in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)
In the wake of violent divisive politics and social polarisation in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora repeatedly appeal to the international community, to draw attention to the injustices and reprisals in Sri Lanka and to hold accountable the war criminals, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who commissioned the genocide of Tamils during the last phase of the civil war (1983 - 2009).
Tamils do not make demands on the Sri Lankan state as it would do nothing and sabotage respectful coexistence between the different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Their demands for active radical solidarity go to the international community.
Active radical solidarity means showing actions beyond the local or immediate political context and in support of oppressed minorities of other political struggles. This solidarity should be active and radical directed to provide the means to change materialistic conditions of oppression. These means could be money, providing mental health care for people suffering from war trauma, spreading information about situation and history of Tamils in Sri Lanka, exercising pressure on powerful international organizations such as NATO or UN to hold war criminals accountable etc.
As a result of reprisals, many Tamil people have fled abroad during the civil war in Sri Lanka and still need to flee. The Tamil diaspora can be seen as a product of these chains of violence. This kind of violence did not end with the official end of the civil war, but continuous structural and institutional genocide goes on. Tamil existence itself is a threat in Sri Lanka
Collectives, as well as individual actors, have developed strategies, practices, repertoires and resources in the Tamil diaspora and in the homeland itself to deal with this collective trauma, shared violent heritage and collective mourning. The collective memory leads the strategies and resources through remembrance practices, memorialising, oral histories and intergenerational conversations. These strategies and resources are cross-media and performative and often connect translocal spaces and mobile networks across borders. Such strategies and resources can be seen in Tamil archive projects, Tamil community building processes, as well as in art (literature, music, visual art, comedy etc.). For example, M.I.A. (UK)1, Shan Vincent de Paul (Canada)2, Priya Ragu (Switzerland)3, Pritt (UK)4, Sinthujan5 and Senthuran Varatharajah6 (Germany), Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan (USA)7, Tasha Manoranjan8 (USA) are prominent actors - to name a few among many - who create and drive resources for the Tamil community.
These strategies, practices, and resources are not necessarily coping mechanisms for violence or forms of resistance, but rather places or attempts created to deal with grief. However, there are also strategies and practices that deal with violence not to cope with grief or violence, but to use emotions, such as anger, feelings of being hurt and sometimes even rage and resentment - that go to the experiences of violence and collective trauma - to call for radical solidarity among Sri Lankan Tamils as well as in the international societies.
All international societies are referred to here, especially those who are in power and who possess the means to change materialistic conditions of oppression. For example, international societies such as the NATO, UN, but also imperialistic countries like UK, Germany, the US who partly provided arms to the Sinhala army, or conduct forced deportations back to Sri Lanka and also are supportive and responsible for the oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
My paper will analyse what images of resistance have been developed by Sri Lankan Tamils to call for radical solidarity and to preserve collective memory as well as history. The analysis will try to focus on five recent political events in Sri Lanka.
I used qualitative methods to explore the experiences of violence and dealings of Sri Lankan Tamil people. A photographic method has been conducted, to elicit meanings of certain images of resistance9 that the participants and I selected. I addressed the following research questions:
1. How are Diasporic Sri Lankan Tamils affected by the political events happening in the homeland, Sri Lanka?
2. Did participants ascribe symbolic meanings, feeling, emotions about experiences of violence to the selected images?
3. Did they express importance or relevance to these images?
4. What other meanings and themes did participants perceive in these images?
5. How did the images of resistance connect with their strategies of surviving?
For this study, "images of resistance "are defined as any kind of visualisation of resistance, for example, memorials, performances, protest activities etc.
Resistance can be active visible or passive invisible (in everyday life) or even ephemeral actions that are directed to a ruling power with the aim for political, social, economic change and to survive. Resistance can be violent or non-violent.
Images of active resistance are captured in photographs or videos, which were found mostly in Tamil Guardian, but also other online newspapers10. These photographs or videos function here either as holding the moment of an act of resistance, such as performances, protest actions etc. or also these photographs or videos themselves function as images of resistances.
Disadvantages of qualitative methods are the limitation of sample sizes, as well as the generalisability of results. Nevertheless, such methods are believed to offer rich insights into complex experiences and ways of dealing with violence and resistance11.
I am positioning myself as a Sri Lankan Tamil growing up in Germany, second- generation, working class. The relationship between participants and me are familiar, amical or familial. It was important for me to conduct interviews or conversations only with people who trust me enough and who feel comfortable talking about violence, trauma and war. It was rather a conversation than an interview since participants also asked me questions, and I gave responses as well.
