On Being A Malaysian Tamil 5

12 Indian detainees wait for trial in Malaysian prisons on LTTE related charges under the ambit of SOSMA with draconian restrictions of their rights to a fair and open trial. Terrorism is a matter of legal definition and that the LTTE was not designated as a terrorist organization in Malaysia until 2014. Until this time, most Tamils in Malaysia as in the wider diaspora would have seen the LTTE as a violent separatist movement born of the exhaustion of peaceful and democratic negotiations with the majority Sinhalese. Velupillai Prabhakaran was doubtless identified as a ruthless leader but admired for his incomparable courage, determination and military prowess.

This admiration is a very different matter from believing that he and his Tigers were right in their methods and even their goals. I for one have always been against a violent struggle for Elam. I have feared that the goal of a Tamil nation on the island of Lanka, while being historically justified, may just be a vanity project for the diasporic community. An edifice that can only be built out of the blood and tears of those left behind. Even if the men of the armed movements of liberation may have been cognisant and willing, it is the civilians would have been unwittingly and unknowingly been made to pay. Further, the middle classes were the best equipped to exit the situation as expatriates and refugees, while the working classes and the poor did not have that choice. Offering material support form the safety of the international diaspora would, in my view, have meant foisting blood and sorrow upon those who had no agency. Ultimately, I could no see Elam a sustainable geopolitical entity. Even with all of Prabhakaran’s prowess, he could only deliver Elam as a temporary domain, as a stage in a South Asian game of thrones in which the real players were bigger than the Tamils and the Sinhalese – India, the US and China!

Although I have never supported the LTTE , I do see them as having taken up a valid stance among the options available to the Tamils in their time. Towards the end of the Elam war in 2009, with Tigers and civilians trapped on the beach at Mullivaikkal, I stood with a small crowd of Tamils outside the CBC offices in Vancouver trying to impress upon that estemend news agency, that they were obliged to report on the plight of Tamil civilians caught between the ruthless Tigers who were using them as a shield and the merciless SLA who seemed about to attack with genocidal abandon. News of his situation was, it seemed, being systematically suppressed. Amongst those with whom I stood in solidarity that day, as a member of the Tamil diaspora, were flag waving supporters of the LTTE. It was at that moment impossible for me to extricate the furtherment of the cause of Tamils from that of the Tigers.

For all intents and purposes the LTTE ceased to exist with the Mullivaikkal massacre by the victorious SLA. It can not be denied that to Tamils across the world, even to those who find the their methods despicable and their project erroneous, the Tigers and their leader are champions of the Tamil race. They are the latest signifiers in an ancient stream of heroes and conquerors that flows through the heart of the Tamil identity. While they will not be forgotten as myth they are gone as an organization, and so, even though I make no assumption about the guilt or innocence of the 12 Malaysian Indians, I must note that in charging them with possessing printed literature and propagating the LTTE on social media, the onus is on the state to show that these men were furthering the organizational agenda of the LTTE rather than celebrating the myth . Further the state is obliged to prove that the organization still exists and/or that these men were involved in actually trying to revive an entity that is contiguous with the LTTE that was extinguished in 2009.

On Being a Malaysian Tamil 4

The LTTE seems to be defunct as an operational entity. As I noted in the previous post, the European Court of Justice has ruled that the LTTE should be removed from the EU’s terrorism list. Nevertheless, the EU seems to have maintained that the LTTE on the said list. One might reasonably speculate that the reasoning behind this is that the fact that the organization is inert does not mean that it can not be revived. This is also probably why this defunct organization remains on terror list in 32 countries across the world including Malaysia where the LTTE was not even prescribe as a terrorist organization until 2014, a full 5 years after the end of the Elam war.

In connection with the possible LTTE revival, there seems to be a US State Department report in 2018 noted: “Despite its military defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan government in 2009, the LTTE’s international network of sympathizers and financial support has persisted.” Indeed, it is conceivable that when the LTTE went down in 2009, the organization had large sums of money dispersed across the world in the hands of unidentified operatives or trustees. It is possible that some such funds are still out there in the hands operatives faithful who, true to the LTTE cause, might be biding their time, waiting to reinvest in armed struggle.

In this light, I took the suggestion, made by the Malaysian Police, soon after the recent SOSMA arrests for LTTE related activities, that there were significant financial transactions in involved, very concerning indeed. It was the only aspect of the initially insinuated allegations against the detainees that I found worthy of serious consideration. Promotion of a proscribed organization that no longer exists seemed trivial and merely symbolic, compared in being involved in financial transactions aimed at actually reviving that organization. So far, however, no such charge has been laid against any of the 12 detainees and I wait anxiously to hear of further charges. Perhaps there will be something coming up that might justify the use of SOSMA and the hysteria generated around these developments, not least by the Police themselves in the manner of the arrests were made and shared with the media.. … More in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 5

On Being a Malaysian Tamil 2

I find the recent arrests and charges laid against 12 Malaysian Indians, including 2 DAP parliamentarians, in connection with the defunct LTTE (since 2009) troubling in the same way Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest and conviction on sodomy charges in 1998 was troubling. Anwar’s alleged, and later proven (by Malaysian legal standards), criminal acts were significant, not in themselves, but in terms of who Anwar was in another context … that of Malaysian politics!

