Throughout history there have been many revolutionary socialist movements, but often left out of discussion is the Tamil Eelam national liberation movement. The struggle for Tamil national liberation is two-fold: liberation from Sri Lankan Sinhala-state oppression, and internal liberation of the Tamil people from the deep-rooted issues that plague the Tamil culture and its values.
Understanding the two dimensions of national liberation clarifies that the fight for Tamil Eelam is inherently leftist and socialist; this also applies to the Eelam Tamil diaspora. From the first wave of Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka, working-class issues have shaped their political identity. However, today, the Tamil working class exists in a vacuum consumed by reactionary politics. The Eelam Tamil community must reconcile with their proletarian roots, and build solidarity with other self-determination struggles, to envision a way forward.
Sri Lankan state violence and Tamil nationalism
Sri Lankan state violence, persecution and discrimination from the 1940s to 70s pushed Eelam Tamil leadership to answer the Tamil national question, manoeuvring through a maze of democratic and diplomatic methods in an attempt to achieve only a basic level of autonomy for the Tamil people. For 30 years, the Sri Lankan state’s response to these methods was one of sheer brutality and repression. The failure of the ahimsa and democratic movement further induced Tamils to reject the racism of the Sri Lankan state, leading to the rise of Tamil armed resistance movements in the 1970s designed to defend the very existence of the Eelam nation.
In 2001, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) voluntarily entered peace talks to seek a legitimate political solution at the request of international democracies such as Norway. The LTTE were recognized international actors and official representatives of the Tamil people from Tamil Eelam. As a recognized state actor, the LTTE built the De-Facto State of Tamil Eelam, which consisted of executive and judiciary branches with a legislature similar to many democracies across the world. The time allotted from the peace process offered the opportunity to engage in a nation-building project which became an unprecedented success.
The ideas of Tamil nationhood and socialism began to bind under the De-Facto State. There are many misconceptions about Tamil nationalism and what it means in the case of Tamil Eelam. Tamil Nationalism is rooted in socialist principles and has always been about eliminating all forms of class, caste, and gender oppression, which are deeply rooted in Tamil traditional “culture”. Tamil Nationalism has a long history of progressive politics for social, economic, and national freedom. The works of Thanthai Periyar, Subramania Bharati and B.R. Ambedkar, three pillars of revolutionary social transformation and left nationalism, largely influenced the Eelam struggle.
But the Sri Lankan state launched an aggressive campaign against the LTTE, and pushed its propaganda globally. After the events of 9/11, the western world’s “War on Terror” banned, targeted, and destroyed the LTTE. The ban facilitated the dismantling of the Tamil nation. The political space created in Tamil Eelam and the diaspora that stood uncompromisingly for sovereignty and self-determination exchanged for meager calls of liberal reform and human rights efforts in Geneva. The people’s political agency was handed over to a new elite, which coincided with the destruction of the De-Facto State of Tamil Eelam. This quelled community institutions and revolutionary social transformation in the homeland as well as in the diaspora.
The lasting effects of the ban instilled fear into the Tamil community’s psyche, creating a false distinction between the political aspirations of the people and the LTTE. A prevailing sense of fear has silenced voices while simultaneously criminalizing the Tamil people. The so-called “war on terror” itself unleashed terror on the Tamil nation: imperialist nations justified the massacres of Eelam Tamil people, in the final months leading up to May 2009, to further their geopolitical interests.
After 2009, the survivors of genocide ended up in government-sponsored refugee camps. Conditions in these camps were deplorable, with reports of many human rights violations. Thousands of Tamil people had gone missing after settling into these camps. Family members recall seeing loved ones with them one moment, vanishing the next. Families of the disappeared have been continuously protesting in Sri Lanka, demanding justice.
The state of Sri Lanka is unable to provide the support needed for a war-torn population; this responsibility inevitably fell on the shoulders of the diaspora. They shouldered the immediate call for mutual aid, raised money, created infrastructure around education and different economic empowerment schemes.