Four people participated, aged from 19 to 28 years, with three aged 27-28 and one 19. The sample consisted of family and friends, who are Sri Lankan Tamils and grew up mostly in the diaspora12, 1st and 2nd generation, and asking them of the meanings and importance of images of resistance in the Sri Lankan Tamil context.
The sample was entirely working class and rather isolated in their local Tamil Community13. One participant (27, pronoun: he), was an ex-soldier and works now in the supermarket Carrefour as a security guard. He grew up in Sri Lanka and in the Tamil French diaspora. Another participant (28, pronoun: she) is a nurse, and grew up in the Tamil German Diaspora. Then, a mother of two children (28, pronoun: she) is a housewife, and Muslim Tamil, as the only one of the participants, also growing up in Tamil German Diaspora and in Sri Lanka. The youngest participant (19, pronoun: he) is still a pupil and in grade 12, high school, growing up in Tamil German Diaspora.
Their different social and cultural backgrounds also resulted in different positions on the meanings and importance of images of resistance. This was very helpful in gaining insight into the experiences of violence, war and trauma in a secure way. All position themselves as Sri Lankan Tamil as well as their respective citizenship of the residing country. Moreover, two participants are from second-generation Tamils growing up in the diaspora, and the other two belong to the first-generation born in Sri Lanka, and later living and growing up in the Diaspora. It was important to have a Data collection that was carried out following ethics scrutiny. All participants were assured of confidentiality, protection and anonymity and had the right to withdraw from the study at any time.
I carried out all the semistructured conversations, which was afterwards analysed by me, discussing with other participants about the findings. The study adopted the photo-elicitation interview14 procedure:
The adapted photo-elicitation method: This method was chosen to gather qualitative data about images of resistance and its psychological, cultural, as well as socio-political significance.
With a difficult emotional topic such as war, genocide and trauma, conversations can be difficult to capture. In photo-elicitation, the selected photos can evoke memories, narratives and feelings that can be captured more easily than in a simple interview situation. This phenomenological nature of the enquiry, looking at photos and talking about their meanings, is described as a non-threatening way to capture the feelings and emotions of a community. Verbal information is gleaned from the photos. Each selected picture can be studied intensively by the researcher and the participants together. The intimacy between researcher and participants was important in this qualitative study to be able to talk about violence, genocide and trauma.
In this study, participants were shown recent photographs and videos in the context of the Tamil freedom struggle in Sri Lanka but were asked to choose their own images, photographs, videos of what they find are images of resistance in the Tamil context in Sri Lanka prior to the interview. For ethical reasons and to give them time or motivation to think about the topics of the qualitative research, participants were given the main interview questions, images and a project description prior to consent. It was important to show prior to the interview that no direct violent material will be used to talk about their feelings.
However, participants were somewhat overwhelmed to find materials prior to the interview, and first, by showing my selection of materials, they also showed me images and videos from online newspaper articles, mostly Tamil Guardian. During the interview, very violent images and videos were looked at together. In the end, this could not be avoided.
The semi-structured interviews lasted for several days per participant. The interviews often lasted between 45min - 1h for several days per participant. Some who allowed, agreed to audiotape the interview, and others were over video calls and direct transcriptions. In total, all of the interviews were fully transcribed. The interviews were conducted in French, German and Tamil. Each interview started with a broad question like, "How do you see yourself in the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka?".
We had this common understanding that the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka is the struggle for independence, fight for minority rights (regarding caste, class, religion, ethnicity). It is also about fighting for justice, holding war criminals accountable and finding answers or demanding investigations about the disappearances during the civil war.
This was followed up with general questions about the participants' experiences in the Sri Lankan Tamil diasporic community and their thoughts on violence, civil war, genocide and trauma. Here, I focused on feelings and perceptions.
Then the interview moved away from general reflections about being Sri Lankan Tamil in the Diaspora to focus on the specific photographs in recent political events. When selecting an image during the interview, participants reflected on their motivation or inspiration for their choice and gave insights into their personal significance of images and resistance in the context of their Sri Lankan Tamil identity. To encourage the participants to narrate their stories, memories, opinions and feelings, questions included: "Could you tell me about this photo?", "How do you feel when you see these photos?", "Do these images help you to express your feelings, sadness or frustration about our history?", "Does this image have any special meaning to you?", "Do you see any importance or relevance in these acts of resistance? "These questions were not asked in a repetitive way, but lead the conversations.
