State of Despair: Slow Motion Ethnic Cleansing
Nov. 27 2020
When it comes to understanding a specific ethnicity, most people often think about the things typical of a shared culture. Food, religion, dress, history, and art- while all important- overshadow a bigger part of what constitutes one’s ethnicity and culture.
When my parents first immigrated to America, the unfamiliarity of flashing Taco Bell signs and JP Morgan skyscrapers was overwhelming. But through the mist of toxic capitalism and impatient car horns lay a safe haven. The Muruga temple was a small cement building humbly situated in the outskirts of town. While the crowding of shoes on its tiny front doorstep and the nearby construction debris polluted the ambiance, the koyil was nevertheless a community. Meeting and seeing other newly immigrated Tamils under the roof of the Muruga koyil gave my parents feelings of home and familiarity in an otherwise unfamiliar and strange country. So while the prashad and sanskrit chants preserved culture for Hindu Tamils from Sri Lanka in Sacramento, it was the building itself that brought together people from all walks of life and beautifully represented a minority religion. Sure it was no Empire State building. It probably wasn’t even comparable to a decent high school gym. But it was still a home away from home. Architecture, and buildings involved in communities of marginalized ethnicities is more than just a place of worship or a cement structure- it stands to remind us of who we are, where we come from, and what we hold most dear.
Just as the Muruga temple did for my parents in America, in Sri Lanka- buildings bring Tamil people together and honors the cultural nuances in the built environment. Landmarks and the systems which preserve them nourish our beloved culture and engage those who may be unfamiliar with it. Given this premise, destroying the buildings and establishments of Tamil culture is equivalent to robbing the art and soul of Tamil communities. And robbing the Tamil people of their culture and dignity is an egregious act chronically and notoriously perpetuated by the Sri Lankan government. Recently, task forces, and other irrigation and development schemes were created and currently used as pretext to state sponsored colonization and deliberate re-engineering of the demographics of the region. In other words, the government maliciously deliberated plans that would rid landscapes and buildings of Tamil culture and reinstate a Sinhalese cultural environment- an act which screams a continued state of slow-motion ethnic cleansing.
The Trincomalee District is a prime example of this and it has been subject to the government’s colonization efforts for several decades. The district’s geography gives it added significance. It serves as the link to the northern part of the traditional Tamil homeland and acts as a reserve for natural and strategic resources- like its luscious and natural deep-sea harbour. Trincomalee was a historically majority Tamil-speaking region. But land settlement and development policies of successive governments have been “a major factor in altering the demography of the eastern province in favor of the Sinhalese”. The increasing settlement of Sinhalese in Trincomalee is seen as a strategic way to “weaken the ethnic balance of minorities and sabotage their territorial-based autonomy claims”. The Seruwila area in Trincomalee is a prime example of this as the Tamil speaking population there is now reduced to just 31% now as Sihalese settlement development increases. It doesn’t just stop in Trinco, however. The neighboring Verugal area is under threat as well.
In Verugal, the Sri Lankan military and Buddhist monks from the south grabbed land to build budhist temples while destroying several Hindu temples in the process. The University Teachers for Human Rights stated in response to the government-sponsored colonization “The people are unable to protest for fear of the consequences. The Government’s intentions in this connection is clearly seen under its plan for Eastern Revival, under the Ministry for Nation Building”. The heart and soul of beloved and dearly held Tamil architecture is being silently “repurposed” to promote the state of war in Sri Lanka which gluttonously feeds on oppression and the blind eye of the international community. The urgency of preserving Tamil landmarks is pressing and this urgency must be acted upon in order to- at the very least- slow the effects of ongoing ethnic cleansing.
Tamil people in Sri Lanka still have hope for the international community to act with urgency to free them from the current state of war and bring a permanent political solution to the island nation. It’s up to us to deliver that hope.