The Sunday Leader

Young Tamils Swap Bombs For BlackBerrys

Business student Bala Muhunthan, who has started  the UK -based  Tamil Solidarity Movement

Business student Bala Muhunthan, who has started the UK -based Tamil Solidarity Movement

By Shyamantha Asokan

Business student Bala Muhunthan started the UK-based Tamil Solidarity Movement.

Muhunthan has that high-class hip-hop look: Dolce & Gabbana jeans, tight polo shirt, chunky silver ID tags worn as pendants and an ever-present, ever-beeping Black Berry. Privately educated in Denmark and the UK, the 22-year-old lives in London and attends a leading business school. Muhunthan spends his weekend nights at members’ bars or parties in Mayfair. Saturday afternoons, he plays golf or football with his friends. “I love London. I love the fast life,” he says.

But at the start of April, Muhunthan took a step outside the fast life: alongside thousands of fellow Sri Lankan Tamils, he stood in front of the Houses of Parliament, demanding a ceasefire in Buddhist Sri Lanka’s bloody offensive against Hindu Tamil separatists, which was reaching a violent climax after 25 years of on-off fighting. To Londoners accepting pamphlets from the protesters – whose actions were replicated over the following weeks in Paris and New York – it may have seemed a clear-cut case of might versus right. But the Tamil struggle for an independent state in Sri Lanka has been spearheaded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – deemed by the West to be one of the world’s most sophisticated terrorist groups.

LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, killed this summer

LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, killed this summer

In the end, the protests were in vain. In May, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, declared the final defeat of the Tigers and the conclusion of one of Asia’s longest-running civil wars. The armed struggle for independence had been crushed: in the course of a five-month-long military surge, the Tamil separatists who once controlled swathes of the island’s north and east had lost all their territory. Their infamous leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was dead.

But that ending was also a beginning. Muhunthan, who devoted so much time to the protests that he had to retake the final year of his degree, has, along with many other young Tamils overseas, experienced a political awakening. As one generation of the Tamil diaspora sees its struggle for Eelam, an independent homeland, end in failure, their sons and daughters – who have spent their formative years in the West – are taking up the struggle. But they will fight it on their terms, using their strengths, fomenting a BlackBerry revolution.

Jan Jananayagam, who ran in the European parliamentary elections on a Tamil platform

Jan Jananayagam, who ran in the European parliamentary elections on a Tamil platform

On the BlackBerry

“Literally every spare minute I have, I spend on this,” Muhunthan said when we met for a cappuccino a month after the downfall of the Tamil Tigers. We first shook hands at the chaotic Westminster protest, where matronly women in saris had guided me to the front of the melee to meet him. Two of his fellow protesters were on hunger strike, wrapped in blankets in Parliament Square. The demonstrators returned to the square every day for almost three months, their numbers peaking at 20,000.

We sat down to talk at Cass Business School, where Muhunthan is studying for a Master’s degree in banking and international finance. He said that the recent reversal in the Tigers’ fortunes had taken the diaspora by surprise, leaving them bereft. “A lot of Tamils felt that the LTTE was their voice in the war. A lot of people are asking: ‘What are we going to do now?’ People looked to Prabhakaran like he was a god.”

Protesters in Parliament Square in May, calling for a ceasefire in the Sri Lankan government offensive against the Tamil Tiger separatists

Protesters in Parliament Square in May, calling for a ceasefire in the Sri Lankan government offensive against the Tamil Tiger separatists

But Muhunthan, the son of an accountant and a doctor, had responded to the Tigers’ apparent defeat with optimism – seeing it as a second chance. While disappointed to have lost a powerful ally, he now felt free to pursue the non-violent means he had always preferred. He also saw an opportunity to present his ethnic group as something other than terrorists, a label he found frustrating when dealing with fellow students. “You always have to explain: ‘Look, Tamil people are suffering,’” he said.