Initially, I have picked out the images of resistance that have been taken recently, especially in protest or commemorative situations. I focused on five political events and their acts of resistance. However, in the course of all the interviews, inevitably very violent images from war documentaries (for example "No Fire Zone ")15 emerged, that were found on social media. In total, the research material consisted of more than 60 images of resistance.
In the following, however, only the five political events and their most important images of resistance will be briefly described. For it was from these that the interview began. Four of these five political events happened in the homeland, and one occurred in Germany.
These individual political events are merely the starting point of the discussions. However, a lot was discussed and talked about in the conversations independently of isolated political events at an interpersonal and collective level.
a.) Mullivaikkal memorial (images 1 - 6)
On the night of 8 January 2021, the Sri Lankan government destroyed the "Mullivaikkal" memorial, which was designed by members of the Jaffna University Faculty of Arts and Students' Association and erected on the Jaffna University campus in February 2019 during the Sirisena government. Some of these students were survivors of the previous genocide and/or had families who were killed. The memorial was built to honour Tamil people who died in the Mullivaikkal genocide in 2009 (Mahendran 2021 a).
The Mullivaikal Genocide - named after a village in the Northeast of Sri Lanka where the last phase of the civil war took place - was ordered by the then President and now Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, the then Defence Minister and now President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Some 300,000 Tamils were forced by the Sri Lankan Army to flee into a "No Fire Zone" and killed civilians trapped in it. Alone in the Mullivaikal genocide, about 40,000 civilians were killed. Officially, the civil war ended on 18 May 2009 with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran. However, the conflict is not over yet (Mahendran 2021 a).
In order to avoid a return of the rebellion, Tamils will be stripped of all symbols, memories, and public sites of grieving and an active history distortion is conducted by the Sri Lankan state. A statement by the Jaffna University Students' Union said: "The destruction of Mullivaikkal is the culmination of genocide against the Tamil people. [...] This act is an insult not only to the students of the university but also to the entire Tamil people. It is also an act of denial of the right of a people to be remembered." (Mahendran 2021 a).
Students from Jaffna University issued a statement calling for international solidarity against genocide (Tamil Guardian 2021 f):
"We ask you to support:
Our basic human rights
Our right to fair treatment
Our right to education
Our right to equality and equity, like all other students."
On 23 April, 2021, students from Jaffna University laid flowers and lit candles at the replacement monument, to honour the lives lost in Mullivaikkal. The newly built monument is 18 feet long and 5 feet wide. However, the new monument does not include sculptures depicting the heavy shelling of Sri Lanka, which killed tens of thousands of Tamils at the end of the armed conflict (Tamil Guardian 2021 n).
b.) Red and Yellow (images 7 – 11)
On 3 February 2021, Tamils and Muslims mobilised a peaceful five-day march from Tamil Eelam's16 southern border Pottuvil, Amparai, to the northernmost tip Pollikandi, Point Pedro, to address the dire situation of Tamils and Muslims, which continues to worsen under the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. This 459 km march passed through all eight districts of Tamil Eelam in the northeast, which make up the Tamil homeland. The protest march coincided with Sri Lanka's Independence Day. The Sri Lankan government welcomed the day with grand celebrations, including a military parade and speeches by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is accused of war crimes (Mahendran 2021 b).
The protest was supported by several civil society organisations, including prominent Tamil and Muslim politicians and a large number of religious leaders, including many M.P.s from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) (Mahendran 2021 b).
Key demands of the march were directed at the U.N. and the international community to pay attention to the injustices and structural as well as institutional genocide against Tamils and to actively ensure justice and accountability for Tamils (Tamil Guardian 2021 g).
Wearing the Tamil national colours - red and yellow stripes - as well as black flags in memory of the missing and disappeared during the civil war, many protested against this continuous violence. Despite intimidation and threats from the Sri Lankan security forces, who also obtained injunctions against the protest, attempted to disperse the march and tried to disrupt and sabotage the protest march with roadblocks and laying tracks on the roads, demonstrators were not deterred and were able to reach their destination on 7 February (Mahendran 2021 b).
The protest march went through many towns, whose places are marked by reprisals against Tamils. Overall, families in the Northeast of Sri Lanka showed solidarity with the protesters who are still searching for their loved ones who disappeared during the Sri Lankan civil war and demanding an answer from the Sri Lankan government on the whereabouts of their missing relatives. They went on hunger strike and raised black flags in Mullaitivu (Mahendran 2021 b).
