Tamil Communities and the Sri Lankan Conflict Edited by Delon Madavan, Gaëlle Dequirez and Eric Meyer

In May 2009, the surrender of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and death of LTTE leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, brought 25 years of civil war in Sri Lanka to an end. With a crushing military victory by a Sinhalese-controlled government and a post-war climate of euphoria to follow, the Tamil question still remains unresolved in the country. The civil population has been severely traumatised by the armed conflict. More than 80 000 of people were killed, hundreds of thousands more have been displaced throughout the island and many codes and values of Tamil societies have been destabilised and overturned. Morever, the prolonged conflict has forced hundreds of  thousands of Tamils to take refuge abroad. Within the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, many have politically mobilised around the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka and through various modes of practice have been able to draw international attention to the Sri Lankan question.

The authors provide key insights to help understand not only the consequences of the protracted intercommunity Sri Lankan conflict, but also the diverse attitudes of Sri Lankan Tamil communities abroad.





by Pr. Eric MEYER, Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, France


Chapter 1. Geography of refugee space choices by Jaffnese Tamils

by Delon MADAVAN, Université de Paris-Sorbonne, ENEC, France

One of the most dramatic social effects of thirty years of conflict is the displacement of the majority of the Tamil population living in the island, looking for refuge spaces. Delon Madavan explores the history and geography of these recent movements and survival strategies implemented by the Tamils from Jaffna since 1980 and until forced removals in 2009, after the military defeat of the Tigers. The Jaffnese belonging to the bilingual middle class (Tamil and English) had a long tradition of mobility, dating from the late nineteenth century in search of jobs, first in the Colombo area, then Malaysia, and they established in communitarian areas, south of Colombo (Wellawatte, Dehiwela). Other Tamil speakers, especially fishermen, migrated from one coast to another and were very numerous in the north of the capital, from Kotahena to Negombo and beyond. But the conflict has introduced new elements into the old patterns: mobility has ceased to be a strategy of success for becoming a strategy of shelter. Based on demographic data checked and corrected (censuses were impacted by the conflict), the contribution of Delon Madavan offers innovative analysis and precise mapping of the mobility of war. It shows how the spontaneous short distance movements inside the Jaffna peninsula gave way to more organized travel between the peninsula and the Wanni region, and between the peninsula and the city of Colombo, exit to the overseas emigration, which is ultimately the only one that offers a safe haven, once traversed material and financial obstacles and hardships of the human journey.

(Article written in French)


Chapter 2. Negotiating History and Attending to the Future : Perceptions among and of Malaiyaha Tamils in  Sri  Lanka,

by Mythri JEGATHESAN, Columbia University, USA

Mythra Jegathesan addresses in a cultural anthropological perspective the question of the construction of identity perceptions through the example of the non-inclusion in the nationalist Tamil movement of the hinterland Tamil community (Malaiyaha) settled on colonial plantations since the 1830s. She says, contrary to popular beliefs, that maintained links with the South Indian homeland, or a difference in the structures of caste (the Vellala high caste, which dominated jaffnese society, is almost absent on plantations, and the untouchables are many more), are not the main causes of this phenomeneon. Ultimately, the logic of exclusion, at work since Independence (1948) against Malaiyaha Tamils, that was going to generalize a decade later against the Jaffnese and Eastern Tamils, preparing the conditions of the separatist conflict, was the effect of a social constructed imaginary under colonial domination and against this dominance. The construction of national identity in cultural terms was implementing processes of exclusion, not inclusion. Self-representation of Malaiyaha Tamils which once favoured a form of withdrawal in the supposedly closed and self-sufficient universe of plantations, now values the ability to succeed in emigration in Colombo or in the Gulf countries – a emigration form completely different from that of Jaffnese refugees. The economic alienation and denial of identity suffered by this community could not find a way out in the separatist movement.


Chapter 3. The Impact of the Sri Lankan Conflict on the Social Status of Tamil Women,

by Dr Zuzana HRDLICKOVA, Charles’ University in Prague, Czech Republic

Zuzana Hrdlickova studies, from field surveys conducted in Sri Lanka in a sociological perspective, the changes caused by the war in Tamil society. In the system of values prevailing in the northern and eastern society of the island, chastity in the broadest sense is crucial. It conditions the family honor and matrimonial strategies: the presence of women in public space must be limited, while it is dominant in the private space. This dichotomy public space / private space has been damaged by war, which forced women, widowed or those separated from their spouses, to assume the social functions once reserved for men. It has caused the displacement of the majority of the population, often bound to live in camps lacking intimacy, and caused widespread rape committed most often by military and policemen. In addition, the decrease in the number of young men caused inflation of the amount of dowry demanded from the families of young girls, that their parents tried to marry as soon as possible. Indeed, many young Tamils were recruited by the Tigers separatists and formed into a collective military system based on self-denial, the exercise of violence in the service of the cause, the cult of the leader and the renunciation of family values. Zuzana Hrdlickova raises the question of the fate of these women after the military defeat of the Tigers in May 2009.