Muhunthan is one of a group of young people who now want to move the separatist struggle into a more diplomatic, PR-friendly – and, they hope, successful – phase. He has recently set up the Tamil Solidarity Movement, a campaigning group that rejects violence. The movement hopes to rely on “networking” with MPs and discouraging Western companies from investing in Sri Lanka, rather than on chanting in Parliament Square.

As the young man laid out his pragmatic thinking and negotiable aims, it seemed unlikely that they could have co-existed with the Tigers’ suicide bombers and child soldiers. When militants spearhead a cause, they do not countenance shades of grey. But when they fail, hardliners fall away and negotiators can emerge. Analysts point to the Middle East’s Gaza Strip, controlled by the armed movement Hamas, as a territory where such would-be negotiators still lack room to breathe.

Muhunthan is certainly upbeat. “At every step, I’m looking at it like a business. It’s about getting any small Tamil groups together to have more power – like merging to form a big company,” he explained. “Then it’s about networking with as many MPs as possible. When I go to see David Miliband, I want to have a huge folder of the names of the people behind me – and I want some big names in there.”

He says he has so far convinced more than 140 British MPs to support his campaign. In April, Simon Hughes, a London MP, took him to meet officials at the US State Department. Muhunthan hopes his parliamentary backers will persuade the British government to put economic pressure on Sri Lanka until it releases the estimated 280,000 Tamil civilians still held in displacement camps and, ultimately, allows them their own state. Such pressure would include cancelling Sri Lanka’s status as a “GSP+” state, a designation bestowed after the 2004 Asian tsunami and intended to assist recovery by waiving certain taxes on exports to the European Union.

The European Union is certainly aware of these calls for a change in policy, and has already launched a probe into Sri Lanka’s human rights record. And, with a preliminary EU report last month condemning the displacement camps as a “novel form of unacknowledged detention,” even Sri Lankan officials now doubt that GSP+ status will be renewed.
Muhunthan may be on to something: the tax waiver was one issue he had raised when he met Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner, in Strasbourg this year.
First meeting

In a church hall behind Euston station, near the curry house strip of Drummond Street, the Tamil Solidarity Movement is holding one of its first meetings. It’s a simple affair, with plastic chairs and slices of homemade cake wrapped in clingfilm. But Muhunthan’s fellow TSM members are young, focused, well-qualified and business-minded.

Raadhu, an accountant with KPMG, is keen to think of ways to put pressure on the Western companies active in Sri Lanka. HSBC has a Sri Lankan division with total assets of $1.4bn – about twice the total foreign direct investment in the country last year. And Sri Lanka’s main export, textiles, has created links with many Western fashion retailers. Colombo officials cite Marks and Spencer as a particularly prominent client; M&S says it sources textiles from two retailers in Sri Lanka but refuses to disclose figures.
The last thing Colombo needs is an economic cold shoulder. Having pushed up military spending in recent years to defeat the Tigers, Rajapaksa’s government is heavily in the red and hoping foreign largesse will speed its recovery. Sri Lanka’s public debt is now more than 80 per cent of gross domestic product.

The TSM is still in its early stages, with just under 110 young people on board, and Muhunthan often sounds naively optimistic. He says that if he can get the UK to take a tough stance on Sri Lanka, “the US will follow. Everyone knows they’re friends.” Still, the movement shows a shift in thinking on how to bring attention to the cause. In a similar vein, a second-generation Tamil activist, Jan Jananayagam, ran as an independent candidate for London in last June’s European parliamentary elections. She campaigned on not only a two-state solution in Sri Lanka but also on more transparency in derivatives markets.
“I am very positive about the second generation,” Jananayagam says of the Tamil diaspora’s chances of securing more Western intervention. “They are so sure of their status in their country – they were born as citizens there – and they will just ring their MPs or senators to ask for these things.”
Articulate and driven, Jananayagam confirms the stereotype of the Tamil diaspora: she used to work as a bond trader at the investment bank Credit Suisse and ran her own hedge fund. She is now busy planning for next year’s British general election; she hopes to persuade MPs to show a commitment to the Tamil issue, and the Tamil community to use their voting power accordingly.