Following pressure from Sri Lankan authorities, the hashtags #eelam and #tamileelam were removed on Instagram in connection with the five-day march. This decision by Instagram supports the genocidal state of Sri Lanka and the continuous discrimination and oppression of Tamils. Not only Instagram but also Spotify, the world's largest music streaming service provider, has started removing songs related to Tamil Eelam. After much outrage, the hashtags #tamileelam #eelam on Instagram is working again, a few days later. However, this removal of hashtags will not be the last time as Instagram regularly removes hashtags related to Tamil Eelam (Mahendran 2021 b).
The protest march from Pottuvil to Pollikandi is the largest Tamil protest since the end of the armed conflict in the Northeast (Mahendran 2021 b).
c.) Shouting and holding up posters (images 12 - 19)
On 31 March 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany deported at least 31 Tamil and Muslim asylum seekers to Sri Lanka. Four people were legally saved from deportation. In those days, Tamil refugee communities in Germany have been subjected to a wave of raids and arrests. In the process, some people were lured to the Foreigners' authority with the promise of a two-year visa, where they were then arrested. Communication with the detainees has been cut off as their phones have been taken away. Friends and relatives did not know their current whereabouts and situation, according to IMRV-Human Rights. All arrested Tamils were sent to the notorious deportation prison in Büren. The German authorities were trying to carry out these deportations with maximum secrecy, especially since Germany had voted in favour of a U.N. resolution on Sri Lanka a few days earlier. This undermines the U.N. resolution. Germany's action makes a mockery of the resolution and gives Sri Lanka backing (Mahendran 2021 c).
On 23rd March 2021, a U.N. resolution was passed, mandating the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to collect and secure evidence of serious violations of international law in Sri Lanka, with a view to subsequently demanding possible accountability for these crimes. The resolution does not meet the clear common demands of Tamil political parties and civil society groups, yet this is a positive step towards justice for the Tamils with the potential to try criminals in an international accountability system, something Tamils have long fought for (Mahendran 2021 c).
Germany's action is worrying as there have been no deportations to Sri Lanka in previous years, and it has been recognised that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is absolutely critical. Crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka are actively prevented by the government until today (Mahendran 2021 c).
At the same time, the Sri Lankan government has announced sudden and far-reaching ostracism of hundreds of individuals and several Tamil diaspora organisations, while continuing to crack down on Tamil civil society and activists. The list contains the full names and addresses of many Tamil activists. Some of them are listed as former LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cadres, and others are pro-Tamil liberation organisations17. The list has also added several new individual names. Many details are out of date, including location, age, etc. Some of the people mentioned are dead. Many are well-known activists who have done and are still doing important work. Some have not been active for years. The state ouring puts them and their families in enormous danger and makes diaspora-home connections even riskier for people on the island, and make it harder for diaspora Tamils to travel back, which is the intention (Mahendran 2021 c).
Since March 2021, Germany plans and conducts further deportations despite threats of torture, and till August 2021, authorities have deported over 50 Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka despite the risk of persecution and torture that they face on the island (Guardian, Tamil: 2021 q).
The latest in a string of deportations from Germany was on 3 August 2021. Sasi K fled Sri Lanka in 2015 after being detained and tortured by Sri Lanka's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) during the armed conflict. At the end of July, he was taken to the Büren immigration detention centre. He was scheduled to be deported at the Frankfurt airport at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 3 August. The People's Council of Eelam Tamils (VETD) urged the German government to immediately stop the deportation of a Tamil torture survivor since his forced departure will have long-term effects on him and his severely disabled wife (Guardian, Tamil: 2021 s).
Several flyers with a drawing of Sasi K was made, stating (Guardian, Tamil 2021 t):
"This is Sasi K. He is with you on the plane QR068 to Sri Lanka with a stop in Doha. He was massively tortured in Sri Lanka and fled to Germany. Now he is being deported on this flight! He is now at risk of torture again and fears for his life. He is separated from his family in Germany. His wife is in need of care and is left alone."
d.) White ribbons (images 20 - 24)
Since the irruption of the Corona pandemic, there has been outrage in Sri Lanka over the incineration of Muslim covid victims. Since March 2020, the country has been flouting World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines that enable each burials and cremations, creating it necessary to burn those who die or are suspected of having died from coronavirus infections. Over 270 people who died of covid have currently been cremated. A major number of those were Muslims who were cremated against the needs of the family and against the burial rites prescribed in Islam and Christianity. Among them was 20-day-old baby Shaykh, who was forcibly cremated on 9 December 2020 at a cemetery in Borella, the most important suburb of Colombo, for allegedly having Covid-19. Muslims make up about 10 per cent of Sri Lanka' 21 million population and have long experienced increased attacks from Sinhala Buddhist hardliners. White ribbons were fastened on a cemetery fence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to protest the forced cremation of COVID-19 victims (Mahendran 2021 d).
