Politics After a Ceasefire: Suffering, Protest and Belonging in Sri Lanka's Tamil Diaspora
Kitana Siv Ananda
This dissertation is a multi-sited ethnographic study of the cultural formations of moral and political community among Tamils displaced and dispersed by three decades of war and political violence in Sri Lanka. Drawing on twenty months of field research among Tamils living in Toronto, Canada and Tamil Nadu, India, I inquire into the histories, discourses, and practices of diasporic activism at the end of war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Tamils abroad were mobilized to protest the war, culminating in months of spectacular mass demonstrations in metropolitan cities around the world. Participant-observation among activists and their families in diaspora neighborhoods and refugee camps, and their public events and actions, as well as semi-structured interviews, media analysis and archival work, reveal how “diaspora” has become a capacious site of political becoming for the identification and mobilization of Tamils within, across, and beyond-nation states and their borders.
Part One of this study considers how migration and militancy have historically transformed Tamil society, giving rise to a diasporic politics with competing ethical obligations for Tamils living outside Sri Lanka. Chapters One and Two describe and analyze how distinct trajectories of migration and settlement led to diverse forms of social and political action among diaspora Tamils during Sri Lanka’s 2002 ceasefire and peace process. Chapter Three turns to the history and historiography of Sri Lanka to contrast narratives about the emergence of Tamil politics, nationalism and militancy with diaspora narratives developed through life history interviews with activists. Taken together, these chapters provide a layered social and historical context for the ethnography of Tamil diaspora life and activism.
Part Two of the dissertation ethnographically explores how and why Tamils in Canada and India protested the recent war, soliciting their states, national and transnational publics, and each other to “take immediate action” on behalf of suffering civilians. Chapter Four examines diaspora community formation and activism in Toronto, a city with the largest population of Sri Lankan Tamils outside Asia, in the wake of Canada’s ban on the LTTE. Chapter Five turns to refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, India, to discuss how camp life shaped refugee politics and activism, while Chapter Six follows the narratives of two migrants waiting and preparing to migrate from India to the West. Chapter Seven examines how Tamil activists in Toronto and Tamil Nadu publicly invoked, represented, and performed suffering to mobilize action against the war. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the modes of Tamil migration, asylum-seeking, and diaspora activism that emerged in response to the war’s end and its aftermaths.
In their actions of protest and dissent, I argue that Tamils from Sri Lanka create new modes of belonging and citizenship out of transnational lives forged from wartime migration and resettlement in multicultural and pluralist states. A political subject of “Tamil diaspora” has thus emerged, and continues to shape Sri Lanka’s post-war futures. This ethnography contributes to scholarly debates on violence, subjectivity and agency; the nation-state and citizenship; and the politics of human rights and humanitarianism at the intersections of diaspora, refugee and South Asian studies.