Noel Nadesan knew he had to leave fast. A manager had harassed the wife of a worker, and the worker in turn had stabbed the manager on the Sri Lankan plantation where Nadesan worked as a veterinarian. The worker was Tamil and the manger Sinhalese, from the country’s majority population, and now a group of Sinhalase were rioting. A rumor flew around that Nadesan was a “Tiger” a member of the Tamil Tiger guerilla army. It was 1984, a year after riots in Colombo had killed 3000 Tamils and such rumors could be deadly.
So…It’s a quiet Wednesday at the Mulgrave Veterinary Clinic, and Nadesan is telling the story of how he came to Australia. His receptionist puts her head into the room. “Its Mrs. Jones on the phone. Her dogs got that hip problem again. Can she bring him in?” Nadesan nods calmly and returns to his tale.
So…he packed his bags and fled to India, with no time to pick up his wife Shiamala who was in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, expecting their second child any day. She gave birth to a girl, then joined her husband 18days later. In 1987, the family migrated to Australia.
Nadesan 48, is now also an editor of an English and Tamil language newspaper, Uthayam – for which he got himself a heap of trouble. Australia is his home, and a happy one, but Sri Lanka is his passion. I’ve come to ask him one question. How do the politics of the old country play out in the new?
It has always been an issue in multicultural Australia. The old soccer riot, arguments between Greeks and Macedonians over who own Macedonia the bombing of Yugoslav consulate in 1970 – occasionally, ancient conflicts burst into the public domain. And for a moment, other Australians rub their eyes, wonder what it all means, and forget again.
It happened to me one Saturday in the early 1980’s when I ran into a small but loud Sinhalese demonstration in the city. The protestors chanted slogans and brandished Sri Lankan flags, while a few shoppers stared from the side.
I didn’t know about Sri Lanka’s civil war. I didn’t know anything. All I remember was the anger of the protest, and how it rang strangely through the empty streets.
Twenty years later, 64,000 Sri Lankans are dead. However, a peace process, through Shaky, has for 16 months halted the war between the Sinhalese dominated government and the Tamil Tigers. For Nadesan, one of 500,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living overseas, this is big news. It means he may one day be able to go home.
When he fled Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, Nadesan was on a political journey, too. He was a Marxist who idealized Che Guevara and believed, as he still does, that the Tamils were so oppressed they were entitled to take up arms against the Sri Lankan state. But “against a government like that, you have to take the moral high ground”.
Instead, Nadesan saw the Tamil Tigers fought oppression with terror: with suicide bombers – massacres of Sinhalese civilians, and the elimination of Tamils who opposed them.
By the time Nadesan reached Australia he fiercely opposed the Tigers. But, he says, when he and a group of like-minded Tamils sought time on community radio they found that Tiger supporters dominated Tamil programs and dissent was unwelcome.
So, in 1997, the group founded in Uthayam, which means “sunrise” in Tamil. About 7000 copies are distributed each month mainly through Sri Lankan and Indian groceries. Although in reprints a lot of material from Sri Lankan and Indian newspapers, it has a few local writers, including Nadesan, says, a commentator who is for the Tigers and one who is against. The goal, he says, is balanced news reports and diverse opinions.
Does the paper represent Tamil views? Gopal Gopalakrishnan, president of the Eelam Tamil Association, is diplomatic but says the paper is not widely read. He supports the Tigers – they have “sacrificed their lives for the benefit of the Tamils” – and says most of his community does, too.
Nadesan replies the Godalakrishnan “may be right about the vocal community members but we have a lot of silent support”. Yet he acknowledges that “ some people…see us as traitors to the cause”.
Sure enough, three years ago, a local Tamil newspaper implied Nadesan was a “traitor” for his work on Uthayam.
Nadesan demanded and got a published apology. His lawyer Selvadurai Raveendran, says that in Sri Lanka and other countries the label “traitor” can expose a person to execution by the Tigers. He tells the story of Sabalingam, an anti – Tiger activist killed by unknown gunmen in Paris in 1994.
Then there was the cause of the vanishing papers. Two years ago, whole piles of Uthayam were stolen from the grocery shelves in Sydney. Furious, the editors ran an editorial on page one. “Barbarism against freedom of expression has struck again”, it began, and “the culprits sadly belong to our community.”
The editors urged the readers not to be swayed by the “misinformation campaign” that painted Uthayam as against the Tamil cause. It supported as equal rights for Tamils but “as a newspaper we are not for or anti-anything…We are providing information…We do not tell our readers how they should think.”
Such disputes are not trivial. But, whereas in Canada and Europe some Tamil Tigers critics have been met with violence, in Australia people fight with words. Every person I spoke to thought the temperature was much lower here than in other countries of the Sri Lankan diaspora.
Why? People cite the high levels of education and affluence the small size of communities, Australians isolation, and now the peace process is allowing people, at last, to think about other things.
To Nadesan, the former Marxist turned social democrat the answer is “the economy”. That’s the answer to Sri Lanka conflict, too. “ If people have no schools or jobs, they have nothing to lose if they fight. But if they have no money, you don’t want to lose your life.
In April last year, Uthayam joined with Shakhti, a Sinhalese group promoting reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese, to hold a Cultures Harmony day in Forest Hill. Five Hundred people came – the first time in Australia that Tamils and Sinhalese have mixed in such numbers says Shakhti member Ajith Rajapaksa. He says BBC radio was so impressed it broadcast part of the event lives into Sri Lanka.
The mellowing is likely to continue in the next generation, the Australians – born Sri Lankans, who one of the highest outmarriage rates of any community. “You don’t find organized gang conflict as you do in Canada or England, ”says Elmo Perera, of Shakhti. “The kids, both Sinhalese and Tamil, really can’t be bothered. “
While Nadesan’s two grown children have little interest in Sri Lankan politics, he thinks of little else. He won’t go home given his profile, he’s not sure he’d be safe – yet “ a lot of my feelings are still in Sri Lanka. So many friends were killed…Doing what I do is a spiritual satisfaction, a way to give something back to the country.”
How do politics in the old country play out in the new? By losing a lot of heat on the way here. It’s the lazy genius of Australian Multiculturalism. It may not last. But as I left Nadesan to fix the doggy hip of Mrs. Jones’s dog, I had faith that it would.
Courtesy The Age June 28 2003