Lanka Solidarity: Washington, DC-Area Fundraiser for IDPs in Sri Lanka

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I suspect I’m about to set a personal record for question marks used in an SM post.

As a South Asian-American and diasporic blog, SM has hosted numerous conversations about Sri Lanka and related communities. I’ve been involved in many of those conversations–first as a lurker, then as a commenter, and finally, as a writer, journalist, and blogger. No matter my role, it seems that the bigger the Internet gets, the scarier it is for people to talk about Sri Lankan/diasporic politics (or any polarized issue). Off- and online, as like finds like and people reinforce their own beliefs, entrenched polarization makes it hard to listen, hard to talk, hard to *stay *for the very real pain on multiple sides. Sometimes it’s easier to check out. And people do. But don’t we deserve better than that? Is it possible that there might be a little… nuance? What’s a person in the middle to do?

Well, here’s my attempt: I’m one of several individuals behind a new multi-ethnic Sri Lankan diaspora group called Lanka Solidarity.

We’re trying to ask and answer questions like: How can we expand the space for conversation about Sri Lankan and diasporic politics, and make it safer and more comfortable? How can we provide honest feedback for each other and hash out issues in good faith and with accountability, but without the misinformation and ad hominem or personal attacks that have come to characterize conversations about Sri Lanka, particularly in the diaspora? How can we pursue and promote reconciliation in the diaspora–in a way that shows solidarity with people in Sri Lanka? In what ways might we make a real difference on the ground in Sri Lanka?

I have several tidy answers for these questions. And if you believe that, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you. Only 5 million rupees! No problem! Special price for you!

More seriously, I get asked–or have to ask myself–versions of these questions quite a lot. What is a safe space? Whose voices have been marginalized? What do I feel safe saying? Who has permission to dissent, and who made those rules? How are they enforced? What kind of information is out there–and what kind of information do I want to rely on? Which fricking way do I go to get out of the Fireswamp? These questions stink more and more as (as Elizabeth Kolbert quotes Cass Sunstein saying) “Views that would ordinarily dissolve, simply because of an absence of social support, can be found in large numbers on the Internet, even if they are understood to be exotic, indefensible, or bizarre in most communities.” Yes, the Internet (where so much debate is conducted) INVITES nutty, anonymous statements with no backup, and these statements appear so persistently that the most rational person on the face of the earth falls flat with exhaustion, sometimes without having ever made it to the even thornier issues.

But! The anonymity of the Internet also allows for people to voice opinions they’d be afraid to express otherwise. Web-based space has clear limitations, but it’s also a way to reach out. So we are going to GET UP AGAIN. Rocky-style! Up! At ‘em! Red Bull Gives You Wiiiiings! Okay, no. But it is sometimes easier to get up again if you know a bunch of other people are going to too.

From our mission statement:

“Lanka Solidarity formed in 2009 when a multi-ethnic group of individuals based in North America discovered a shared interest in understanding ground realities in Sri Lanka. Fueled by a desire to question exclusionary forms of politics, this group saw the need for an organized and safe space to discuss Sri Lanka’s past, present, and future.”

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And we’re not just about the Interwebs. We also like real live interaction.

How you can help: Come to tomorrow’s fundraiser for internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka.

**Where: Science Club 1136 19th St. NW Washington, DC When: Tuesday, November 10 6-11 pm **

More than 200,000 people are still being detained in camps in the northern part of the country. We’ve chosen to support two local charities that are working in the camps. If you can’t come, you can donate to them directly. (A previous fundraiser in NYC raised $1,000+ for three groups.)

With the support of others interested in real, honest conversation and safe space to argue the issues, I can go out and try again. And again. And again. Maybe I’ll fail. But isn’t it better to try? And this, hopefully, is a starting point upon which we can all agree–a good, solid piece of common ground: The IDPs deserve help.

(The LS website is growing, and we’d welcome feedback and ideas from the Mutiny community!)

21 thoughts on “Lanka Solidarity: Washington, DC-Area Fundraiser for IDPs in Sri Lanka

  1. But don’t we deserve better than that? Is it possible that there might be a little… nuance? What’s a person in the middle to do?

    Yes.