Profile

The Tamil diaspora’s often middle-class profile, typified by both Jananayagam and Muhunthan, is a legacy of Sri Lanka’s colonial era. Although historical accounts vary slightly, both the north Indian Sinhalese and the south Indian Tamils are thought to have migrated to Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago. In 1815, Britain gained control of the whole island (previously split into one Tamil and two Sinhalese kingdoms) and chose to favour the Tamil minority. It was a classic “divide and rule” strategy that pitted ethnic groups against each other to prevent a united fight for independence.

Sri Lanka’s Tamils enjoyed education and status superior to that of their Sinhalese peers, and were seen as “career-oriented, intellectual and passive,” according to Neil DeVotta, a US-based professor of political science and author of Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, And Ethnic Conflict In Sri Lanka. DeVotta writes in a separate academic paper that, in 1946, Sri Lankan Tamils made up 11 per cent of the island’s population but accounted for more than 30 per cent of the judiciary, top civil servants and university students. Today, Tamils account for 9-13 per cent of the island’s 20m inhabitants; exact numbers are difficult to confirm as census researchers have not been able to access Tiger territories since 1981.

When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority sought to regain dominance. A new government passed bills that enshrined Sinhalese as the official language, and in the 1970s, universities introduced positive discrimination quotas for Sinhalese candidates.

Many well-to-do Tamils headed West, and the diaspora soon became an important crutch for the Eelam campaign. They were able to assist the Tigers in times of financial difficulty – for example, after the tsunami, which severely damaged their territories. Today, up to 250,000 Tamils live in Canada, 200,000 in the UK and 130,000 in the US, although estimates vary widely and these numbers include Indian Tamils. There are also smaller pockets in Australia and continental Europe.

“The Tamil diaspora in the US and the UK are not riffraff. You have doctors, you have engineers,” says Peter Lehr, a lecturer in terrorism studies and South-East Asia specialist at the University of St Andrews. “When the Tigers are desperate for money, they have a wealthy group to tap.”

However, donations have not always been voluntary – Tamil communities are rife with stories of “when the Tigers come knocking.” Representatives of the group were known for turning up on migrants’ doorsteps and threatening to harm relatives back in Sri Lanka unless money was forthcoming. This created a complex relationship between many Tamils and the Tigers, who became both a guardian against Colombo and a predator on their own community.

Open support

Despite such reports of intimidation, many first-generation Tamil migrants openly supported the Tamil Tigers at this year’s protests. “The Tigers will crush them (the Sri Lankan government),” V.K. Vavanathan, who moved to the UK in the 1970s, told me confidently at the Westminster protest, pounding his palm with his fist as he spoke. Over in New York, S.K. Dhayaparan, a wiry and bright-eyed doctor, stood under the streetlights of 7th Avenue and gave passers-by his pamphlet on the Tigers’ “good intentions.”
So, following the group’s defeat, how do the older members of the diaspora feel? Do they, like some of their children and grandchildren, see recent events as a release from a violent strategy that often made them its victims and that arguably was not working anyway?

The London Tamil Sangam, one of Britain’s longest-established Tamil community centres, is entered through a nondescript doorway in Manor Park in the east of the capital. A Tamil enclave, its streets are lined with greengrocers selling jackfruit and branches of India’s ICICI Bank. Saravana Bhavan, a Tamil restaurant chain known for its dosa pancakes, proves a popular draw. Malathy Muthu, the centre’s manager, paints a sombre picture of the older generation, who seem to believe that their cause has been lost. “We have seen a lot of mental health problems – like depression – among the elders,” she says. “This was their dream.” Muthu says several elders are refusing even to leave their houses. “They will not engage with anything. They just stay in watching TV programmes about the ‘at-home problem’. I think they are depressed, although they have not registered it with the GP as they will not talk to anyone.”

