Recently Pundit ran a brief article by Roshan Mendis calling on the New Zealand Government to adjudge the Tamil Tigers a “terrorist entity”, and to stop funding Tamil education groups in New Zealand, on the grounds they may have political aims in line with Tamil independence. Specifically, Ms/Mr Mendis says:
Migrants to New Zealand must not be allowed to abuse the freedoms we all enjoy in this beautiful country to foment violence and hatred in their countries of origin.
I don’t agree. Tamil groups in New Zealand teach the Tamil language to young Tamil New Zealanders, run sports programmes and social events, and act as social networks for the Tamil communities active in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
And yes, Tamil people have views on the conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority Sri Lankan government and the Tamil minority which has been raging since 1983. Tamil people argue they have been systematically discriminated against in Sri Lanka since a Sinhalese-led independence movement broke free from the colonial shackles of Britain in 1948 and subsequently introduced one official language, Sinhalese, requiring all Tamils employed in the public sector to resign.
I visited Sri Lanka in 2002, and one thing that remains burned in my memory is the slum-like conditions Tamil people living in Colombo endure. Tin roofs, shanty towns. Next to palatial mansions of Sinhalese.
When I tried to talk to Sinhalese Sri Lankans about this when I was there, they could not even see a problem. In fact, when I asked one man why the area we were driving through was so filthy and run-down, he just shrugged and said “Tamils live here.”
The conflict is the reason Sri Lankan Tamils have left home, and listening to Tamil women tell stories of systematic rape by government soldiers in Tamil communities since the conflict began, it’s pretty clear that this conflict has been brutal in both directions. Amnesty International calls what has happened since 1983 “soaring human rights abuse.”
I covered Tamil protests in Aotearoa back in March while still a baby journo. The people I interviewed didn’t want to be on the streets because they were afraid their families at home would be targetted for retribution. But they were terrified about the conflict escalating, and what was happening to their families in government-run camps for displaced Tamils.
The week after publication, the Hutt News received denials from the Sri Lankan embassy of any wrongdoing towards Tamil civilians. Like Ms/Mr Mendis, their letter focussed only on the Tamil Tigers as an organisation that must be stopped.
Yet months later, conservative media outlets like Sky News tell stories of women being raped and people “disappearing” in the government-run camps.
More than 400,000 people were displaced in the recent conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil people remain in what Amnesty International is now calling “detention camps.”
People cannot leave, the camps are unsanitary, there is violence taking place, international aid agencies are being denied access, and the Times in the UK recently estimated 1,400 people were dying every week in one camp alone.
Couple that with Sri Lankan councils which jail journalists, locals being asked to snitch on criticisms of government policy towards Tamils, deportations of foreign journalists who show rape in the detention camps, and earlier murders of Sri Lankan journalists who were critical of military action, and we have, in my opinion, genocide taking place and serious attempts to hide it.
Far from changing the New Zealand government’s approach to Sri Lanka in favour of condemning Tamil organisations active here, I’d argue the opposite.
I think we should be supporting the UN Secretary General in calling for an inquiry into what is happening in Sri Lanka. I think we should be supporting the international human rights organisations who call for the camps to be opened up to international aid agencies and the media, to protect displaced Tamils from human rights abuses. I think we should be supporting Tamil people’s right to live in a Sri Lanka which does not discriminate against them – including supporting the establishment of a separate state if that is what most Tamils want.
And I support Tamil people here asking the New Zealand men’s cricket team not to play cricket in Sri Lanka when such serious violations of human rights are taking place. Ignoring this is as serious as ignoring apartheid in South Africa.
We should not be touring – despite the fact Sri Lankan Tamil spin genius Muttiah Muralitharan remains one of my favourite cricketers of all time.