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the Oppressed and Imagined Homeland: Discourses of Violence as a way of
Homogenizing Sri Lankan Tamil Diasporic Identity in Canada.
One of the most
vivid memories that has stayed with me throughout my academic life was a
televised broadcast of a protest that had occurred in Ottawa. The World Tamil
Movement had organized a protest against the Canadian Government’s support of
the Government of Sri Lanka. The protest consisted of a march and parade of
floats, which portrayed acts of violence committed against the Tamil population
by the Sri Lankan National Army. One float especially stuck out in my mind.
The float depicted
a pregnant Tamil woman being attacked by an army officer. The officer was using
the butt of his gun to hit the woman’s rounded stomach. To this day, I
can remember the movement of her hands, the flow of gun’s advancement as it
swooped closer to her stomach, the beauty and lushness of Sri Lanka portrayed on that
float and the uniform of the officer. These images played over and over in my
head, reforming and reconstructing themselves into a narration of my roots. The
feelings invoked by the float were yet again brought to the surface when I
listened to my uncle tell me that my cousin, whom I had known since he was two
years old, might not have been born due to an similar occurrence that happened
to my aunt when she was pregnant. My aunt had been nine months pregnant when
she was forced to run from a mob of Singhalese that were attacking
Tamils. My uncle recounted feats that she had to do in order to survive;
feats that she did with a catch of fear wedged in her throat that she and the
baby might not survive, or worse she might actually survive at the sacrifice of
her child’s life.
My aunt’s story and my memories of the float blended together to create
an understanding of what my life would have been like in Sri Lanka and the
reality of the lives of the Tamil people who still live in Sri Lanka. These
recounted events affected the way that I understood the narration of my
identity as a Tamil; I comprehended the depth of the human soul for surviving
and admired the will of the Liberation Tigers’ of Tamil Eelam for ensuring the
continued existence of the Tamil spirit. By internalizating of these
narratives, I believed that I was a Sri Lankan Tamil, with a distinct identity
and a proud history of survival, even though I had lived in Canada, most of my life.
The story that began this paper seamlessly illustrates the power of
narrative to connect a person to an idea, in this case, persecution of the
Tamil people by the Singhalese government. The purpose of this essay is to
examine the way that discourses of violence can create a homogenous diasporic
cultural identity in the Tamil Canadian diasporic context. The following
discussion will show the way that Sri Lankan Tamil culture is maintained in Canada through the
narration of sites of oppression. To fully engage in this topic, I first
examine the Tamil diaspora in Canada. Following this is
an analysis of the relationship between the diasporic community and the use of
discourses of violence; explored by looking at two examples, the Ottawa protests of 2001
and the movie “In the Name of Buddha”.
THE TAMIL DIASPORA
Due to ethnic civil war, Sri Lankan Tamil people are
scattered around the globe and there are currently 250,000 Tamil people living
in Canada (Tamil Canadian 2004) and more internationally. The Tamil community
in Canada is
“interested in promoting cultural identity” through its clubs and organizations
(RYETSA 2004). Culture enables diasporic populations to create a shared social life
and maintain emotional ties (Jasper 1998: 399) that will be understood by all
members of their community. The creation of a shared identity is an
unpredictable process as the experience of people changes over time. Thus, the
experiences and changes are moderated by discourses that allow one to encounter
a formulaic version of culture. The community uses organizations, such as the
WTM (World Tamil Movement), university associations (Tamil Students
Association-TSA) and so on to mediate knowledge (Koselleck 2002:52) reinforcing
common understandings of Tamil culture.
Culture has six basic components including values, symbolic objects,
roles, occasions, stories and persona (Jasper 1998: 416). The uses of
stories (as factual narratives) connect people to an idealized cultural
identity. In the Sri Lankan Tamil context, these stories unite people in the
promotion of a singular identity. Thus, modern media,
such as movies, newspaper and so on, also work to connect diasporic people
together (Tambiah 2000:172) and produces a Pan Sri Lankan Tamil identity which
becomes an important way of uniting people (Tamil Canadian 2004). Discursive
networks connect the Tamil people in Canada to an
international network of Tamils articulating a singular goal of Tamil freedom.