    Something to throw in the mix: While the parentals are from India and I speak Tamil, it’s really hard to say “I’m not a Tamil but I am,” when asked “Are you a Tamil?” by non-South Asians, and not sound/feel like a jerk. Not wanting to separate myself from Sri Lankan Tamils I simultaneously have a very immediate desire to divorce myself from “Tamil Tigers.” There has to be a better way for them to ask the question and for me to answer it. I’ve taken to giving the whole history, so that they get the nuance and tenuous nature of the situation. Hey, they asked.

  2. “Off- and online, as like finds like and people reinforce their own beliefs, entrenched polarization makes it hard to listen, hard to talk, hard to *stay *for the very real pain on multiple sides”

    Thanks for this post and for the information about Lanka Solidarity. A group like this has come at such a crucial time in Sri Lanka’s history and for Sri Lanka’s often-polarized diaspora. Your sentence above has captured what I, as a second-generation Sri Lankan-American, have experienced my entire life. It is hard to talk about Sri Lanka but more importantly, it is, if you dissent or disagree in any form whatsoever, hard to be listened to. This lack of listening takes so many forms and the worst form is silence. This is what the Sri Lankan diaspora needs–an engaging space where listening can talk place and a space where all individuals and groups can stand distinct from one another but in dialogue based on common goals of healing, reconciliation, and respect of cultural difference. Thanks so much and looking forward to future LS posts and events!

  3. Thakns for this post.

    You might be interested in Sandhi Institute if you’re not aware of it. I don’t know much about their specific work or how effective it is because I’ve never been in touch (I plan to be, if necessary), but I do know about NVC (non-violent communication) through a friend. It’s useful stuff.

    http://sandhi.org/

  4. I wonder, what should the role of the diaspora even be? Obviously, we don’t live in Sri Lanka, so we have to think about responsible engagement. And at the same time, we can’t pretend that we don’t care about what’s going on or “check out,” as you say. But sometimes I feel that the diaspora has a bad name in Sri Lankan politics and its hard to break this perception. Perhaps this is something that Lanka Solidarity can and should tackle?

  5. Do the victims of terrorist bomings deserve help as well? What about the thousands of Muslims who were ethnically cleansed from northern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tigers… do they deserve help as well? Why only concentrate on victims of Tamil origin?

  6. Do the victims of terrorist bomings deserve help as well? What about the thousands of Muslims who were ethnically cleansed from northern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tigers… do they deserve help as well? Why only concentrate on victims of Tamil origin?

    I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say here. Yes, victims of terrorist bombings deserve help. Happy?

    Also, I had no idea that being Muslim and Tamil were mutually exclusive. Man, I guess I should break this news to my friend. I wonder how he will take it. . .

  7. What I am trying to say is that it’s not just Tamils in camps that deserve help, so why isn’t “Lanka solidarity” doing anything about that? Why did they wait until the end of the war to ‘stand up and be counted’? And in case you don’t know, Tamil and Muslim are pretty much mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka. So far, Lanka Solidarity is just sounding like a Tamil organisation concerned only with those of Tamil ethnicity, while masquerading as an organisation for all Sri Lankans.

  8. Thanks for this post – it’s among the most thoughtful and heartfelt posts I’ve read. I know you wade into crocodile-infested waters the second you say anything about Sri Lanka and the welfare of human beings there, so i admire you for doing it here and raising attention to the situations there and what people in the diaspora are doing now to assist – andi n a positive way.

    I tried to post earlier to a link to this but it seemed to get swallowed by the comment filter – the Sandhi Institute does Non Violent Communication (NVC) in Sri Lanka. I don’t know too much about it or what its politics are or how effective it is except through a friend who may go there later this year, but I thought it might be of interest.

  9. Thanks for this post – it’s among the most thoughtful and heartfelt posts I’ve read. I know you wade into crocodile-infested waters the second you say anything about Sri Lanka and the welfare of human beings there, so i admire you for doing it here and raising attention to the situations there and what people in the diaspora are doing now to assist – andi n a positive way.

    Couldn’t agree more or say it any better. This is amazing Sugi. Would love to meet if you do something in NY.

    Thinking, this — “Tamil and Muslim are pretty much mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka” — is entirely incorrect. Tamil, as an ethnic identifier, is very broad in Sri Lanka (can see why Maitri feels stressed) and encompasses Christian, Hindu, Muslim…you name it. Some groups self-identified as Tamil simply because it’s not-Sinhala, and they were of some other (non-Indian) descent.

