On May 18 2023, Eelam Tamils came together to commemorate Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day, also referred to as Mullivaikal Remembrance Day, marking the end of the war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the North and East of Sri Lanka – the traditional homeland claimed by Tamils, stretching between Amparai and Jaffna – various events were held in schools, temples, churches and other public places. Kanchi, the simple rice porridge provided by the LTTE that gave meagre sustenance to those surrounded by state forces in the final months of fighting, was symbolically handed out to passers-by in coconut shells. In many places, these commemorations were met with harassment by the police and military forces. In Trincomalee, a court banned members of civil society from organising any events. All of this fits a familiar pattern: the destruction of Tamil memorials to those who died in the war, the arrests of organisers and harassment of participants at remembrance events, have continued year after year since the end of the war in 2009, and are intended to stamp out Tamil commemoration by increasing the risks of participation.
The most prominent gathering every year happens in Mullivaikkal, the small hamlet on the coast of Mullaitivu that has become eponymous with the massacre that occurred here in 2009. Every year, attendees light flames and lay flowers at a memorial shrine located on a sandy clearing amid the thorny shrubs that dot the local landscape, a stone’s throw from the beach. Amid the wails of the grieving, defiant songs are played over tinny loudspeakers, mourning the dead and invoking Tamil Eelam – the proposed state that the LTTE fought for. All of this is done under the watchful eye of the security forces. Plain-clothes informants are known to mingle in the crowds.
It is important to understand this about the Sri Lankan state’s hostility to Tamil nationalism: it’s not Tamil identity on its own that the state opposes. Tamils are targeted because Eelam Tamil nationalist mobilisation has been the single most potent challenge to Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. By this logic, Tamils must continuously be treated as a threat, as their political identity is incompatible with the Sinhala ethnocracy the state has been building since independence. But despite the often brutal repression of Tamils and their political aspirations, the process of making an Eelam Tamil nation, started by the political leader Chelvanayagam’s Federal Party in the early 1950s and later institutionalised by the LTTE, has continued, even beyond the end of the war. The success of the continued normalisation of Tamil nationalism among the Eelam Tamil masses becomes most apparent during public rallies and events on 18 May and on 27 November – the day of Maaveerar Naal, when fallen LTTE cadres are remembered. The Sri Lankan state’s reflexive repression of these events is a symptom of its refusal to deal meaningfully with the nationalist aspirations that sustain them – an approach that now, like in the past, singularly fails to deal with the heart of the problem.
It is important to understand this about the Sri Lankan state’s hostility to Tamil nationalism: it’s not Tamil identity on its own that the state opposes.
The events on 18 May and other key dates in most locations are marked by a display of unambiguously Tamil nationalist symbols popularised by the LTTE. The consistent manner of commemoration shows how closely aligned to the LTTE and Tamil nationalism these rituals remain, despite the destruction of the LTTE organisation and the organisational capacity of the movement. The locations of Tamil war cemeteries, bulldozed by the state when it reclaimed territory after the war’s end, have become pilgrimage sites. The LTTE’s customs and traditions, such as the use of the flame lily (Gloriosa superba), announced by the movement as the national flower of Tamil Eelam, have become part and parcel of the Tamil national psyche, shaping invocation of the Tamil nation in the everyday lives of the population.
An emaciated version of the usual 18 May commemorations was held in Colombo this year for the second year running, stripped of the politics intrinsic to the events in the North and East. While mourning victims, the Colombo event did not reference their national identity. The red-and-yellow banners and other Tamil nationalist symbols ubiquitous at virtually all events elsewhere were absent, although the distribution of kanchi – a new ritual introduced by Tamil nationalists in recent years – was appropriated. Even then, the event was disrupted by Sinhala nationalists. This resulted in widespread coverage in the English-language media in the country’s South, giving the Colombo event more prominence in Sri Lankan social-media spaces than the larger events in the North and East.
To mark 18 May more as a general memorial day, as was done in Colombo, rather than a day of Tamil memorialisation as those in the former war zones of the North and East mark it, is an act of co-option by those who want to imagine Tamils as victims of the crossfire between two equally bad actors rather than as political actors with agency themselves. The thousands attending the event in Mullivaikkal, organised by local community groups, largely came from those communities and families most affected during the last phase of the war. Surely, for a truly progressive commemoration in solidarity, it is their lead that should be followed.
The consistent manner of commemoration shows how closely aligned to the LTTE and Tamil nationalism these rituals remain, despite the destruction of the LTTE organisation and the organisational capacity of the movement.
A predictable response to this argument is that not all Tamils are Tamil nationalists and not every Tamil is comfortable with the nationalist nature of these commemorations. This is then used to undercut the potency of the events and the sentiments that underlie them. But to introduce the narrative that a certain group is “divided” whenever its politics are discussed is a common rhetorical device deployed to flatten the politics of marginalised groups, denying them their prerogative of standing as a nation and holding them to standards rarely applied to groups more acceptable in dominant discourse. This systematically denies marginalised people the complexity that dominant polities are assumed to possess. Ignoring the remarkable national cohesion demonstrated year-on-year by Eelam Tamils, the claim of intra-Tamil disagreement over commemorations participates in a discursive tendency to deny Eelam Tamils the nuance afforded to other communities. “Divided” or “united” are relational descriptors – they depend on and vary in meaning with context. This discursive framing can undermine the legitimacy of the Tamil resistance to Sinhala nationalism and discount the overwhelming cohesion the Tamil people present at key moments, including both Maaveerar Naal and Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.