Canada is an
important site for Sri Lankan Tamils for the simple reason that Canada is
home to the largest number of Sri Lankan diasporic Tamils (Tamil Canadian
2004). The nature of this paper is also to show how discourses of violence
reinforce notions of cultural identity, and to examine this topic in any other
location than Canada would
weaken the position of the paper, as my experiences, as a Tamil Canadian, are
the only experiences that I can proficiently write about. I desired to situate
myself as a Tamil Canadian before I move on to an exploration of the re-enacted
events that define Tamil cultural identity.
The World Tamil Movement (WTM) protest movement occurred in Ottawa in 2001 and was a
stand against Canadian government’s support of GoSL. The protest
began as a stand against the actions of Sri Lankan Army officers who had gang
raped two young Sri Lankan Tamil girls. The girls’ family had been unable to
fight back against the oppression of their rights by the Sri Lankan government.
The question of the girls’ rights and freedoms resounded deeply with the Tamil
diasporic community, who decided to organize a march on Capital Hill, in Ottawa, to demand the
recognition of Tamil people’s fundamental right to freedom. The main chant that
was cried throughout the protest was the call for freedom, connecting the
security and freedom of Tamils globally with the independence of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The World Tamil
Movement, as well as all Ontario University Tamil Students’ Associations
organized the event. In addition to a march, there was a parade of floats where
scenes of Sri Lankan Army abuse were re-created for the spectator. The
recreation of these scenes of abuse in them became the articulation of a story
about the will of the Tamil people to survive. These scenes called for people
to remember the oppression being suffered by Tamils in Sri Lanka. The re-enacted
narrative functioned at the level of memory to establish connections between
the articulated homeland and the diasporic imaginary. The collective memory of
the group worked as a framework to guide individual recollections of events and
prioritize the significance of those events (Boym 1990:54). The fashioned
narrative is framed within the collective memory of the group keeps the
community united and legitimizes Tamil cultural identity (and justifies support
for the LTTE).
The story, told through the protest, draws out the hidden fears of
people and shows them that they are not alone in their fear, in their
understanding of the world, or in their identity as Tamils. The narrative
instead works to highlight the solidarity that exists in the people at the
protest (Jasper 1998: 416; 420). However, solidarity can only exist with a
common story or discourse of cultural identity (Hall cited in Szersynski
2002:63), which is embodied in the discourses of violence that shape the
experiences of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. People in the protest felt
justified and empowered because they are participating in the creation of a
narrative that is emphasising the “wrongness” of the current Sri Lankan
“IN THE NAME OF
I would like to begin this section by looking at the Kantian ideal that
all knowledge begins through experiences (Koselleck 2002:47). Discourses of
violence attempts to bring the experience of violence to people living outside
of the violence in Northern Sri Lanka. The use of film
as a tool is crucial to the creation of experiences and thus the construction
of knowledge. In this section, the use of the film In the Name of Buddha
as a discourse of violence will be examined.
In the Name of Buddha is the story of Siva, a boy who claims
refugee status in England and his
experiences of life in Sri Lanka (In the Name
of Buddha 2002). Siva narrates his story to a refugee claimant officer in
the United Kingdom. The use of the
narrator as the major character in the film imbues the film with another layer
of meaning (Whissel 2002:229) that involves the audience further into the
reality of the narrated experience. Siva’s voice becomes the voice of all those
silenced by the war and the government. The movie traces the violent acts that
have occurred in his life and lead to the death of his girlfriend and family.
What is unique about Siva’s story is that it is not seen as being unique at all
but a testimony of the suffering of the people of Sri Lanka; Siva becomes the
archetype image (Izod 2001:48; In the Name of Buddha 2002: Synopsis) of
Tamil suffering. The spectator becomes the original witness as he/she is placed
at the scene of the ‘crime’ (Whissel 2002:227).The power of In the Name of
Buddha lies not in the film itself but in the retelling of the horror that
is captured in the making of this movie; making the movie a strong and powerful
force (Cline 2003) that captures the
feeling of the people in Sri Lanka, as well as the diaspora community around
the world. These visual narratives of pain and destruction connects the Tamil
diaspora to Sri Lanka, as it reasserts their connection to the past as where
violence had been an aspect of everyday life (In the Name of Buddha (b)
2002). The violent scenes that are experienced in the film, In the Name of
Buddha, become the focal point through which the reality of the Tamil
people is constituted (Axel 2002: 411).
The story told in the film creates violence as a reality that is a
tangible and visual item that can be experienced through the authority of
filmic narrative. The audience comes into contact with the projected reality
and incorporates the reality into their notions of the homeland and the
conceptions of history. In the Name of Buddha was created with the
intention of telling a story regarding the suffering of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. The goal of the
film was to touch the lives and minds of the viewing audience with the power of
the camera. The producers wanted to touch the audience by “creating images that
will haunt the viewers” (In the Name of Buddha 2002: The Makers). By
explicitly articulating the desires of the producers, the movie becomes more
than a film about an abstract group of people, but a testimonial to the
suffering and violations of a persecuted people. As the audience is
taught to see the suffering of the Tamil people through the eyes of the camera,
the producers- Shanmughathas, George- and Touchriver (the director), there is
an aspiration, on the part of the Tamil audience, to connect to this fragmented
narrative of their homeland and history that is being offered to them. Thus the
audience becomes connected to ideological truths of the film’s images (Whissel
2002:237). The audience also becomes emotionally invested in the emotive claims
of the film, which extends the validity of the film (Szerskynski 2002:55) as a
testament of the ‘true’ lived experience.
The impetus for
this topic came when I started looking at the way that my identity is
reinforced through my association with the oppression of Tamil people in the
nation of Sri Lanka. How can I
claim to feel any association with the Tamil people in Sri Lanka when many miles
and oceans separate us? The answer lies in the way that the Sri Lankan Tamil
cultural identity is maintained in diaspora through the use of discourses.
Discourses are a
tool used to reflect the imagined experience of the diasporic community, as
well as the people in the homeland. Thereby allowing us to have knowledge
of an oppression that we may never understand or see in our protected
environment. These narratives of home represent a reality that allows for the
diaspora to understand the persecution of all Sri Lankan Tamils. Discourses of
violence create a feeling of indebtedness in the diaspora, to the people of Sri Lanka, and also connect
the diaspora to a singular understanding of the Tamil experience. Narrations of
violence create a feeling of cultural cohesiveness (Boyer 1990:4). By
maintaining this link, the Sri Lankan Tamil identity is able to survive and
prosper as a uniting force for Sri Lankan Tamils, worldwide. Thus, enabling
them to become a politically powerful diaspora that is always lobbying for the
emancipation of Tamils in Sri Lanka (Wilson 2000:123).
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I refer to this event as both a protest and a
movement as the actual event was a protest against the actions of the Sri
Lankan Army but it was also a movement as Tamil people from across Canada and the world were involved in the
staging of this event. The event was a symbolic movement to highlight the
oppression of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Throughout the paper, the terms
movement and protest will be used interchangeably to refer to the Ottawa protest.
Siva is one of the most
powerful Hindu gods and is one of the Gods of the Hindu holy trinity-from,
which all other Gods and Goddess emerged. The god Siva is the ruler of all Gods
and Goddess and is feared, as he is “Siva, the destroyer”.
I must note that Cline is critical of the
success of the movie as a decently produced film, but he does acknowledge the
power of the film in reconstructing the atmosphere of the Sri Lankan situation.