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Shadow diaspora

By Sharika Thiranagama

For many northern and eastern Sri Lankan Tamils, Colombo is a transient city, a place where Tamils wait to find a way out of the country. But some have been waiting for over 10 years. They are the unacknowledged part of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, the shadow diaspora who cannot leave Sri Lanka but whose dreams of migrating to a better life remain as potent as those of the people who do manage to leave

"In life one gets little possessions and builds up a home and shelter. Can one take these when you are asked to leave with only two bags? Can one take tables, or chairs," Murugan asked me. He gestured at the room they were living in. Thangamma sat on the ramshackle bed. On the floor was a small cooking stove and neatly packed around it were the various ingredients and spices with which she was cooking our lunch. Under the bed, Murugan showed me suitcases and boxes packed with important papers that he had brought with him -- documents of every kind, from those they needed to show in Colombo to school certificates and letters of recommendation from people that Murugan was trying to use in his ongoing attempts to migrate abroad.

I have known Murugan and Thangamma on and off for most of my life; when I was born it was a younger Murugan who, as he reminds me, ran with my birth time to the astrologer for a horoscope that I have never had read. They were both from the Jaffna peninsula part of the war zone. As Murugan says, none of us knew then that what was in store for us, and Tamils in general, was constant displacement. A displacement that is accompanied by a more insidious sense of insecurity; the Tamils I interviewed in Colombo lived under constant suspicion and fear. Colombo, as I was told more than once, was a city of minorities, not a city for minorities. The Colombo I knew was filled with Sri Lankan Tamils from the north and east, most of whom had come to the city in the hope of finding a way out of the country. Many of them remained stuck there for years, unable to leave. They are the unacknowledged part of the much studied Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora; the shadow diaspora, those who cannot leave Sri Lanka but whose dreams of migrating to a better life remain as potent as those of the people who manage to leave.

The Sri Lankan civil war now spans over two decades. Fought between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil militant organisation, the LTTE, it has completely transformed the lives of ordinary people living in the primary battlefields of the north and east, the Tamil and Muslim majority regions that are the basis of separatist claims for an ethnic Tamil homeland. The result has been massive internal and external displacement as well as a complete re-ordering of the physical and social landscape.

Writings on migration and displacement, as Ranabir Samaddar (1999) points out, often play the numbers game, stressing facts and figures but failing to take these as creating new sociabilities. When one begins research into mass and individual movement in Sri Lanka, one cannot avoid the moral, experiential and emotional dilemmas of displacement that have created new orientations towards the world. Sriskandarajah (2004) estimates that nearly one in two Sri Lankan Tamils has been displaced more than once (1). Displacement, as I found out when I began researching the Tamils, has become a way of inhabiting the world. It has become both a reality that families and individuals undergo and, at the same time, provides the dominant metaphor and story of change. The people I interviewed described the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka and how their personal fortunes and collective futures had become entangled in it.

I had gone to meet Murugan and Thangamma in a lodge in Colombo. They were renting a room and were just one of the many Tamil families and individuals crammed together in the lodge's small rooms and shared bathrooms. Colombo was then in the first flush of the 2002 ceasefire and potential peace process which subsequently collapsed and went the way of the two that preceded it (in 1990 and 1994).

In the intense years of war, between 1995 and 2002, Tamils fleeing to Colombo and its satellite suburbs moved into countless 'lodges' -- large, cramped buildings that promised temporary accommodation on a monthly basis. These lodges often existed just about on the right side of the law, and stories abounded about unscrupulous landlords who had links with the police or the underworld and were rumoured to exploit female tenants. For those Tamils who had no family or established connections in Colombo, the lodges were the only places they could move into. But they were dangerous and insecure. At the hint of trouble, the Sri Lankan army and police would raid them.

There was an odd assortment of people in the lodge that Murugan and Thangamma lived in, from the young woman who had travelled to Colombo to wait for an arranged overseas marriage with a Tamil boy, to elderly people waiting for visas.

I accompanied Thangamma and a group of elderly diabetic women on their afternoon walk up and down the beachfront. Murugan brought them to the lodge after his numerous attempts to continue life in the northern Jaffna peninsula failed. A mechanic, he was unable to earn a living in the north, trapped between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army. Working for either put him in danger, yet refusing work too was not an option. Finally, in 1995, he and Thangamma left Jaffna when the Sri Lankan army advanced on Jaffna town and the LTTE forced the 450,000 people living in Jaffna at the time to leave the city, an event now referred to as 'the Exodus'.

Murugan recalled how they had both walked alongside the thousands streaming out of their Jaffna homes. They had both, at times, slept under the trees and drunk rainwater collected in an umbrella. There was nothing shocking about Murugan's story; I had heard similar stories from many of the Jaffna Tamils who had left during the Exodus.

Murugan and Thangamma finally arrived in Colombo, the most ethnically plural city in Sri Lanka, its international airport being the only route out of the country.

Being Tamil in Colombo

For many northern and eastern Sri Lankan Tamils, Colombo was a transient city, a marginal waiting place. Most of the people I interviewed in Colombo had come here in order to find a way out of the country; some had been waiting for over 10 years. Colombo was a place where finding a future as a Tamil was possible, but it was filled with everyday exclusions.

