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Sri Lanka war unites European Tamils in protest

Published on 22/04/2009

Paris -- Anger at a fierce Sri Lankan army offensive in their homeland has brought thousands of Tamils into the streets of Paris and shone a light on their well-organised and successful European diaspora.

In Sri Lanka, government forces believe they are on the verge of victory after more than three decades of war against the separatist fighters battling to carve out an independent Tamil state on the Sinhalese-majority island.

But while the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are on the back foot at home, tens of thousands of Tamils have come out in the streets of far-off European cities to demand an international response to the offensive.

On Monday, protests in the so-called "Little Jaffna" district of northern Paris — an immigrant district nicknamed after the main town in the Tamil area of Sri Lanka — turned violent for the first time.

Young Tamils, some recent arrivals and some French-born sons and daughters of immigrants, pelted police with stones and bottles and smashed up two buses. Around 200 rioters were arrested.

The protests have been inflamed by unconfirmed reports of large-scale civilian casualties as government forces close in on remaining pockets of resistance — reports that are hard to verify but widely believed.

"Today, I’m very, very upset by all these deaths," said Ranjith Thurai, a 28-year-old engineer, who turned out to protest after his day at work.

"All Tamils are Tigers," said Sathias Suresh, a 22-year-old information technology worker, aligning the demonstrators with an armed group blacklisted by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organisation.

Since the start of the latest Sri Lankan government offensive, ethnic Tamil communities across Europe — particularly in France, Britain, Switzerland and Norway — have staged large and growing protests.

Those in France have been well organised, especially given the relatively small size of the population. On Saturday, a rally in Paris brought out between 11,000 and 20,000 from a Tamil community of between 75,000 and 100,000.

"Everything is well organised, well led and well policed by the separatist guerrillas, the LTTE," said Olivier Guillard, head of Asian research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

According to Guillard, the Tigers exert a controlling influence over the political life of the 1.5-million-strong world Tamil diaspora.

"Everything is ruled with a rod of iron,” he said. “Every foreign-based family has to pay a revolutionary tax on a monthly or half-yearly basis, indexed on family income and the number of people in the household."

The protest organisers in Paris, who insist their community organisations have no link to the banned LTTE, dispute Guillard’s analysis.

"Some of us support Tamil resistance, others not," explained Thadcha Thadahajini, one of the leaders behind the Tamil Youth Organisation (OJT), which has helped promote large-scale peaceful protests in Paris. "Our goal is to express anger and sadness and attract the attention of the international community.”

On the streets, not all of the protesters endorse armed resistance, but very few regard the Tigers as terrorists.

While some brandish the warlike banners of the LTTE, many express the frustration of an immigrant community that has found its French hosts entirely indifferent to and ignorant of the troubles in Sri Lanka.

"People of France, react!" demanded one placard. "Sarkozy, help us, help us," implored another. In Paris on April 6, four young protesters began a hunger strike to demand a ceasefire, surrounded by supporters.

As he began his fast, 26-year-old Shanmugarajah Navaneethan complained: "We are sick of seeing our friends and families murdered in Sri Lanka."

Herve Rouach/AFP/Expatica