For those in the diaspora wedded to the armed struggle for independence – sometimes called “the old way” – prospects do indeed seem gloomy. Colombo’s military surge against the Tigers this year coincided with a Western crackdown on the overseas activities of the group, which has been banned in ever more countries as the post-9/11 “war on terror” mentality has taken hold. The man alleged to be the Tigers’ UK head, Arunachalam Chrishanthakumar, was jailed for two years in June for supplying the group with electronic materials and military manuals. Karuna Kandasamy, the alleged US leader, is due to be sentenced in New York next month after pleading guilty to charges of making funds available to a terrorist group.
Some terrorism experts refer to the Tigers’ proven ability to come back from the brink, and say they could soon resume sporadic guerrilla attacks. But few think they can recreate their former, sophisticated operation.

Early attempts seem to be foundering: in August, Colombo said Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the new head of the Tigers, had been arrested. For many first-generation migrants, the task of reinventing a 25-year struggle in their declining years is too great.

“The older people think there is no more hope – they are coming to the end of their lives and they think the fight is over,” explained one migrant to the UK, a 57-year-old engineer who did not wish to be named (he was worried about retribution against relatives in displacement camps, which are rife with reports of human rights abuses). “Whether their means were right or wrong, (the Tigers) were the only people who fought for us. They were the voice for Eelam, and look what they did – they built their own air force, navy, everything. We had those things when no one else would help us.”

However, the first generation also recognise that their children’s “new way” presents a ray of hope. “The young ones are passionate about the struggle in a way that has surprised their parents,” the engineer said. “And their approach is very different – they want to use democratic and diplomatic means. It’s good. They should not make the mistakes that we did.”

Promotional trips

In recent months, Sri Lankan officials have been on promotional trips to the US, Britain, Malaysia and Singapore to lure foreign capital to what they say is now a peaceful island. Trips to the Middle East are planned for early next year. “This is an ideal time to look at the investment opportunities in Sri Lanka,” Gamini Lakshman Peiris, international trade minister, told investors at a London briefing this year. “Terrorism is the only thing that has held us back.”

The government now hopes to profit from land wrested back from the Tigers by offering long leases on plots in the north and east. These areas contain a region known as “the rice bowl of the country.” Meanwhile, a 350-acre economic zone is planned in the area of Kilinochchi, a Tiger town that fell in January – once the landmines have been cleared. Sri Lanka’s strategic location, at the crux of vital shipping routes to South-East Asia, is undeniable and China has snapped up the rights to develop the island’s once sleepy Hambantota harbour. Beijing is spending $1bn on the construction of a major port, according to Sri Lankan officials, as well as building a 900-megawatt coal power plant in the north-west. The country’s Central Bank, showing its faith in the investment drive, has upgraded its 2009 economic growth forecast from 2.5 to 4.5 per cent.

But amid the bullish statements at the London and New York briefings, Colombo’s ministers have also been reminding the West of its role in securing the fragile peace. Peiris told his London audience that the international community had a “continuing duty” to prevent the diaspora from funding the Tigers’ recovery. This posed the only threat to the island’s “new investment opportunities,” he said.

Other Colombo officials insist that economic growth is for the “benefit of all citizens” and that it is not in the interest of Tamils “at home or overseas” to thwart such progress. But while Sri Lanka refuses to release Tamil civilians from camps, or allow journalists into these sites, there is much to stoke the separatist cause. President Rajapaksa had promised a postwar political settlement with the Tamils, but he has so far made barely any moves on this front.

Whether it is through continuing to fund the Tigers in some form, or through the next generation’s “new way”, it seems that the struggle for Eelam is far from over. “Yes, of course, I am disheartened, but we have to reinvent and re-organise ourselves now,” says one campaigner, back in the church hall in Euston, where everyone is packing away the plastic chairs and heading out for a curry on Drummond Street. “And this time we have to do it from outside. From another country.”