Colombo has historically been a city of minorities, especially Tamil-speaking minorities including recent Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) migrants from the north and east, SLT who claimed a distant heritage in the north and east, Tamils from Colombo itself, Malaiyaha/hill-country Tamils (descendents of Indian Tamil plantation labourers brought to Sri Lanka in the 19th century by the British), recent Tamil migrants from India, and (Tamil-speaking) Sri Lankan Muslims, Malays, Borah Muslims, etc. With regard to the northeast Tamils, Colombo was a classic destination for migrants from the Jaffna peninsula throughout the 20th century. Don Arachchige notes that one of the most consistent migration routes to Colombo in the 20th century was from Jaffna, chiefly for employment (1994:30). The 1977 and especially 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo, which left around 2,000-3,000 people dead and displaced 100,000 Tamils of all origin (half the city's Tamil population [Tambiah]), dealt a major blow to Colombo's reputation of being a city for minorities. Although Colombo continued to be the most ethnically diverse region in Sri Lanka, it became dangerous to openly display the Tamil identity in the city.

This fear builds on Colombo's past and present. When I moved to Colombo to conduct research, my grandparents insisted that all post to them be addressed to me and my Sinhalese name, as in 1983, rioters identified Tamils through postal registers. On one outing to buy food, my grandfather pointed to the railway tracks and told me that this was where, in 1983, mobs had swarmed down to kill Tamils in the area. Though he was not in Colombo in 1983, this seemingly innocuous crossing had been marked by a history of violence forgotten by most Sinhalese in the area.

But all this was Colombo past. Colombo present, from the 1990s onwards, is even more difficult for Tamils, especially those from the north and east. Tamils from the north and east were subject to special regulations. They had to register their address at the local police station and carry a police certificate at all times; they were liable to be arrested if found to have a different address. Sinhalese were encouraged to report on 'strange Tamils' in their area. The Tamils I interviewed in Colombo told me of the years in which they were afraid to wear the pottu or speak Tamil on the streets. Speaking Tamil openly was dangerous and invited attention; in the predominantly Tamil areas of Colombo, like the suburb of Wellawatte, people did not congregate for long in the busy market (2).

The police often picked up young men and women on the streets on suspicion of being terrorists. While these regulations were lifted in 2002 under the ceasefire, the subsequent failure of the ceasefire has meant that the regulations, checkpoints and nightly raids on temporary Tamil houses have resumed with renewed vigour under the current Rajapaksa regime. Any LTTE bombing incident in Colombo during 2007 and 2008 occasioned visits by the police and resulted in arbitrary arrests of Tamils in Colombo. One high-profile case saw hundreds of Tamils summarily evicted from Colombo by the Sri Lankan police on June 7, 2007, for "security reasons". This action was directed precisely at those Tamils living in temporary accommodation and lodges. Three-hundred-and-seventy-six Tamils were suddenly rushed out of their homes and put on seven buses out of the city towards "their homes" in the war zone. They managed to alert others when one Tamil man called the private Sinhala radio station Sirasa FM, whilst on the bus, and spoke on air about what was happening (3). As a consequence of an immediate petition to stop the evictions filed by the group Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ordered a halt to the evictions on June 8.

Although the forced evictions may have halted, harassment and the possibility of arrest remain a constant threat for all Tamils in Colombo. A situation that is heightened by continued attacks on Colombo by the LTTE, in the full knowledge that the Tamils will be subjected to further privations.

The Tamils of Colombo speak of the LTTE in hushed tones, for while the State police and army pose one kind of threat, undercover LTTE operatives who are part of the Tamil population in Colombo inform on any 'traitorous' talk or behaviour. Secrecy and anxiety crisscross conversations and movements across the city.

Minority citizens

This shadow diaspora with all its longings and hopes for a place it can belong to, whether in Sri Lanka or abroad, rarely receives much attention. The Sri Lankan State has failed to implement a package that would offer minorities citizenship rights wherever they live in the country. People living in 'lodges', and not 'camps', are not recorded as internally displaced. Nor are they registered as residents of Colombo. They are therefore forced to live extremely transient and insecure lives.

Viewing minority rights only as a fight for a homeland, thereby linking it to the LTTE's struggle against the State, will not resolve their predicament or the predicament of all minority citizens in Sri Lanka who cannot 'return' to any putative homeland. As a solution to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict the LTTE only offers a brutal and bloody war for territory, one in which it persecutes and offers up for ransom those it claims to defend.

Can Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka and its most ethnically diverse area, become not merely a place of minorities but also for minorities? Any investigation of the immense displacement of Sri Lankan Tamils always has to return to the unresolved issues surrounding full and meaningful citizenship for Sri Lanka's minority citizens, wherever and however they live in Sri Lanka.


  2. When the ceasefire allowed such brief congress, I was told repeatedly what a relief it was to be able to speak in public spaces without fear. Now such spaces are closed again


  1. Samaddar, R. 1999. Marginal Nation -- Trans-border Migration from Bangladesh to India. New Delhi: Sage Publications
  2. Sriskandarajah, D 11/2004. Sri Lanka research guide. Forced Migration Online.
  3. Tambiah, S. 1996. Leveling Crowds. Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press

(Dr Sharika Thiranagama is currently a visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and a research consultant for the Open University (UK) and Amsterdam School for Social Research (NL). She has carried out long-term anthropological fieldwork with internally and externally displaced Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims in northwestern Sri Lanka (Puttalam) and Colombo, as well as with Tamils in Toronto and London. She is currently completing a book entitled In My Mother's House: The Intimacy of War in Sri Lanka)

InfoChange News & Featues, July 2008