Chapter 4. Mothers, Militants, Martyrs: Tamil Women in Film,

by Dr Erangee Kumarage, Bucks County Community College, USA

Erangee Kumarage analyzes in a more literary perspective the image of Tamil women through the production of three male authors of fiction films from South Asia, which depict female activists caught between their dedication to the cause as presented synonymous with renunciation, and their aspirations to femininity, identified to motherhood in the Indian value system. The schematism specific to the Indian cinematography presents at the outset the two goals as incompatible and carrying a dramatic conclusion. More complex, the discourse of Tamil nationalists proclaims the coherence of the struggle of women, whose empowerment and the full realization of themselves would be through the national struggle. Opposing these representations to the image of Tamil the militant given by documentary films shot by Western women in close contact with the Tamil diaspora, the author raises the question of the authenticity of the liberation of women questioned by Sri Lankan feminists, who argue that the militants are handled by a purely male leadership which has not hesitated to eliminate dissent.


Chapter 5. Visibility and political mobilisation : when the diaspora is synonymous with recognition,

by Dr Anthony GOREAU-PONCEAUD, Université de Bordeaux 4, ADES, France

Anthony Goreau highlights the visibility of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the public space in Paris. He questions the relationship between the Tamils from Pondicherry, usually installed in the Paris region before the 1980s, and the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora arrived since the 1980s, more visible, more strongly asserting its identity through its political positions and cultural celebrations, and thereby reviving the sense of identity of Tamils settled earlier. After recalling the very different itineraries of Sri Lankan and Pondicherrians migrants, he shows how is built a concept of “Tamilness” bringing them together, usually around cultural practices related to Hinduism: the festival of Ganesh, analysed in detail, is its most visible expression. He also analyzes how to build a community space, through the formation of a “ethnic” commercial space in the district of La Chapelle in Paris and La Courneuve northern suburb.

(Article written in French)


Chapter 6. The transnational political mobilisations of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora,

by DEQUIREZ Gaëlle, Université de Lille 2, CERAPS, France

The study of Gaelle Dequirez measures the historical depth of the political mobilization of the Tamil diaspora, highlighted by demonstrations of April-May 2009 during the crushing of the LTTE rebellion by the Sri Lankan Army, but anchored for two decades on a transnational scale. This phenomenon of “long-distance nationalism” is a new and rich object of study for political sociology. Gaelle Dequirez studies precisely the actors of this mobilization at the transnational level: youth and charities organizations, Tamil language media, local associations federated at national level and national committees headed by an international political secretariat, offshoot of the LTTE. They were first aimed at the Tamil community but sought to mobilize public opinion in Western countries to put pressure on states and international organizations, with little success so far. It remains to be seen what will happen to these transnational networks after the military defeat of the Tigers, but the author concludes that the mobilization of the community in the world is not about to fade.

(Article written in French)


Chapter 7. Coping with further absences: Maaveerar Naal ceremonies in the post-war age,

by Natali Cristiana, University of Milano Bicocca, Italy

Cristiana Natali analyzes from an anthropological perspective ceremonies organized by the Tamil diaspora in Italy to mark the martyr Heroes feast (Maaveerar Naal), and what happened to it in the context of LTTE military defeat, and tighter control of the Tamil community by the Italian and more generally European authorities. The ceremony aiming at honouring the martyrs in the absence of body was organized along the lines in cemeteries in northern Sri Lanka. It was marked by the retransmission of the ritual speech of the leader Prabhakaran. But in the diaspora, besides this, it gave considerable space to bharata natyam, a  classical South Indian dance, rehabilitated by the the Tamil bourgeoisie at the end of the colonial period as the epitome of the Tamil cultural heritage, and reinterpreted by the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists to serve as a vehicle for the representation of the fighting and suffering of war. Since May 2009, the vacuum created by the disappearance of Prabhakaran, long denied by his supporters, and the absence of simultaneous ceremonies in Sri Lanka, has accentuated the funeral character of the celebration. But other projects have emerged, such as undertaking a work of memory and imagination leading to the publication of a book containing poems, drawings and prose compositions, for use by younger generations.


Chapter 8. From the difficulty to speak to the construction of life stories,

by MANTOVAN Giacomo, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, CEAIS, France

Giacomo Mantovan studies the production of life stories, or rather texts of political asylum demand of Tamil migrants living in France. His research is based on observation of the practices of intermediaries (interpreters, lawyers, doctors) between asylum seekers and the French authorities (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons and Appeals Board or OFPRA). It shows the gap between cultural conceptions of the Tamils, for whom the subject is necessarily collective and OFPRA procedures requesting individual stories. It highlights the difficulties faced by the principal informant to “make talk” his clients, to recount the abuses they have suffered, and persuade them they have a story that is worth telling, political choices that can be put forward, instead of merely producing standard prefabricated stories supposed to ensure the success of the application. According to the author – this idea has been hotly debated during the conference – the OFPRA officers by their stereotypical requests condition stories of applicants while distrusting their word, producing a negative image of them.

(Article written in French)


Citer ce billet
DM (2012, 18 juin). Tamil Communities and the Sri Lankan Conflict Edited by Delon Madavan, Gaëlle Dequirez and Eric Meyer. SRI LANKA & DIASPORAS. Consulté le 28 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u7mf

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