Prabhakaran may be dead and the civil war in Sri Lanka over, but among Tamil expats in the UK, the battle rages on
Sri Lankan Tamils, who have sought refuge in Britain over the last decade and more, have taken the baton from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and launched hunger strikes, sit-ins blocking central London roads, climbed the roof of the Houses of Parliament, and even thrown themselves into the Thames River to draw attention to their cause.
“Our struggle has now shifted to the hands of the diaspora,” says Suren Surendiran of the British Tamil Forum (BTF), an umbrella organisation which claims to be the main voice for ‘advancing the Tamil cause through democratic means’. They have picked up placards and microphones and are using all possible propaganda tools to create awareness about the plight of Tamils back in Sri Lanka.
“I am pleased with how the protests have gone. They are an opportunity to make the British public aware of our concerns and despair. Previously people thought of Sri Lanka as a holiday destination or a place for cricket. Now they are aware of criminal activities, including state-sponsored terrorism, that go on there. The protests we have been carrying out have at last opened the conscience of the Western world. The mainstream media has begun to expose the scale of the tragedy suffered by our people,” says Surendiran.
The BTF has promised a summer of ‘flash’ demonstrations at various locations in London, and rapidly arranged within 24 hours through a network using websites and text messaging.
Over the coming months, protestors intend to descend on ‘hot list’ targets that include embassies of Russia and Israel—both have sold arms to Sri Lanka—China and Japan, which provided them with economic support, and of course the Indian embassy on the Strand. India House has already faced the ire of British Tamils when a demonstration outside its gates ended with the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru vandalised.
“Tamil protestors will not go back to their homes just because Sri Lanka has declared the war over. People will continue protesting, and countries such as India, China and Russia have much to answer for,” says Surendiran.
The BTF has already organised a 73-day-long protest in Parliament Square. The protest was one of the longest seen in the UK in such a prominent place. The number of protesters varied over the 73 days from a handful to more than 15,000.
Policing the Parliament Square protest alone has cost the British taxpayer in excess of £10 million. Violence and burglary soared in London because police officers were redirected to deal with the Tamil protests, said a report by Superintendent David Hartshorn, who heads the Metropolitan Police’s public order branch. Cases of serious violence increased by nearly 30 per cent and cases of burglary rose by 7.3 per cent.
The report showed how a squad usually used to tackle violent crimes and break-ins in London’s worst crime boroughs was redeployed to deal with the protests in Parliament Square. In addition, operations by a task force which deals with knife crime were cancelled between 13 May and 27 May, together with the central command and control of efforts to tackle London-wide incidents of serious youth and gang violence. Also, an extra 616 officers a day were taken from the London boroughs and assigned to policing Parliament Square.
Harassed, Westminster Council went so far as to look at potential new legislation that would grant police powers to move protestors on from the Square and make it illegal for them to camp there overnight.
Realising their Parliament Square protest had begun to gain negative publicity, the protestors ended the demonstration. Within a couple of days, they held the first of their flash demos on 20 June. In the blink of an eye, over 100,000 expatriate Tamils marched through central London to express their outrage at international inaction over ‘the Lankan government’s massacre of tens of thousands of Tamils’.
The protestors formed a mile-long column chanting slogans and handing out leaflets. At the front of the column were mobile street theatres depicting Sri Lanka’s militarised concentration camps. Other protestors dressed in military uniform threateningly wielded batons to symbolise the Sri Lankan government’s brutality.
The protestors gathered by Blackfriars Bridge, where a stage was set up, decorated in Tamil colours and a banner demanding ‘Free Tamils from Nazi style concentration camps! Prosecute the war criminals of the Sri Lankan State!’ The rally was addressed by British political personalities, including veteran Tony Benn, Simon Hughes MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP, as well as Tamil and British human rights and social justice activists.
This was a show of Tamil power. “The Sri Lankan government has merely made a territorial gain at the moment. There are LTTE supporters all over the place and all over the world. Unless we have a solution for the Tamil people, this problem will continue,” says Vasuki Muruhathas, a lawyer in London.
London is bracing itself for long hot summer—Tamil style!