At the southern tip of the Subcontinent, a Tamil homeland stretches to reach another, in the North and East of Sri Lanka. In this text, Anushani Alagarajah argues that a 2018 Tamil women-led protest to take back the land of these shallow waters holds much more revolutionary potential than the recent massive protests that changed one Sinhala regime for another in Colombo.
In April 2018, on one extremely hot day, in a coastal village called Iranaimatha Nagar, located in the Northern Province, the villagers, predominantly Tamil women, were preparing for a protest. A few days prior to their action, an activist friend and I visited the women who were staying in a small makeshift hut under a tree at the Iranaimatha Church. Five to six women, one of them almost 70 years old, patiently explained the history of the small island called Iranaitheevu, where they used to live. They described the boat massacre perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Navy in a neighboring island in 1985, and the violence that continued to be committed by the military that forced them into exile since 1992, and the pain of not being able to live on their own land which was just a twenty-minute boat ride away. They told us of their loss of livelihood and their determination to “take their lands back at any cost.” The women earned more money when they lived on the island than the men by doing multiple jobs, such as sorting fish, making dry fish, catching prawns, mussels, and sea cucumbers, as well as fixing damaged fishing nets, whereas the men mostly went to fish. The women had grown tired of being jobless and of relying on men to bring home money since they were forced to live on the mainland twenty-five years ago. Going back to their homes and their island did not mean only reclaiming their land, but also economic stability and a better quality of life.
On the day that marked one year of their protest to release the land from military control, most of the islanders—men and women of all ages, priests, lawyers, activists, and journalists—gathered at the Iranaimatha Church. Everyone there was given instructions to walk towards the ocean and sit in the temporary shacks that were set up by the shore—a protest format quite common across the North and the East. Tamil families of the disappeared, who are looking for their loved ones taken away by the Sri Lankan security forces, surrendered to the Sri Lankan security forces or unaccounted for during and after the war, started their continuous protest in January 2017. For days and nights, they stayed in small makeshift shacks by the roadside in several districts, prompting other groups, especially land release protesters, to follow the same format. From the church, a few hundred people, carrying placards, banners, and some even their children on their arms and backs, marched towards the ocean chanting “Emathu nilam emakku vendum” (“We want our land!”) and “Ranuvame veliyeru” (“Get out, military!”). As the crowd approached the protest shacks, most of the women marched straight towards the ocean and got into the boats that had been prepared to set sail with white flags attached.
Protests of any kind in the Tamil homeland attract a large military/police/intelligence presence, intimidation, and harassment before, during, and after the protest. Even though several groups are brave enough to continue protesting, many are concerned and worried about the actions of the state security apparatus and the ensuing consequences it could have on their safety. We had, therefore, assumed that their plan to reclaim their land by occupying the island was a bluff until we were at the beach looking at the women getting on the boats, instructing their men to get the engines started. Despite the police’s firm orders that they should not go to the island without orders, around forty boats set sail towards the island, one with a few priests on board leading the convoy. The women on the boat we got on talked about how years after the end of the war they still rely on white flags and priests to prevent the military from shooting at them—although even during the war that continued for over two decades until 2009 between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, this did not guarantee protection.
Upon their arrival, the protesters were overcome with happiness, grief for what was lost, and hope for what awaited them as they ran on the damaged bridge to get to the church on the island that stood tall, but severely damaged. One of the men caught a big sea cucumber, showed it proudly to everyone and said: “This is worth a lot of money!” As they ran, a woman shouted: “Let’s collect mussels at our old spot after this!” The church bells rang loudly as the women wailed and started rolling their rosaries while the priest prepared to conduct a short mass. The military on the island and more state officials tried to convince the people to go back to the mainland and await the official release of their lands. But the community knew that if they left, their next return would not be for years, if at all. At the end of the negotiation, it was decided that some families would stay on the island and slowly rebuild, while the rest would go back to the mainland and will visit as they like. Since the military had damaged most of the houses, toilets, and their decades-old rainwater-collecting tanks, living conditions were not conducive to large numbers of villagers settling. For the next year or so, despite the islanders’ demands to establish infrastructure and basic services, the government did not provide enough support to this community. Help was sent as different kinds of donations from the diaspora and well-wishers in the country, but state support was largely missing.
I consider this to be one of the most successful and well-thought-out protests by the Tamil people. It had a crucial political message: the Sri Lankan state is not to be trusted and the peaceful engagements or negotiations with the state in the quest for justice do not really get anywhere. The state refuses to listen to peaceful initiatives, but listens and responds to force. From the very beginning, the community knew that the military would not leave their island and that the state institutions supposed to ensure land rights would not concede to a Tamil group’s demands. They knew that the longer they waited the further they got from their dream of going back to their own lands. Following the example of the military forcefully occupying their own lands, taking the lands back from the military forcefully has proven to be the best strategy for the Tamil people. They did not have any substantial support from a donor, political party, or the international community. In fact, this protest was not even covered in the media, not even in the local Tamil media.
