Dwindling protestors from UK’s Tamil diaspora

Wednesday, 3 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Neville De Silva There was a time in early 2009 when literally thousands from the Sri Lanka Tamil diaspora demonstrated for weeks in Westminster, near the House of Commons They were calling on Britain and other Western states to bring about a ceasefire to stop Sri Lanka’s military juggernaut from eliminating the LTTE. That demonstration was easily one of the biggest protests launched by the Tamil minority with hundreds of special policemen deployed to keep the protests spilling over and causing more chaos than it had already done. Earlier in June 2008 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was attending a special meeting of Commonwealth leaders, hundreds of Tamil protestors gathered opposite Marlborough House to protest his presence while less than a hundred yards away Rajapaksa supporters cheered him on. When President Rajapaksa next visited the UK, Tamil groups staged vociferous protests outside the hotel in which he was staying disrupting his planned program. Times have changed But times have indeed changed. Where have all those protestors gone? The dwindling numbers at a recent demonstration tell its own story. The Tamil diaspora is getting tired of the numerous calls on its members to turn out and denounced Sri Lanka. Tamil activists, especially those who exhort members of their community to join in the many anti-Sri Lanka protests they organise, will I have no doubt, disagree furiously. There would be no surprise in that. But if one is to look at the recent landscape here in the UK with some objectivity, there will surely be less recrimination. In fact it is some of the Sri Lankan Tamils I have known for many years who drew my attention to this when I returned to London after a three-and-a-half-year absence, that anti-Sri Lanka protests by their community were losing steam. Sencholai bombing Let me recall a meeting I had last week. A Tamil woman who I had known for several years before I left for Bangkok over five years ago recalled that her niece was one of the girls who died when the Sencholai orphanage or LTTE training camp (call it what you will) in the Mullaitivu area was bombed by the Sri Lanka Air Force in 2006. It was a casual reference. A few days after this tragic happening in the August of that year, the same woman whose grocery shop I used to frequent years back, told me how she had just heard from her relatives in Sri Lanka the sad news of the death of the niece who was studying at the time for her ‘A’ level examination having done well at her ‘O’ levels. She was grieving then, for the death was so fresh in her mind. She never told me who she blamed for what had happened when her niece died along with some 50-odd other children, mainly young girls who the LTTE and Tamil groups claimed were living in an orphanage for children but the Government claimed was in fact an LTTE-operated training camp where uniformed combatants were teaching the children in the use of firearms too. She probably did not want to apportion blame because I was of Sinhala ethnicity. I did not ask her either who she thought was to blame for what was surely a tragic event where young girls and some boys were cut down in their early years. What made her recall her niece’s death now was that it happened to be the 8th anniversary a few days earlier. Eight years after the bombing of Sencholai, the memory probably remains very much etched in the minds of those who lost loved ones, especially if they are still in Sri Lanka. I was living here at the time and I remember well the swirling controversy surrounding the occurrence which inevitably made international news with comments and statements issued by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Executive Director of UNICEF Ann Veneman and international NGOs which generally condemned the increasing violence. It might be recalled that despite an ongoing ceasefire at the time, the LTTE had launched some attacks to which Government forces had responded. Strangely there were no comments after the bombing from the co-sponsors of the peace process – the US, UK, EU and Norway. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission consisting of Scandinavian personnel made remarks that by implications seemed to blame the Government but then that was the SLMM which was very much suspect at the time of bias. Bland reportage What brought to mind the Sencholai bombing was not just the virtually offhandish recollection of the Tamil woman referred to earlier but also the coverage given to the protest held recently opposite the British Prime Minister’s Office to commemorate the 50-odd deaths that August day. It would, of course, not provide a complete picture were one to conclude from the attitude of one person that this happening eight years ago was a fast-fading memory in the Tamil community. But more telling proof is the coverage in at least two of the Tamil media. I refer to the coverage in the Tamil Guardian which I believe is published in the UK and TamilNet, a website that is said to reflect strong pro-LTTE views. Admittedly these are two English-language Tamil sites. How some of the Tamil language websites and newspapers covered the protest is not available to me right now. But