Shyamantha Asokan is a former FT journalist. She is now a freelance writer based in Nigeria
— Courtesy
The Financial Times

12 Comments for “Young Tamils Swap Bombs For BlackBerrys”

  1. Nadaal Mohamed

    It is great to notice that though grudgingly the diaspora Tamils now have started the path of peaceful means to persue their sinister goals. Anyhow it will be the innocent Tamils who have to bear the brunt of the consequences in this beautiful ,now very peaceful country because of their actions in the West. Now Tamils take their children to Jaffna university so that they can be educated thier insted of falling victim to megalomanic Prabaparayan. So this looks more like another ruse to collect more funds for those who look to be rich faster by hoodwinking their own folks. That man will rot in hell too.

  2. Truthteller

    Partying in London while the ‘Tamil people are suffering’? Stop fiddling with your Blackberrys, go back to Sri Lanka, form a Peace Corps and help your people – and all people in Sri Lanka.

    PS What happened to the guys who were on hunger strike? Force fed on Big Macs? Oh, it’s so lovely in the West, isn’t it?

  3. Sonali Perera

    Well I live in UK too. We have seen these terrorist supporters protesting and the hunger striker had been eating big macs and Police has got the video. So dont you think these terrorist supporters are a bunch of crooks and talk untruth and ultimately the labour government could not help the terrorist cause.
    Muhunthan must be wanting to take over from KP to manage the finance.
    The tamils must know that there will not be seperations and every sri lankan has to live in Sri Lanka as one. Velu said the men will be killed and the women will be raped by the forces but he himself got his cronies to do that so where is the truth in his utterances. It sounds like this tamil terrorist supporter Muhanthan and his supporters are funded by the so called terror gangs to be lingering in Mayfair. He and his croonies must be thinking they can have their EElam in London. Flat hopes – wake up. You have a place in tamil nadu and we dont want you terrorists in Sri Lanka.

  4. V.Nadaraja

    It is very sad that a terrorist organisation like the LTTE came to power and caused untold misery to the people of Sri Lanka. It is not for me to discuss how and why they came into power and held sway for such a long time. The corruption in the country, the greed of the politicians, the need to foster communal hatred and violence to come into power and hold onto it, all these played no small part..
    But what is going to be the future? Are we going to play out the same scenario? The President in his victory speech pleaded for the loyalty of all the people in Sri Lanka.
    I can only quote Roger Casement., the Irish patriot, ” Loyalty is a sentiment. Not a law. It rests on love, not on restraint. If you cannot evoke any love you cannot demand any loyalty”.
    Quite a number of the Sinhala politicians consider the Sinhala as their own. They will not harm the others but these “others”migrated and settled in our beloved country later are guests and live here because of the infinite Sinhala or Buddhist kindness. And of course the others should be grateful as they are allowed to live here because of this great “kindness”.
    I am a British citizen. I have lived here for over fifty years and taken the oath of loyalty to the Queen. There was not a single moment in my life when I felt this loyalty misplaced. My position,place and power has been the same as that of any British cititizen even those whose forefathers had come here thousands of years ago. I had the same protection under the law. My children could study or go to the University without any discrimination. Five of my mother’s grand children are Doctors, others engineers accontants etc. They all had free education and assistance from the state, in no way different from that given to the pure White Anglo Saxon Christian children here.
    We live in a world where most countries are progressing to recognise in no uncertain terms, the equality of all men and women without any type of discrimination. The right to education, jobs,medical care, and justice are enshrined in ,law. In a Britsh University, discrimination against anybody based on, race, religion ,, ethnicity, sex or colour is a criminal offence.
    I can understand the feelings of the Tamil diaspora. They were fortunate to come and live in more advanced countries where ,higher standards of citizenship, humanity and justice prevail and are driven to a rage when they consider what they or their kinsmen have suffered in Sri Lanka.
    The time has come for the victorious Government of Sri Lanka to consider what has happened over all these years, the misery and bloodshed and the evil of rampant communalism. The Tamils and Muslims have to be protected from the pogroms which had been continual from the day Bandaranaike came into power. There shoulbe the rule of law which nobody can take in their own hands. Every individual should be free to travel, work or live anywhere in the island without any apprehension or fear whatsoever. People should be free to express their ideas and opinions and contribute to the wealth prosperity and happiness of the nation. Only one country one nation and one people.
    .
    I feel sorry for the Tamil men and women who want to take up the cudgels to fight EElam war again. The SriLankan Government should not allow it to happen. Everything possible should be done to foster the friendship, fraternity, liberty and equality of the people of SriLanka to live in peace and prosperity.