Canadian state violence against Tamil refugees
The Eelam Tamil community in Toronto emerged out of this specific political context, shaped by the Sri Lankan state’s structural genocide, displacement, persecution and violence. As state violence and bloodshed intensified against the Tamil people, the uncertainty of survival urged Tamils to escape the island, creating the first of three major waves of Tamil refugees in Canada and around the world over the span of 30 years.
When Tamils arrived in Toronto, many ended up living in low-income housing while taking up precarious work, regardless of their past class or caste affiliations. Toronto Tamils populated the low-income areas of Malvern, Tuxedo Court, Wellesley & Parliament, and Jane & Finch while working the factory floors and back house kitchens. These social conditions make them a part of the city’s working class.
The mental and physical suffering caused by genocide created immense agony and trauma for the Tamil community. The experience of bloodshed and state violence had a lingering effect on many youth as they faced the brunt of displacement. For protection and camaraderie, many Tamil youth joined “gangs” to piece together a sense of family that had broken from their past. However, this coincided with the rise in violence amongst Tamils. Their collective trauma was largely ignored and ridiculed in the media, leading to the criminalization of Tamil youth in the city, led by the repressive Toronto Police and Canadian state-led operations such as the Tamil Task Force and Project 1050.
This experience of being targeted and criminalized was not an anomaly for the Tamil community. Contrary to Canada’s globally recognized refugee settling system, many Tamils who arrived on Canadian shores and terminals were subject to intense scrutiny from the Canadian state through its hostile refugee and immigration policies.
After May 2009, hundreds of fleeing Tamil refugees arrived via boat, the MV Sun Sea and MV Ocean Lady, fleeing genocide. But the Canadian state’s response was criminalization: the RCMP’s belligerent attitudes towards asylum seekers subjected Tamils arriving via boat to arbitrary detention and investigations—replicating the geopolitics of the Sri Lankan state in the Tamil refugee process in Canada. This is the ugly truth about Canada’s relationship with Tamils, and these experiences have shaped and continue to shape the political identity of the Eelam Tamil diaspora.
Tamil community organizing in Toronto
Despite countless barriers, the Tamil working masses were on the frontlines in Canada supporting the Tamil liberation movement in the homeland. During the height of the Tamil genocide in 2009, the Tamil working masses took extended leaves from jobs, worked the midnight shift and instead of going home to sleep, stood united in protest, demanding justice and an end to the bombardment, massacres, and destruction of the Tamil Nation.
Collective mobilization of Tamils in the city was organized and spearheaded by people from working-class neighbourhoods. The mass mobilization of the community, seen in the news and on the streets, resulted from collective networking. The community was engaged in arranging buses for protests and spreading the word about future ones.
The people simultaneously built strong networks of mutual aid and community welfare, emulating the socialist structures created within the De-Facto state of Tamil Eelam. Whether it was finding employment, affordable housing, tutoring, or caretaking, resources and networks created by the community always made themselves available to the people who needed it most.
The 2010 report by the International Crisis Group states that it was concerned about the diaspora’s ‘radicalization’, especially its young people. It goes on to say, “governments with sizable Tamil populations need to be clear with their Tamil citizens that a separate state is neither feasible nor desirable and that they should do their best to support moderate, non-separatist, voices within the diaspora”.
The sad reality is that the organized community-based power rooted in socialist principles was one of the casualties after 2009 in Toronto. While it has been over 30 years since the first wave of Tamil refugees hit Canada, many believe the Tamil community has significantly improved. Today, the community is portrayed as an economic and political powerhouse, with business entrepreneurs, a rising professional-managerial class, and politicians of all stripes. This dramatic shift in the characterization of the community happened mainly after the horrors of 2009.
From revolutionary nationalism to bourgeois nationalism
The community was told not to rock the boat by a new emerging self-proclaimed leadership, shifting from radical grassroots organizing to engaging in civil discourse. The removal of revolutionary politics from the diaspora has coincided with the rise of Tamils entering formal politics backed by an emerging middle class and the new elite.