  10. As a Sri Lankan Muslim, I’m going to try to clarify something with regards to some of the comments made about being Tamil and being Muslim.

    In Sri Lanka, most people refer to Moors and Malays as “Muslim” so I can see why “Thinking” believes that being Tamil and being Muslim is mutually exclusive while others do not.

    Regardless of the labels we use and how we categorize people, I think the organization should be commended for what they are attempting to do and for the thought-provoking post!

    Thinking – To ask the question “why are you helping the Tamils in the IDP camps and not the Muslims who were ethnically cleansed by the Tigers?” is like asking “why are you helping children with cancer instead of children with AIDS?

    As people interested in moving ALL of humanity forward we MUST begin to ask better questions if we are to start looking at better answers. Otherwise, we would have stopped good work before we even gave it the chance to get started.

  11. My views are not that sympathetic given that LTTE had huge impact on things you might not even consider. For ex: Rajiv Gandhi was killed, I cannot dismiss him as just another politician. He was a visionary who started JNV which provides education for the talented students from rural areas (Tamilnadu never allowed these schools). By killing him, the LTTE also took away the dreams of lots of other poor people/kids, who would have benefited from his policies. I do agree that all the Tamils were not LTTE, but all of the LTTE had only Tamils. Nazi’s & hence Germans killed Jews, They suffered later in the hands of Russians. Am i supposed to sympathize those Germans? For me, this is just like asking Indians to sympathize about Pak’s current situation. It is the whole society not just an individual organization which is to be held responsible for the evils. Things will become better if fundamentalism/chauvinism can be reduced. If you want proof of Tamil chauvinism try finding out why JNV schools were not allowed in Tamilnadu or why babies with pure Tamil names were given gold rings or just try asking for directions in Madras in English.

    It is personal: I studied in one of those schools, else there is no way I could have made it to finish my Master’s in one of the research intensive universities in US.

  12. Thinking, this — “Tamil and Muslim are pretty much mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka” — is entirely incorrect.

    That isn’t true at all. Muslims speak Tamil and share some similar practices with the Christian/Hindu ethnic Tamils but they often don’t refer to themselves as ‘Tamil’. To Sri Lankan Muslims in the west, It’s another one of those fraught identity things, they often hang around Tamils and get swallowed up in that. In Sri Lanka, however, this isn’t the case.

    I have no idea what Loki is on about. The presumption there seems to be that all Tamils are Tigers.

    There are a number of similar efforts happening elsewhere in the world, in Australia and Canada as well as the US. The Sinhalese and Tamil communities are divided, and maybe these are the early steps to creating a unified Sri Lankan diaspora.

  13. Loki’s comments (not sure I really understood some of the statements, but I’m talking about the overall gist) strike me as racist, or, at the very least, narrow-minded. I’m a Tamil, an Iyer, whose family hails from Chennai. Tamil Nadu society is not monolithic. It’s complicated, like many other societies. There are numerous communities and subcommunities and they are often at odds with each other (not that that’s a good thing). So, to categorically say that ‘Tamils are chauvinists’ is downright inaccurate and simple-minded. Some Tamils are chauvinists, some are integrationists, some (like my grandmother) are Hindi scholars, some are English scholars, some only speak Tamil, some are Tiger sympathizers, some are Tiger haters, etc. I’m sure the vast majority of folks reading this already know what I’m saying. . . I’m just trying to school Loki on human nature 101.

  14. Something to throw in the mix: While the parentals are from India and I speak Tamil, it’s really hard to say “I’m not a Tamil but I am,” when asked “Are you a Tamil?” by non-South Asians, and not sound/feel like a jerk.

    Feeling like a jerk about distancing yourself from your Tamil roots is a good thing. It means that you feel something is wrong.

    The answer is actually simple –just be proud of the hertitage and leave it like that – do not offer a explanation for the LTTE unless asked. The Irish do not usually apologise for the IRA or bring it up, so why should you. All you are doing by bringing up the LTTE is binding your identity to it.