Is something similar afoot here? Can these Malaysian Tamils’ alleged acts of possession of paraphernalia and of support on social media be significant in themselves? There is now as there was then, the sense that there some other tangential purpose is at play. One wonders if, given widely held sympathies of Malaysian Tamils towards the Elam struggle, there are other individuals who have, naively or otherwise, been involved in similarly questionable acts over the 5 years of the LTTE’s proscription (2014 -2019). It is however these unfortunate men who have been charged, and the charges have come at this particular moment. One wonders why? … More in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 3

On Being a Malaysian Tamil 3

There are many separatist organizations fighting battles for sovereignty in our world of nation states. Whether or not a given group is a terrorist organization in a given jurisdiction is simply a matter of legal definition. In Malaysia, possibly due to the combination of the pro Elam sentiments of Malaysian Tamils and the complexity of our communal politics, the LTTE was not so designated during the course of the Elam conflict which ended in 2009. It was only in 2014 that Malaysia finally designated the LTTE a terrorist organization. Technically speaking, regardless of emotional, political or moral considerations, this designation can not be disputed. There is, however, one very pertinent question that can be asked – Does this terrorist organization – the LTTE, even exist!

The Tamil separatist struggle ended with the decimation and the dissolution of the LTTE. The utter destruction of this organization was confirmed in a European Court of Justice ruling that stated that the LTTE should be removed from the EU’s terrorism list as there was no evidence of a risk of attacks after its military defeat in 2009. In this light, the cases of the 12 Malaysian Indians, charged with supporting the LTTE, might turn an ontological question – can it ‘be’ a crime to support a criminal organization that has ceased to ‘be’? … beginning to look like a Monty Python Norwegian Blue! … the Dead Parrot sketch no? … more in On being a Malaysian Tamil 4

On Being a Malaysian Tamil 1

I am a Malaysian of Jaffna Tamil extraction. My late father was a Seremban born Malaysian but my Mother, also now deceased, was a Jaffna girl. Just as the Malays of the peninsular index the notion of a homeland with the term Tanah Melayu, the Tamils of Jaffna use the term Elam. Unlike the Indians and Chinese populations of Malaysia, the majority of whom came under the auspices of the British, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are the descendants of the subjects of ancient Tamil Kingdoms. As such, they have a sense of attachment and entitlement to the land commonly found in those who have occupied and ruled for centuries. Neither the majority Sinhalese nor the minority Tamils are beholden to any compromise or ‘social contract’ that colours the way minorities belonging in Malaysia. I have observed the consequent violent Elam struggle from afar. I have experienced it vicariously through news of grandparents and aunties caught in the crossfire between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam)and the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), teenage cousins in being sent away to India and Canada as they reached their teenage years for fear of being killed by the SLA (Sri Lankan Army) or Forcibly recruited by the Tigers …. and there are many other such family situations that I have experienced vicariously, scenarios whose trauma I have felt through my mother’s emotional responses.

My father was a pragmatist. “Minority Tamils need to compromise with the Sinhala majority! Given the demographics of post-colonial Sri Lanka, armed struggle is futile ,” I can imagine him encapsulating his position. My mother however, was a Tigress! Metaphorically speaking,that is! “They have taken away our language and now they will push us into to the sea!” She could not stand the injustices, indignities and the cruelties experienced by the Tamils and once the fighting had begun she was emotionally behind “our boys and girls” fighting with the LTTE! You have to recall that the LTTE was not designated as a terrorist organization in Malaysia at the time of this war of independence. (It is much later in 2014 that the designation was given in Malaysia, while war had been lost and the LTTE decimated in 2009). And my mother’s openly emotional allegiance meant serious arguments with my father. Although, I was more interested in questions of race, nationality and justice in my own Malaysian milieu, I absorbed all the contrasting positions and sentiments … more in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 2

Koboi Balik Kampung (2013)

Koboi Balik Kampung, Readymade Rockmount Western Shirt, 2013. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. (The image above is from an installation and performance at the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018).

The Koboi Balik Kampung (2013) Readymade from the permanent collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL is currently on display at the gallery. This item was a residual artifact from a performance at the Aliran Semasa symposium held at the gallery in 2013. This performance marked my Malaysian homecoming after ten years away in Western Canada.

I appeared at the event wearing a brand-new Rockmount Western shirt with tags intact. As the symposium began, my mother the late Sathiavathy Deva Rajah was invited on stage, to give me a traditional Indian/ Hindu blessing by placing chanthanam (sandalwood paste) and kunggumum (red turmeric powder) on my forehead. Then, facing the audience, I remove the shirt, draped it on a pre-installed hanger at the back of the stage and my mother consecrated it with the same chanthanam and kunggumum. The shirt was left hanging for the duration of the symposium and then presented to the gallery.

A version of the Performance was repeated in an intervention when the item was on show for the first time as a selection from the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in 2018. My Mother and I were stopped from renewing the markings on the shirt by a curator and a conservator from the gallery. We debated notions of completion of an art work, ownership of an artwork, the artist’s rights to modify an artwork, the extensive conservational bureaucracy that encompases a work of art in a National collection and the effects of all of these on the state of an art work (is it active or is it inert, alive or dead!). Mother and I proceed with the portion of our ritual that did not interfere with what is now the property of the gallery. The image above was captured by my daughter Durga Rajah during this performance.

Telinga Keling (1999)

Telinga Keling, Silver Halide Print, Niranjan Rajah, 1999. Permanent Collection of the National Visual Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as called ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’

The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with its colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.

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