The increase in Tamil elected representatives has paved the way for a new type of leadership, or a lack thereof. Many applaud the success of Tamils moving into public office but very little has gone into solving the issues of the Tamil working class, who make up the constituencies for many of these politicians. They have favoured the Canadian state in successfully rendering Tamil political life into moderate and opportunistic solutions based on electoral politics and failed international mechanisms.
Although the political landscape may have changed for Eelam Tamils both in the diaspora and the homeland, the everyday life for Tamils in the city has not. A bulk of the community continues to live through cycles of poverty, class exploitation, drug abuse, violence, and mental health issues. This reality exists even for those who have achieved a false sense of upward mobility. For those who managed to escape the belly of the beast, their survival continues to be dependent on the backbreaking working-class labour they are forced to endure. The economic prosperity and middle-class status that many of our community desires—and sometimes can achieve—is often at the expense of doubling or tripling the number of jobs to make ends meet. These circumstances have impacted the family dynamic for many households as the interactions that families have are limited to only financial transactions. Although the community’s political clarity may have strayed, their struggles and experiences reflect those of the exploited working-class.
Reviving Tamil national liberation and socialism
The physical act of war may have ended, but a war against the Tamil nation has not. The Tamil nation remains under siege by Sri Lankan Forces; military bases now occupy traditional Tamil lands. In addition, there is the ongoing destruction of traditional Tamil religious institutions, graveyards, and memorials by state-sponsored organizations. The occupation has led to the rise in the colonization of traditional Tamil areas by the Sinhala people. Tamil areas are under constant surveillance, forcing arbitrary arrests and prolonged detention without judicial oversight, emboldened by draconian terrorism laws. The Sri Lankan state routinely arrests students and activists, who face torture and death.
This national oppression is also an enemy of class struggle and class consciousness. The chauvinistic ruling class of Sri Lanka perpetuates their political power by practicing racism and repression against the Tamil people solely to prevent class unity amongst the Tamil and Sinhalese masses. The liberation of the Tamil nation will enable the working-class Sinhala masses to free themselves from racist ideology, and to mobilize against the Sri Lankan state. The Tamil people’s right to self-determination and sovereignty must be recognized to achieve this horizon.
Despite constant surveillance and fear, and the possibility of torture and death, the Tamil nation continues to demand justice. The Tamil nation, forced to exist transnationally, need not look far to the masses to realign their political consciousness. For the Eelam Tamils worldwide, particularly in Toronto, it is critical to show solidarity with the ongoing struggle for Tamil Eelam by supporting the two-dimensional view of national liberation. Doing so will naturally revive the working-class politics fundamental to the liberation of Eelam Tamils in and outside of the occupied homeland.
To quote Nadarajah Thangavelu, better known as Thangadurai, a leading pioneer of the Tamil freedom struggle, “although the goal of the Eelam Tamil’s national liberation struggle is for an independent sovereign state, our objective has always been greater than that. Our vision is global. Wherever there is oppression, wherever there is a violation of human dignity, whether in Africa or Latin America, we are prepared to link hands with the oppressed”. Thangadurai was jailed under draconian anti-terror laws and sentenced to life in prison, and while awaiting appeal, was tortured and killed by Sinhalese mobs during the black July riots in 1983.
The Tamil liberation struggle is inherently socialist, but it is also rooted in solidarity. Solidarity must continue to be built in its purest form, not just in rhetoric but by providing resources and collaboration with Black, Palestinian, Kurdish, Indigenous peoples and with anyone fighting for self-determination. Eelam Tamils in Toronto must continue to build working-class power and contribute to the growing leftist movement in the city. As the occupiers continue to collaborate, the oppressed must integrate their struggles. The only noise that can overpower the blaring sounds of oppression worldwide is the collective of all oppressed peoples chanting for their freedom together.
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