Many as one
What’s important in the Eelam Tamil context is that, in the absence of the LTTE, the Tamil nation is most viscerally manifest during these events. Here, a heterogenous Tamil people come together and make common cause, conducting rituals and practices that reify the Tamil nation for them. Crucially, the observance of these events is explicitly linked to the struggle against Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. This does not mean that there are no divisions or disagreements among Tamils. But this diversity does not negate Tamil national cohesion. As in any mature polity, it is in fact evidence of the plurality of the Tamil nation. This is also a success of Tamil nationalism. No other -ism has come close to Tamil nationalism in the ability to suture the sometimes deep cleavages within the Eelam Tamil people, all in service of a larger project. Focusing on these cleavages to undermine Tamil nationalism essentially purports that Tamil people are undeserving of a national identity.
A predictable response to this argument is that not all Tamils are Tamil nationalists and not every Tamil is comfortable with the nationalist nature of these commemorations.
Divisions of politics, class, caste and region are posited as being more consequential when it comes to Tamils than they are for other movements, peoples or nation states. National cohesion alongside diversity of opinion is taken for granted when we speak about accepted national entities in a Western-centric framework. For example, surveys indicate that Americans are divided on their military, but these divisions are generally not perceived as a challenge to the idea of American nationhood. Even divisions within more comparable national entities that have not formed full-fledged nation states, such as the Palestinians, are understood correctly within the larger framework of their national identity.
The rhetorical device of a “divided” people removes agency from Tamils generally, but especially from underprivileged Tamils who fought and continue to fight for the Tamil cause. When critics of the Tamil nationalist project describe underprivileged Tamils as unwitting cannon fodder exploited by the LTTE, their politicisation, participation in and contribution to the Tamil Eelam project is invalidated. The war undoubtedly caused huge amounts of pain and suffering, and, as in all wars, disadvantaged and marginalised people bore a disproportionate burden. And yet a large number of those very same people continue to choose to commemorate the LTTE and dead civilians with the same rituals conducted when the LTTE was around. It is this that makes Maaveerar Naal the largest, as well as the most culturally and politically significant, Eelam Tamil event every year.
This is not to say there are no disagreements, criticisms, or even condemnation of the LTTE’s methods – but this diversity of opinion reflects the complex relationship that any polity has with an armed actor that also acted as a governing entity.
To this day, there is no serious opposition or alternative to Tamil nationalist politics among Eelam Tamils. Tamil nationalist parties continue to garner most of the votes in the North and East. Even Tamil politicians who serve the Sinhala ethnocracy, who often target marginalised groups in their electoral campaigns, fall back onto Tamil nationalist frameworks in order to legitimise their politics. Tamil newspapers and media are overwhelmingly Tamil nationalist and publish pro-LTTE sentiment or, at the very least, are respectful of Tamil nationalist principles. Meanwhile, there are no non-nationalist memorials or events that remotely rival the significance and attendance of events like Maaveerar Naal in the socio-cultural milieu of Eelam Tamils. That does not mean those opposed to Tamil nationalist politics or seeking alternatives do not exist – it just means they have, for decades now, remained on the periphery, largely inconsequential in mainstream Tamil political life even as they are given disproportionate attention particularly by the English-language media and intelligentsia.
Eelam Tamils have remained remarkably consistent, foregrounding the principles of nationhood, homeland, the right to self-rule and the need for international justice for genocide. The concretisation of these Tamil nationalist demands has been so successful that even anti-LTTE Tamil politicians have in many ways adopted these as common sense. This is not to say there are no disagreements, criticisms, or even condemnation of the LTTE’s methods – but this diversity of opinion reflects the complex relationship that any polity has with an armed actor that also acted as a governing entity. To posit this as the people being “divided” on the legacy of the movement is a discursive act that undermines the Tamil national cohesion on regular display. Instead of denying and trying to suppress it, Tamil national identity must be engaged with as the potent political force that it remains. After all, the decision to embark on an armed struggle for a separate state came precisely because the Sri Lankan state and the international community did not take Tamil nationalist demands seriously.
When critics of the Tamil nationalist project describe underprivileged Tamils as unwitting cannon fodder exploited by the LTTE, their politicisation, participation in and contribution to the Tamil Eelam project is invalidated.
The Sri Lankan state drove itself into economic collapse in its insistence on building an ethnocratic state, preferring to fight a long, costly war rather than address Tamil grievances. Fourteen years after the war’s end, it continues to deploy most of its hugely bloated military in the Tamil-dominated region, and Tamil political expression remains heavily surveilled. As shown by the recent arrests of the Tamil National People’s Front MPs Gajen Ponnambalam and Selvarajah Kajendren, as well as numerous of their colleagues, the state still prefers to deal with the Tamil question using force.
The persistence and expansion of Tamil nationalist practices in the face of both a repressive state and a hostile elite is remarkable and suggests that Tamil nationalism will remain a significant political force. The bulwark that Tamil nationalism provides against the Sri Lankan state will therefore continue to be the most potent challenge to Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy. However, this also means that Sri Lanka will continue to face instability for as long as the Sinhala Buddhist state-building project sees Tamil nationalism as an intrinsic threat that needs to be eradicated. A solution requires confronting Sinhala Buddhist ethnocracy, including by serious engagement with Tamil nationalism both locally and internationally. Tamils will continue to remain a crucial element in finding a sustainable peace on the island. Without that, Sri Lanka is doomed to repeat its past.