Text by YaliniDream
This Step On The Path: Growing Liberation (http://yalinidream.wordpress.com/) JUNE 5, 2014
My family is ethnically Tamil and are from the war affected North & East of Sri Lanka. Like many people in our communities our family faced discrimination by the majoritarian policies of the post-colonial government of Sri Lanka that came in power. My grandfather and other elders during my parents time supported Satyagraha or nonviolent demonstrations that were tear gassed by the government. My mother and many other relatives have been amongst those tear gassed. These responses by the Sri Lankan government narrowed space for nonviolent movements and garnered support amongst Tamils for militant resistance from my parents’ generation. My father as a teenager was amongst those involved with militant youth movements.
In 1983 my mother’s sister, husband and my baby cousin barely escaped a horrific state sanctioned massacre of Tamil people that often marks the beginning of Sri Lanka’s Civil War. Though those responsible for the killings of Tamil people were of the ethnic majority–Singhalese, my Aunty always complicated the story by reminding me that it was also an older Singhalese uncle who hid our family in chicken coops and helped them survive. She believes that the divine can work through anyone.
The ’83 massacre and the bloody military offensives that followed made many Tamil people feel that a militant separatist movement was our only means of defense. One militant group –the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or more commonly known as the Tigers) rose to becoming the sole representation of the Tamil people by ruthlessly eliminating all other militant groups. The message was clear– Not standing in line with the Tigers was punishable by death.
Growing up in the Tamil diaspora in the 80′s & 90′s was complicated. Many in our communities had been traumatized by the actions of the Sri Lankan government. Almost everyone knew someone they loved who had died at the hands of the army and felt they had no choice but to support the Tigers. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the west was responsible for contributing to the funding of the Tigers. Tamil nationalism gripped the diaspora– we were only to speak of the atrocities committed by the government– the crimes of the Tigers were silenced. The Tamil Tigers tracked teenagers raped by the Sri Lankan Army and Indian Peace Keeping Forces into suicide bombers– martyrs for the cause. They evicted thousands of our Muslim neighbors. And the Tamil diaspora continued to collect money for the Tigers.
As I came into political consciousness and claimed my artistic voice in the late 90′s, I had to contend with this context. Would I remain silent about the Tigers and only perform stories about how my family was oppressed by the state? What was my responsibility to my fellow Tamils who suffered under the gun of the State and the Rebels? Could I or my family withstand the backlash if I publicly stand against the Tigers? Would my communities sabotage my voice and dismiss me as a traitor? My family begged me not to get involved with Sri Lankan politics. I was in America. I was safe.
Yet when I graduated university in 2000, the US experienced the dot com boom– a new generation of Tamil and Singhalese Americans my age in IT, business and finance were becoming the new funders of armed actors on the ground while my cousins ducked shells and evacuated their homes. I became close friends and collaborators with a Sri Lankan Tamil American cellist & teacher, Varuni Tiruchelvam who’s uncle –a well know human rights activist, Neelan Tiruchelvam was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Varuni challenged me to step beyond what Tamil nationalism conditioned me to think and do. As I quietly expressed my critiques of the Tigers, more and more Tamil people who had lost loved ones to the Tigers came into my life.
I was nervous of the commitment growing within. I was feeling called to speak to the many truths that impact our peoples. But we had been taught by our community that it was irresponsible and dangerous. The last thing I wanted to do is betray my community.
Yet as I began to get more deeply involve with progressive movements and learn of other liberation movements throughout history and the world, I came to hunger a higher standard of liberation for our peoples. I began to understand my silence as the true betrayal of our peoples. I had to join other dissenting voices and demand a liberation grown out of my grandparents’ dreams.
The challenge became how. What was my role as someone born and raised in outside lands?
In the US it was far less likely that one would be assassinated for speaking out against the Tigers or the Government of Sri Lanka– though the possibility hung in Tamil American minds. With this privilege comes responsibility. A responsibility to amplify the silenced messages, carve space for a fuller discourse. People with a politic alternative to the dominant nationalisms that gripped our communities were very careful. They warned me to be practical. “Once you come out publicly against the Tigers or State, you can’t go back. You don’t want to lose access to community.” So Varuni & I took advantage of being positioned on the margins. The power of being a young non-threatening woman, no one pays attention to. The power of being an underground performer. The power of being different.
Through the impermanence of performance we accessed young people of our generation undetected. We pried open space at the edges, carved space for the most vulnerable to heal & speak, and challenged the most privileged to question where they sent their money.
I performed and facilitated dialogue in living rooms, women’s shelters, convents, refugee camps, girls’ homes, hostels, political meetings, classrooms for two, five, twenty, sixty people at a time. Pushing the edges and opening space wherever I could. I have spent years organizing rallies & press conferences. I spoke in front of over hundred thousand people on Feb 15th 2003 against the US War on Terror. I’ve performed at countless protests, events, meetings, conferences, and universities. I’ve organized direct actions and have been arrested for civil disobedience. However, the practice of opening space through performance for dialogue in places sealed by militarism both in Sri Lanka and the diaspora has been one of my most powerful practices of radical nonviolence. This is how I grow the legacy of my grandparents’ dreams.
The beauty of this journey has been knowing that we are not the only ones—dreaming, questioning, and working for a different way of being. We are not the only ones who believe a deeper vision of liberation is possible. We have been growing for sometime.