause of the conflict and the ongoing crime of genocide, but he hasn’t. His actions have endorsed the genocide and continued oppression, constant disappearances, rape and murders of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
What was it like being in Sri Lanka during the last few months of the conflict in 2009?
Vikram: In the last few months of the war we were displaced multiple times and we had no food. I saw so many people die, but because of the continuous shelling we couldn't even bury the dead bodies, we just had to leave them. It was terrible. I was arrested at the Omanthai checkpoint in May of 2009. I was interrogated and tortured – they tied my feet together, hung me upside down and beat me with sticks.
What's the situation for your family in Sri Lanka like now?
Since I came to the UK my family members have been taken for interrogation several times. My father and brothers were all taken – they're constantly intimidated and they live in fear of persecution.
What's life like for Tamils living in Sri Lanka today?
V Ravi Kumar, General Secretary of the British Tamils Forum: Day by day, the situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka is getting worse. The Sri Lankan government has an iron grip on the Tamils there – it's a totally militarised region. For every four Tamil civilians there's a soldier of the Sri Lankan army openly guarding them. There are also widespread human rights violations, such as sexual violence against innocent people, and there are massive land grabs going on. It's a complete programme of assimilation: the Sri Lankan state talks about reconciliation, but they're doing everything in their power to destroy the Tamil population.
Why do you object to the Commonwealth Summit taking place in Sri Lanka?
Keerthikan, from the Tamil Solidarity Campaign: The CHOGM taking place in Sri Lanka is a great insult and heart-breaking to the Tamil people, especially when we see David Cameron shaking hands with Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa has committed grave crimes against humanity. It is obscene that he should lead the Commonwealth, an institution that's supposed to value democracy and human rights.
How have you been affected by the Sri Lankan genocide of Tamils?
"Lakshmi" was in Sri Lanka in 2009 and has since claimed asylum in the UK: It's not just since 2009 that Tamils have been affected – this has been going on my whole life. When I was four, my father was shot dead by the Sri Lankan army. My mother went through such hardship to bring us up; the army tortured her many times because they thought my dad had been in the Tamil Tigers. They could do whatever they wanted, especially because we lived in a rural village.
For example, when I was a teenager they came to our village all the time and raped and attacked young girls. The news didn’t reach the big cities because we were so far away. My mother was always so worried that she sent me to live with my aunt. My brother was taken by the army in 2008 and I still don’t know where he is. In the last months of the conflict I too was raped and tortured by the army.
What do you think of the Tamil Tigers?
They are genuinely good people. They're the only ones fighting for Tamil rights. I wouldn’t be here without them.
Nimalan Nadarajah, centre
Do you support the Tamil Tigers?
Nimalan Nadarajah: Yes, I’ve supported the Tamil Tigers since I was very young – they're the only group fighting for Tamils' rights. When I was at school, I fundraised for them. I was captured and tortured by the Sri Lankan army for two months in a military camp when I was 17. They hung me by my feet and submerged me in a well. My friend who was with me was killed in front of me.
Why are you here today?
I'm here to support the Tamils. I know that the Sri Lankan government is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Tamil people. We want the international community to recognise what happened and help us to achieve justice.
From left to right: Kajanany, Sritharan, Siddardth and Thusikanli were all in Sri Lanka in 2009 and have been in the UK for a few months.
What did you guys see during the last few months of the conflict in 2009?
On May the 17th, 2009, a day before the war ended, Kafir planes flew over and bombed the no fire zone. The bombs were chemical weapons. Red crosses on the roof identified hospitals in the area – the government were informed where they were, but they still bombed the injured civilians. Pregnant women who had gathered in a specific area to get milk powder and food for their children were bombed. I saw a mother and her baby blown apart near me. I saw the army separate women and children and take them away; no one knows where they are. We just want justice for these war crimes.
We are just a number to them. But I just want people to know that we are human beings. Forty thousand people went, just like that. We are people, too.
Some names have been changed.
Follow Abi on Twitter: @abiyoooo
More on Sri Lanka: