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Manivillie Kanagasabapathy (Carleton University, Canada)

Articulating the Oppressed and Imagined Homeland: Discourses of Violence as a way of Homogenizing Sri Lankan Tamil Diasporic Identity in Canada.

 

INTRODUCTION

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 AND CANADA

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.

 

OTTAWA “PROTEST MOVEMENT”

The World Tamil Movement (WTM) protest movement occurred in Ottawa in 2001 and was a stand against Canadian government’s support of GoSL[1]. 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 political system.

 

“IN THE NAME OF BUDDHA”

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[2], 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)[3] 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.

 

CONCLUSIONS

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).

 

References

 

Axel, Brain Keith

2002   “The Diasporic Imaginary.” Public Culture 14(2):411-428.

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/public_culture/v014/14.2axel.html

 

Boyer, Pascal

1990   Tradition as Truth and Communication: a Cognitive Description of Traditional Discourse.”  New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Boym, Svetlana

2001   The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books

 

Carleton University Tamil Student’s Association (CUTSA).

2004   CUTSA homepage. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004.

www.cutsa.carleton.ca.

 

Cline, Rich

2003   “In the Name of Buddha review.”  Film Threat.com Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004. www.filmthreat.com/noah/reviews.

 

Gardiner, John M

2001   “Episodic Memory and Autonoetic Consciousness: A First-Person Approach.” Phil. Trans Royal Society of London 35 (6): 1351-1361.

 

Government of Sri Lanka

2003   The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka:  The Official Website for the Government of Sri Lanka. Electronic document visited Oct- Dec 2003. http://www.priu.gov.lk/index.html

 

In the Name of Buddha

2002   In the Name of Buddha Home Page. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004. www.inthenameofbuddha.com.

 

“In the Name of Buddha (b)”: Movie on Sri Lanka War Premiers at Oslo Film Festival

2002   Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004. http://forumhub.com/expr/a5479.12.02.34html.

 

Jasper, James M

1998   “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions in and Around Social Movements.” Sociological Forum 13(3):397-429.

 

Koselleck, Reinhart

2002   The Practice of Conceptual History: Turning History; Spacing Concepts. California Stanford University Press.

 

McMaster University Tamil Student’s Association (MacTSA)

2004   MacTSA homepage. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004.

www.mactsa.org

 

Ryerson University Tamil Student’s Association (RYETSA).

2004   RYETSA homepage. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004.

http://stw.reyson.ca/~tsa/

 

Shanmughathas K and Sai George Productions

2002   In the name of Buddha. Da’sai films international.

 

Szersynski, Bronislaw

2002   “Ecological Rites: Ritual Action in Environmental Protests Events.” Theory, Culture and Society 19(3) 51-69.

 

Tambiah, Stanley J

2000   “Transnational Movement’s, Diaspora and Multiple Modernities.” Daedalus 129(1):163-194.

 

Tamil Canadian- Tamil’s True Voice.

2004   Tamil Canadian- Tamil’s True Voice newsroom. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004. www.news.tamilcanadian.com

 

Western University Tamil Student’s Association (WTSA).

2004   WTSA homepage. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004. http://www.westerntamils.com.

 

Whissel, Kristen

2002   “Placing the Spectator on the scene of History: The Battle Re-enactment at the Turn of the Century, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to the Early Cinema.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 22(3):225-243.

 

Wilson, Jeyaratnam A

2000   Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in 19th and 20th Century. Vancouver: University of British Colombia Press.

 

University of Ottawa Tamil Student’s Union (TSU) homepage.

2004   University of Ottawa TSU homepage. Electronic document visited Feb- March 2004. http://www.tsuottawa.com.

 

University of Windsor Tamil Student’s Association (UWTSA) homepage.

2004  UWTSA homepage. Electronic document visited Feb- March http://venus.uwindsor.ca/courses/clubs/tsa/index/htm

 


[1] 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.

[2] 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”.

[3] 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.