However, this protest was supported by other groups that are simultaneously protesting in other parts of the North and the East. The families of the forcibly disappeared (FoD) in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have been protesting every day since the beginning of 2017. They started the protests pressing for the truth: a clear demand for information on the fate of their loved ones, and accountability from the state. The protesters are composed of and led predominantly by women, who are mostly elderly mothers from eight districts. Most of the leaders and the protesters have been continuously subjected to severe intimidation, surveillance, inquiry, harassment, and physical attacks by the military apparatus of the Sri Lankan state for the last five years. Over 150 protesting family members of the disappeared have passed away since the beginning of their protests, but that has not stopped the rest.
For some of the key leaders, harassment from intelligence services is so normalized that they get anxious when they do not get calls from them. The psychological toll it took was so severe that some women decided to step back to ensure the safety of their remaining family members. Despite the constant local reporting about these protests, harassment, and the plight of the families of the forcibly disappeared, no diplomatic mission publicly expressed support or acknowledged that this is the longest protest in the history of Sri Lanka.
In March 2022, several small protests broke out in Colombo, which then turned into a mass protest, famously called the “Aragalaya” (“the struggle” in Sinhala). Mostly triggered by the food, fuel, and medicine shortages as well as long power cuts and inflation, people in the capital took to the streets, demanding their right to access basic needs and services. This protest gained massive support from most people in the country, especially the Sinhalese diaspora, international organizations, and several diplomatic missions. It was also covered widely from the first day across all global media platforms. As days went by and as more people started to gather in the hopes of ousting the then President Gotabaya Rajapakse, social media platforms were bombarded by news about the Aragalaya and the hashtag #gotagohome. International media and observers started flocking to Sri Lanka to cover the protests. Diplomatic missions in and out of Sri Lanka, INGOs, and the international community in general were quite quick to register their support, providing an extra layer of protection to peaceful protesters. However, the Tamil community in the North and the East, particularly victim/survivor communities, stayed far from the protests, despite their moral support for dissent and their conviction that this reckoning against the oppressive state is long overdue in the Southern part of the country.
Many of the mothers of the disappeared I spoke with at the early stages of the Aragalaya clearly said that they did not expect support or believe that the massive protests would ever include their demands. Yet they expressed disappointment that even after years of protesting, they were still not seen by people outside of the Tamil homeland. They were clear in their view that the Aragalaya was a protest demanding basic needs and normalcy in a country that was falling apart, but not a struggle for justice, truth, and accountability. The Aragalaya wanted Gotabaya to go home; the Tamil community wanted Gotabaya to be brought to justice. The Aragalaya wanted a regime change; the Tamil community wanted a complete system change and a lasting political solution to decades of oppression.
We know that regimes can change, but their commitment to upholding Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism will not change. When the root of all kinds of crises has been the very nature of immutable Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, what good can a regime change do? The current president Ranil Wickremesinghe, a career politician for over thirty years—notorious among the Tamil community as “the fox” for his political chicanery—was backed by Sri Lankan liberals and the international community to fill the presidential role, adored as he was by diplomats for his ability to court Western governments with liberal overtures. However, the moment he took office, he wasted no time proving his loyalty to the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist agenda, declaring that he would protect war criminals, hailed as “war heroes” in the South. He also went to great lengths to mercilessly suppress the protests in the capital by using force and other tactics well known to Tamils, while the international community, which once backed him, watched in shock.
Even though the protests in Colombo came to an end while the political, economic, and human rights crises continue as before, it is clearer to the protesting communities in the North and the East that the Aragalaya was never for any meaningful change with a resolute political solution, as they had predicted in the early stages of the protests. We spoke about the self-determination struggle of the Kashmiris, as well as about the pro-jallikattu protests, and anti-Modi demonstrations in Tamil Nadu. Our conversations made us realize how we relate to the fights against the powerful who steal our lives, against systems of impunity that punish only us, against neat narratives sold by states to the world. We realized that the media economy is premised solely upon tokens of popular protests, as witnessed in the capital of Sri Lanka, and that the communities on the margins can only depend on each other to mobilize and strategize for their quest for justice. No state and no majoritarian group will ever come to our aid. Perhaps one day, we could build our solidarities beyond the deep water that surrounds us. Perhaps one day, we wouldn’t have to wait in order to be heard. As the Sri Lankan state continues to close all the ways that the Tamil people can connect with their sisters and brothers elsewhere, we continue to demand that the borders of the ocean and the skies break open, we continue to demand that we unite economically and politically with our Tamil neighbors, we continue to demand our homeland—liberated and unrestrained. Until then, we protest. ■