Tamils, LTTE and arrests

OCTOBER 24 — I called him Vino’s quiet cousin. He kept to himself, the Sri Lankan Tamil Brahmin. Probably 12, I’m guessing, and the war had just kicked off proper back in Ceylon. So, he lived with his Cheras aunt to escape the flames of war. It was the 1980s.

Today, with the elevated interest in Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) he comes to mind. I wonder if he set up a bar in London after his time in Malaysia. Maybe close to Tooting, where the rapper M.I.A. spent her teenage years, also a Sri Lankan war refugee.

With the holidays this weekend, my thoughts are with the 12 men arrested — including elected representatives [1] — and their upset families.

However, Malaysia can only consider its own security concerns — and prioritise it. Yet, it must do so through its courts, and not through the utilisation of excessive detention powers in the guise of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma).

To be a nation of laws, and not rely on backdoor means to expedite at the expense of civil rights.

The column would like to touch on the war and the people in which these present hostilities emanate from, and their relevance to Malaysia. Also, other distractions.

Civil war

Sri Lanka is miniscule compared to India, in size and population. [2]

Its 21 million as opposed to the sub-continent republic’s 1.3 billion.

Sri Lanka’s Tamils, a fifth of the island and long-term residents, had grievances with the 70 per cent Sinhalese majority. Relations continued to sour in the 1970s and led to a full-scale war in the 1980s between the LTTE and the government.

As expected, resultant refugees fled across the tiny Palk Straits to India, or more precisely Tamil Nadu (Land of the Tamils) state.

The refugee crisis and big-brother think led India’s ill-conceived peace-keeping force to the southern Island in 1987 — to only give up in 1991. Way before the end, they were fighting the LTTE.

Which explains why the LTTE killed Congress President Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. As prime minister he sent the peacekeepers, and now was on the way back to power with the promise to get tough in Sri Lanka. The LTTE suicide bomber put paid to his ambitions.

It took 13 years and the 2004 Tsunami to do the same to the LTTE. [3]

The path to its annihilation was set. In May 2009, Supreme Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed. The war was effectively over.

Tamils in Malaya

The estates and city councils’ manpower were South Indians, overwhelmingly Tamil. Class dynamics cast them separate from the Sri Lankans — Tamil and Sinhalese — brought in as clerks and professionals.

The labourers massively outnumbered the English-speaking clerks.

So, while typical Tamils in Sri Lanka have no sense of superiority over Tamils in India’s Tamil Nadu, the same sensibilities do not prevail in Malaysia.

Because here, the majority of Tamils from India were less-educated low-caste labourers and the Tamils from Sri Lanka spoke English before arrival.

Many Sri Lankan Tamils call themselves Jaffnese — refers to the Tamil city in Sri Lanka’s north and former Sri Lanka stronghold — and insist on their own cultural identity.

A co-operative and their own exclusive temples. They’d openly regard the larger Tamil Malaysian population as beneath them.

Things are changing, of course, and the distinctions probably negligible in the next generation.

All these would suggest low sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tigers or LTTE back then, but things are rarely straightforward.

The minority game

It’s romantic.

My former colleague in the Sepang Council left school at 12, struggles to read in English and is a mechanic who runs his business from his home in Dengkil — a landed SOHO.

Which is a step up from generations of rubber tappers — which is just as well since the plantations have become concrete buildings.

Commander Prabhakaran’s life-size poster welcomes patrons to his shop. The garlanded warrior in his resplendent military uniform.

Support for the LTTE is support for the underdog, and the ethnicity does factor heavily. The message: Minority Tamils fight back.

People like him find courage from the LTTE, and it is both understandable but also disconcerting when mirrored to Malaysia.

Sympathies

Dr P. Ramasamy won’t remember my two postgraduate classes under him in UKM. [4]

His key argument that since the war has ended, the commemoration events are no further threat appears premature.

The Irish Republican Army relied heavily on Irish American support to continue the fight in Ireland, and later only in Northern Ireland.

Even after it was named a terrorist group. But while the Irish are a minority, they wouldn’t consider themselves an oppressed minority.

Indian Malaysians by large are not in good shape.

With most gangs populated with them, and economic destitution rampant within the community, the police have grounds to monitor the situation.

They obviously should be urging the politicians to fix the alienation and build a more inclusive Malaysia which leaves no one behind.

Terror has no faith

PDRM has a thankless job dealing with terror threats in a borderless world.

They’re dealt the politics of race and religion. 

The LTTE remains on the terror-list of many countries, and its history is violent. When their Malaysian sympathisers are upset by vitriolic preacher Zakir Naik and seek his arrest elsewhere, it’s not surprising Zakir’s supporters turn and accuse the other side of the same affectation.

The police can’t turn away, even if the organisation has been dormant for a decade.

Arrest Muslim Malaysians for links to Islamic State, Abu Sayaf, Pattani independence, Indonesian militants and Syiah groups, and when there are strong claims from opposition politicians about LTTE fans here, to instead apply leniency?

It’s bad optics and public policy, maybe more so in security, where the appearance of probity is as valuable as the action taken. To bolster inscrutability through equilibrium of reactions.

Light at the end of the tunnel

As highlighted at the start, Malaysia can only examine the LTTE  factor from its own interests rather than of global geopolitics.

The concern is about keeping our borders safe. It’s difficult to just gloss over LTTE acts over the decades because they were perpetrated in a different country against a different army in the due course of a civil war.

Nor is it presumptuous to consider the dangers of an organisation set up to construct a separate state in another country, not when there are similarities.

The extent of these affectations would be revealed at the end of this episode. And for us to collectively move on if the fear is unfounded.

In this festive season, perhaps its time to draw a close to our own fascination with the Sri Lanka conflict beyond it being an unfortunate period for all involved and limit its potency to political science classes.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

[1] Assemblymen P. Gunasekaren from Negeri Sembilan and G. Saminathan from Melaka.

[2] 3.287 million km² is India’s size. Tamil Nadu comprises 130,060 km², about the double of Sri Lanka’s 65,610 km². There are only 3.2 million Tamils in Sri Lanka, as compared to 68 million in Tamil Nadu. So it frustrates when Westerners think most Tamils are from Sri Lanka.

[3] More than 35,000 people died on Boxing Day 2004 in much of the Tamil side of Sri Lanka. The devastation sucked the fight out of the people and perhaps presented the long term outcome of permanent war in a single vision.

[4] Which was also my time to find meaning in Bangi. I found many other things, though. I duly dropped out and left for another university.

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