On Being Malaysian Tamil 7

So what makes Prabhakaran and the LTTE meaningful, beyond their obvious significance to the Ceylon Tamils of Malaysia, to the wider group of Malaysian Tamils. Is it that the Tigers said NO to abject racial discrimination and marginalization? Is it because they fought as Tamil nationalists and triumphed against incredible odds. Is it because they carved an autonomous Tamil domain out of the Sinhala state? Is it because they did this, ultimately, without the patronage of colonial or neo-colonial masters? Is it because they created a short but impactful ‘Elam‘ era in modern history? Whatever it is that is so appealing, it all ended with their defeat in 2009

So why do some Indian Tamils and Diaspora Tamils still have such a passion for the after-image of a long vanished LTTE, when the Sri Lankan Tamils have themselves moved on and are looking for new political solutions to the desperate situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The one word answer is Maanam. Or in Bahasa Melayu … Maruah. Yes, pride or dignity or that great Asian tradition of giving or saving ‘face.’ That’s what, and perhaps, this is all, the LTTE and their leader Prabhakaran mean to the global Tamil diaspora today. This Maanam is connected with many complex issues issues that were central to the lost Elam regime – issues of caste abolishment, Dravidianism, socialism, feminism and ethno-nationalism. Some of these issues are powerful currency in the vibrant and emotional political theatre of the Tamil motherland, Tamil Nadu. Charismatic figures like Senthamizhan Semaan, whose party Naam Tamilar Katchi plays on deeply ethnocentric themes, exploit and revivify the symbolism of the defunct LTTE. This brings us to the Malaysian connection. Malaysian Tamils of Indian origin seem to have invested in LTTE symbols as a means to uplift their Maanam in the face of Malaysian communalism. The Indians are without doubt amongst the losers in the Malaysian social arrangement. It is in this light that I, from the perspective of a Jaffna Tamil, see the wider Malaysian Indian communities’ passionate and heartfelt engagement with symbols and the cause of Elam.

Tomorrow, on 29 december, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur will give its decision on whether to allow the bail application of Gadek state assemblyman, G Saminathan, one of the 12 detainees charged with LTTE involvement and detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. The LTTE has was defined as a terrorist outfit under Malaysia law in 2014. It is reasonable to understand this definition as applying to participants in the organization before its demise who are still at large. In fact, there have been a few arrests of such alleged LTTE members in Malaysia before and after 2014. If it can not be shown that the LTTE terrorist organization continues to exist or that it is presently being revived, those caught in possession of LTTE symbols, those caught in acts of LTTE commemoration, and those caught in the act of distributing LTTE symbols can not not rightly be deemed to be engaging with terror related activities. They are more appropriately seen as being engaged in the remembrance of symbols associated with a historical organization that has been associated with terrorism. Such actors are more appropriately understood as being involved with the myth of the LTTE, the dream of Thamil Elam and the quest for Maanam at home, not a mission of terrorism.

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On Being Malaysian Tamil 6

Despite my origins in Jaffna, I am far removed from the Tamils of Sri Lanka in my lived identity. I am a Malaysian first and, as a Malaysian, my ethnic identification is with the wider group of Malaysian Indians. Historically Ceylonese Tamils have tried to preserve a distinct identity as Malaysians and officially we are not classified as Indians. Nevertheless, I believe that it is appropriate and meaningful that, to the extent that the Indians will accept us, Ceylon Tamils should join Indian Tamils and be absorbed into the identity of ‘Malaysian Indian’. I do not renounce my Jaffna background. Rather, I feel it should be integrated into the wider Malaysian Indian mosaic. With my recent immigration to British Columbia, I am even further removed from my Sri Lankan Tamil identity.

The LTTE fought a vicious war for a Tamil homeland. They exchanged terror for terror with the Sri Lankan state actors and proxies,. They valiantly fought the mighty Indian army. They even set up and ran up a de facto state but in the end they seemed to have pitted themselves against the whole world. They were utterly defeated and now the ordinary Tamil people are picking up the pieces after an alleged genocide, under the demeaning conditions of a Sinhala occupation. Although I have relatives (my mother’s family) who were directly impacted by this war, I have generally lived my own life beyond the reach of the emotions raised by this communal tragedy. Nevertheless, I have followed the situation and when I reflect upon it closely, I feel the pain of my kith and kin!

Meanwhile the ongoing Malaysian LTTE fiasco seems quite perverse and unrelated to the Sri Lankan Tamil realities. So, I wonder, what does the LTTE signify in the Malaysian political scenario? Indian Tamils in Malaysia are mainly descendants of indentured labourers brought over to work in the rubber estates. Their fellows worked on tea estates in Sri Lanka. I must note, not without a sense of shame, that the Ceylon Tamils have set themselves apart from the estate Indians in Malaysia. In Sri Lanka we let the estate Indians down over the issue of citizenship in the early post-independence decades. Nevertheless, the Elam struggle has been a potent signifier and catalyst of a cogent Tamil identity within Dravidian politics of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Tamil ethno-nationalists, have hoisted the Elam flag as their own. Their sense of Dravidian pride was invested in the Elam struggle and, one could say that with the LTTE destroyed, they have stolen its fire for their own political engines.

Now, in Malaysia the Indians are a minority. One that is caught within the discriminations of a postcolonial communalism. They are diminished in political agency vis a vis the Malay majority and even the Chinese minority. They have been, in the last decades seeking catalysts for a vigorous political mobilization. For instance, the Hindraf agitation centred around Hindu identity and temple demolition. Perhaps the symbols of the LTTE play a similar moral boosting and formenting role in Malaysian Indian politics. The ethos of the LTTE may have had its origins in a just cause in Sri Lanka but its xtreme violence is disproportionate to the situation faced by Indians in Malaysia.

With regard to the 12 Malaysian Indians recently arrested and charged with terrorism related offences, while their allegedly excessive engagement with LTTE symbols might reasonably raise the government’s concern, there has as yet been no charge that clearly suggests a resurgent global LTTE. Nor is there any sign in the charges of a Malaysian based LTTE organization being set up. The possession of LTTE paraphernalia, the promotion of the defunkt LTTE cause on social media and the commemoration of dead LTTE heroes do not, in my view, suggest anything more than an entanglement with Tamil pride, Tamil sorrow and Tamil myth. The suggestion by the PDRM (police) of massive financial movements, which might by indicative of an imminent LTTE revival has not been actualized by way a related charge against even one of the 12 detainees. ,,, More in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 7

On Being 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 and women of the armed movement 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 not 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. … More in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 6

On Being Malaysian Tamil 3

There are many separatist organizations fighting battles for sovereignty in our world of nation states. While the methods many of these groups use include acts of terror, whether or not a given group is a terrorist organization in a given jurisdiction, at a given time, 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 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 belong 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 and a dove, “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 at heart! 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 war 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, long after the 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