Why you should care
The fighting has stopped, but the long-term struggle for an independent Tamil state on Sri Lanka has only entered a new phase, as the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record comes under scrutiny.
Visvanathan “Rudra” Rudrakumaran appears to be living the immigrant’s dream: law practice, wife, kids, house in Queens. But Rudra’s real dream lies nearly 9,000 miles away, on the other side of the globe. The 57-year-old is a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist striving for an independent Tamil state on the north and east coasts of Sri Lanka.
In 2009, the Sri Lankan government won an extremely bloody military victory over the Tamil Tigers — a militant group that fought for independence in Sri Lanka and had staged terrorist attacks. The Tiger’s defeat was decisive, leaving an impression outside the country that the 26-year-long conflict between the Tigers and the Sinhalese majority-backed government was finished.
By the time Rudra was born in 1957, tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese were bubbling over.
True, the fighting stopped. But it didn’t take long for Tamil exiles to regroup, and elect Rudra as prime minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, this time seeking a nonviolent path to independence.
At 5-foot-7 with a slight build, balding head and wispy beard, Rudra hardly looks the part of a major political leader, much less a terrorist. But he and his colleagues do have an obsession: independence.
After 1983’s Black July attack in Colombo, where at least 1,000 Tamils were killed by Sinhalese mobs, the civil war began.
And with this goal off any realistic near-term agenda, he and other exiles grasp at signs. Such as:
On March 27, the U.N. voted to authorize the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to investigate atrocities committed during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 by both the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the army.
“Navi Pillay’s report, we believe, will find that genocide was committed [by the government],” Rudra says, tucking into his non-veg thali at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Curry Hill. “It will open up doors for accountability and justice.”
As a former top civilian Tiger, Rudra has a problematic legacy.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa branded Rudra and hundreds of other groups and individuals as foreign terrorist organizations after the resolution came out.
As for human rights violations by the government? “There’s not even acknowledgement,” Rudra says. “Let’s forget about remorse.”
He thinks the U.N. report could have a big impact.
“I think it’s the beginning of the end [for the government],” Rudra says dismissively. “Are they going to label Navi Pillay as a terrorist? I wouldn’t be surprised.” (Pillay is a South African of Indian Tamil descent.)
Still, as a former top civilian Tiger, Rudra has a problematic legacy. Over three decades, Tiger suicide bombers killed 273 people, including the Sri Lankan president and the Indian prime minister; summarily executed political rivals and, according to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report, forcibly conscripted child soldiers, a topic that makes Rudra visibly uncomfortable.
“Actually, they raised the age to 16 years old,” Rudra says defensively. ”We don’t condone child soldiers. We don’t.”
Amarnath Amarasingam, a Sri Lanka expert at Toronto’s York University, says Rudra’s shifting ethics are all too common. “Many people in the diaspora are still making sense of the LTTE [Tamil Tiger] legacy,” he says. But he adds, “When these same activists selectively talk about human rights violations, I find it deeply problematic.”
Amarasingham is equally critical of the government, calling their classification of Rudra as a terrorist “nothing more than an attempt to stifle conversation.”
The government assault may have extinguished Tamil military capability, but it did nothing to heal the conflict between two peoples.
By the time Rudra was born in 1957, tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese were bubbling over. After 1983’s Black July attack in the capital Colombo, where at least 1,000 Tamils were killed by rampaging Sinhalese mobs, the civil war began in earnest.
“1983 led a lot of people to think that armed struggle was the only way,” Rudra recalls. Shortly after Black July, Tamils fled the island en masse. Rudra came to the United States in the mid-1980s to study law at Southern Methodist University.
For close to 30 years, Tamil Tiger insurgent leader Velupillai Prabhakaran gave hope to diaspora Tamils. “Prabhakaran was a folk hero,” Rudra recalls in his office near Manhattan’s Herald Square, which still bears the distinctive LTTE flag, a roaring Tiger jumping out of a circle composed of yellow bullets crisscrossed by two rifles.
While Tamils in larger diaspora communities like London and Toronto contributed much of the million-plus dollars a month to the Tigers war machine, Rudra became the U.S. point man.
Raising money got harder after the U.S. branded the Tigers a terrorist group in 1997, harder still after the 9/11 attacks. Though Rudra traveled to Sri Lanka several times to negotiate a peaceful resolution between 2002 and 2006, negotiations went nowhere.
By early 2009, from his home in Queens, Rudra watched the Sri Lankan Army’s final assault on the Tiger stronghold.
The documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields shows the Sri Lankan Army deliberately targeted civilians and executed surrendered Tigers.
Rudra watched in horror. “I never expected May 19th to happen,” he says. “I thought there would be a humanitarian intervention and a cease-fire.”
There wasn’t. The government assault may have extinguished Tamil military capability, but it did nothing to heal the conflict between two peoples.
“Even if we don’t realize Tamil Eelam [independence] in our lifetime, I’m sure [the struggle] will continue,” Rudra says.
On the eve of the five-year anniversary of the end of fighting, May 19th, little has been resolved — for Sri Lanka or Rudra.