    As a Tamil I donot want anyone to misunderstand my feelings.. I was fortunate to study at the University of Ceylon under the Vice chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings. In many ways I was proud of my country. When I went to UK for my higher studies I used to talk of Sri Lanka’s greatness. The country had the highest quality of life index with a moderate per capita income. I had a tremendous amount of love and affectioon for my colleagues who were mostly from the Sinhala community. I worshipped most of my Sinhala lecturers. I never ever felt discriminated as a Tamil..

    • prasa

      mr.Nadraja, if all tamils think like u we can be called srilankan & not didvided like the british did to us -divide & rule policy. you have told the truth & noththing but the truth! iam a sinhalese married to a tamil living abroad fr the time being but waiting to get back some day. when we meet srilankans overseas we are happy immeterial of race! presidents speech in tamil in the UN is ample proof that bthere nis no discrimination & srilankan airlines is the only airline in the world annoucing in tamil (not even one airline in India). your article is well written as Srilankan iam proud of countrymen like you!

  5. Thangaraja

    Ha Ha Ha
    These people do not want even a peaceful campaign agains the descrimination. How about the current colonization by the state in the border areas? The majority superiority attitude is what that has brought this country to where it is. These guys never learn.

  6. FONSEKA

    DAKLJLDJA

  7. FONSEKA

    Im still dissapointed the singala peoples are not very educated. If tamils are migrated to Sri Lanka?? Where did Budisum or Singala language came from?? Why was the library in north was burned down? Who was trying to destroy or rewrite history?? Mr.Author if you can go back and do some research of your own root you might even find out where your last name ASOKAN came from.

  8. ASOKAN

    Im still dissapointed the singala peoples are not very educated. If tamils are migrated to Sri Lanka?? Where did Budisum or Singala language came from?? Why was the library in north was burned down? Who was trying to destroy or rewrite history?? Mr.Author if you can go back and do some research of your own root you might even find out where your last name ASOKAN came from.

  9. Tamil Statistics

    mmm, I will like to do some survey on what Tamil people do because most of the time you see some sort of a crime in the news its them all the time.

    I am not trying to be a communualist, but it seems either there with the blackberry, in Mayfair drinking, scamming people, protesting while eating Big Mac, terrorizing others or languishing in jails or internment camps.

    Is there a better way of living their lives?

  10. jane hart

    You see people like muhanthan all over the place.Trying to make a quick buck by hoodwinking people.Where is the money collected for the good of the tamil refugees?Few of our younger tamils are hoping to cash in to give themself a better life and they dont care two hoots for the tamils in srilanka.

  11. Kalag

    If these people want to make money out their diaspora it is their problem. But they should not be allowed to enter Sri Lanka, Never. Even after VP’s death. LTTE is determined to make money out of the diaspora. These educated Tamil idiots will never learn. After another 30 years their children will forget Tamil and be one of the monirities in their country, speaking English, Grman,French or whatever. They could have learned Singhala and become Singhalese years ago. That is why they are now worse than the gipsies.

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