the Tamil Guardian and TamilNet are two frequently sought-after sources for news and opinion. This is what the TamilNet report of 24 August said: “Tamils from the UK gathered at Downing Street to remember the Chegn-Choalai (Sencholai) massacre…” A day later the Tamil Guardian wrote: “British Tamils demonstrated on Sunday outside No. 10 Downing Street to remember the killing of 53 girls in the Sencholai orphanage…” What is most noticeable is the bland reportage. Compare them with reports of protests held a year or two ago when most began saying hundreds or thousands of protestors demonstrated against various acts of commission or omission by the Sri Lanka Government. Anyone who takes the trouble to delve into previous reports would find no trouble in substantiating this. Let me cite just one example. On 30 June last year TamilNet reporting on the Tamil protests against the presence of the Sri Lanka Cricket team wrote: “Hundreds of Eezham Tamils from the UK gathered near the stadium at Cardiff on Thursday to protest against the presence of the Sri Lanka Cricket team on British soil.” Depleted gatherings Whether hundreds of Tamils did in fact gather is not the point. What these reports often try to do is to inflate the numbers as even Government media do when reporting pro-Government or Government-organised events. But earlier this year when Sri Lanka Cricket team toured England, the numbers of protestors had dwindled considerably and instead of the several hundred expected, only about 40 were present at any one time. In fact the demo at Downing Street organised by the Tamil Co-ordinating Committee was poorly attended despite it being on a Saturday. That is why even the pictures of the protest were taken at an angle which tried to hide the sparseness of the gathering. This was on a weekend and in London whereas the protest against the cricket team last year was on a week day and in distant Cardiff. Some of the protests opposite the Sri Lanka High Commission at Hyde Park Gardens show badly-depleted gatherings. The organisers try to swell the demonstration by having non-Sri Lankans apparently from some NGOs parading opposite, partly to show international concern at happenings in Sri Lanka. Commonwealth Games It is also useful to recall here the attempts made in June-July to whip-up a major demonstration against Sri Lanka at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Whether they really believed that President Rajapaksa was going to attend the opening on 23 July or if it was merely a ruse to bring protestors from different parts of the UK and even from neighbouring countries, or not, some Tamil websites kept reporting the impending visit of the Sri Lanka President. Until almost a day or two before the event, the President’s visit was used as a rallying point. Moreover, the availability of free transport from different cities in the UK was also advertised as an added incentive. Eventually the President did not come and only a minister turned up. But not all the incentives offered to participants could draw more than 200 protestors and they were kept quite a distance away from the games venue anyway. Falling interest Cumulatively all this tells a story. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the various Tamil diaspora organisations – and there must be at least a dozen of them in the UK alone – to enthuse sections of the community to take part in protests. Perhaps the one time they would be able to do so is if President Rajapaksa definitely makes an appearance in the UK, for most of the Tamil venom, particularly so of the pro-LTTE elements and activists, is directed at him. One reason for the falling interest in street or curb-side protests, is that too many Tamil groups, each vying for publicity and influence not only in the community but also in the British political landscape, are organising too many events and commemorations, that fatigue has set in. Moreover the desire, if not a craving, for influence and recognition, has resulted in competition among various UK-based organisations. This is apparent even in the international Tamil diaspora with the Global Tamil Forum, the British Tamil Forum and the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam vying for influence in the global community as well as with foreign governments. To be fair, the leadership of these organisations will continue to protest, lobby with foreign governments and international watchdog groups and attract funding for their organisations. We will also see large crowds participating in the annual Heroes’ Day celebration in the UK and elsewhere, which some cynically view as an outing for the family, particularly if transport is made freely available. These organisations will also continue to castigate the Sri Lanka Government and lobby heavily for international action against Sri Lankan leaders and high-ranking security personnel (making it difficult for those like Major-General Shavendra de Silva to stray outside the protection of the UN). But try to get the average Sri Lankan Tamil who is not a strong-minded activist or one who has suffered heavily back home on to the street and it would be a different story all together. (The writer is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was until recently Deputy High Commissioner in London)