    At the end of the day the tamil civilization is one of the older ones and it has made a lot of contributions to the world, from math to science. Even cash is a Tamil word. The LTTE is at the end of the day, rather insignificant in the overall history. In any case there are several sides to the Lankan story and most people are really just not that interested.

  15. It is the whole society not just an individual organization which is to be held responsible for the evils.

    This is a crucial step in a chain of logic that leads to all kinds of stereotyping and discrimination that underming social stability. Organisation A engages in something in the name of Group A. Therefore, according to your logic, all members of Group A are assumed to be responsible for the actions of Organisation A, regardless of what they think, believe, feel, or otherwise do as human beings – even if they opopse the actions of Group A to the core of their being, or halfway do, or feel complicated about it – or otherwise respond – as human beings.

    In the meantime, their complications as human beings get erased, they are forced into a position of feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place, and they are left withou the ability to speak, because all we end up looking at is – are you a member of group A, B, or C? And that’s, well, saddening.

    There are always social factors involved in violence – not just organisations or states or whatnot- but they have to be traced specifically to avoid falling into the kind of communal logic that has dominated Sri Lankan society on many sides. This is why I respect so deeply what Sandhi Institute and Lanka Solidarity and people I know who are human beings in addition to being members of A,B,or C are trying to do.

    Maybe this would be a naive approach to take if were writing a thesis on the subject, but from the vantage point of how to alleviate the situation so that all people in Sri Lanka are eventually able to live in peace and seek fulfillment, I don’t see any way out other than to gradually reduce the level of tenesion across a broad base so that people can at least speak. Otherwise, what do you have left? Just generation after generation of violence, whether physical, political, or metaphorical.

  16. Must keep this brief before rushing to work, but wanted to pipe up and say thank you to those of you engaging so constructively here. Many of the questions raised earlier in the thread have already been addressed by others, so let me just point out that if you look on the Lanka Solidarity website, you can see some member bios. We are, indeed, multiethnic, and have tried to make an effort to be welcoming. You’ll notice the same tenor in the mission and vision statement.

    Also, we chose to support charities with access/interests to the camps, because from our understanding, this is a widely acknowledged and urgent need. That said, those charities also have multiethnic interests and do work with different populations. You can check them out by following the links in the event announcement…

    More later!

  17. Also, I had no idea that being Muslim and Tamil were mutually exclusive. Man, I guess I should break this news to my friend. I wonder how he will take it. . .

    Is your friend Aziz Ansari?

  18. http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=146183291463&ref=ts

    “ABOUT HEARTS FOR HARMONY

    We are a group of young people of Sri Lankan descent, residing within the Greater Toronto Area, who are concerned with the situation the Internally Displaced Persons are currently faced with in Sri Lanka. We believe that our youth have a pivotal role to play in paving the way forward, while simultaneously promoting change through unity.

    Our mission is to support charitable and non-political endeavours on the ground in Sri Lanka, working to aid the IDPs. We hope to demonstrate to our communities that the Sri Lankan diaspora – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or social class – can work together to create long-lasting results conducive to Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation.”

    November 20th.

  19. why does Solidarity have to be multi-ethnic? i.e. is the normative view that all ethnicities must be included for the organization to be efficient and successful? Or is it that appearances rule? The money my family donated to ACT lanka went there because they have access to the camps, not because the lady who replied was tamil/singhalese/muslim whatever.

  20. Thanks for writing this, Sugi!

    Folks, if you’re interested, please do bookmark the website. We just got up and running, and there are a number of projects which we’ll be unveiling over the next few months, including resources, a primer on the conflict in Sri Lanka, and a moderated discussion forum. Hopefully we can take advantage of the anonymity the internet provides by having the open and frank discussions which sometimes aren’t possible in public, rather than the poop-flinging sessions which have made such spaces infamous.

    We don’t yet have RSS feeds up and running, but hope to by week’s end.

    We do, however, have a daily news digest, and if you’d like to sign up for it, you can do so here.

  21. why does Solidarity have to be multi-ethnic?

    I don’t think it has to be, and I don’t think it always can be, and it has pitfalls. However, when one of the central problems in the conflcit is that the polarisation has taken on such an extreme form that middle ground is nearly impossible, it becomes relevant to demonstrate that the narrative is not self-evident or accurate by actually working across such lines – even after 60 years of self-fulfilling prophecy.