e.) Burning flowers and lightning candles (images 25 - 32)
On 14 August 2021, the entire north-east of Sri Lanka commemorated the Sencholai massacre in 2006. On 14 August 2006, four Sri Lankan Air Force jets dropped sixteen bombs over the Sencholai children's home. 53 schoolgirls and three teachers were killed. The orphanage was considered a humanitarian zone, and its GPS coordinates were transmitted to the Sri Lankan military through the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan air force carried out its attack. Initially, the Sri Lankan government denied that the bombing had taken place and later claimed that it had bombed a Liberation Tigers (LTTE) training camp, killing "50-60 terrorists". But after investigations by international ceasefire monitors from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and UNICEF, this claim was rejected. Until today there is no account of the murder of 53 school children and 3 teachers (Tamil Guardian 2021 u).
Sri Lankan security forces tried to prevent the commemoration of the massacre and closed the roads to the Sencholai Children's Home in Vallipunam, Mullaitivu. Increasingly, Sri Lankan security forces are stepping up their presence to prevent any commemorative events, as annual commemorations are usually held at Vallipuna junction arch near the bombed home. Although prevented from doing so by Sri Lankan security forces, former Provincial Councillor for the North, M.K. Shivajilingham, commemorated the victims of the massacre in front of his office in Valvettithurai. Jaffna Mayor V Mannivannan lit a candle to pay his respects; Puthukudiyirippu Pradeshiya Sabha member, Sivapatham Kuganesan also held a vigil. Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) activist, Peter Ilancheliyan, laid flowers and lit a flame outside Mullaitivu Maha Vidyalaya. Some of the victims were former students there (Tamil Guardian 2021 v).
The principles of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) guided the study18. This phenomenological method claims that by analysing the themes in the participant's statement, it is possible to approach the participant's reality.
The study began by microcoding interview transcripts according to IPA rules. Reading over the transcripts revealed a list of microthemes that was subsequently aggregated into three significant recurring themes as the transcripts were re-examined. The independent coding of transcripts was followed by conversations with the participants to reach an agreement and validation. Finally, the major concepts were shared with the participants for feedback and expansion.
Each image was an act of resistance stopped in time against the psychologically, culturally and socio-politically disruptive effects of war and genocide, helping to maintain a shared collective consciousness and identity of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. All participants said that these photographs of resistance are stimulating memories and rewriting or reviving history in the context of continious erasure of history committed by the Sinhala government and army. Tamils are to be deprived of all symbols, memories and public places of mourning in order to prevent a resurgence of the insurgency. Protests, remembrance days, memorials, fotos and archive material of public mourning, performative acts of resistance are seen as acts against this continious erasure of history, reviving history, remembering history, and not forgetting history.
Participants revealed both collective and individual expressions of violence and survival. These images of resistance are non-verbal means of self-expression and meaning-making, through visualisation and representation. All of the participants see the relevance and some kind of importance to these images – to an extent - but express pessimism and hopelessness towards the potential of these images to actually change socioeconomic conditions. Rather many of them only see an armed resistance as the solution for change. Furthermore, they also see the need to address the international community with these images, practices, performances and to demand solidarity.
Reactions to these images of resistance were experienced and expressed on a collective rather than an individual level, sharing collective memories and identity, numbness, pessimism, and anger. Participants talked about their memories and feelings collectively as "Sri Lankan Tamils ", as an ethnic group and not as individuals.
I focused on individual and collective meanings and significance of each image of resistance, as described by the participants, inferring three major themes, which will be analysed and illustrated with quotations.
Images of resistance documented:
a) Symbolic meanings and feelings
b) International Solidarity
a) Symbolic meanings and feelings
Participants emphasise the symbolic significance of the selected images of resistance. About the Mullivaikkal memorial, one participant said:
"The memorial is probably made of stone. On a plinth is a mountain, which is supposed to represent earth or ashes or maybe even dead people. Arms and hands reach up from it. They seem to be reaching for freedom…it seems as if the hands are reaching out from a prison. "
Another participant commented on images that were taken during the five days march from Pottuvil to Pollikandy:
"The demonstrators all have the colours red and yellow, either as headbands or wristbands or flags. [...] It is unbelievable how many people participated and how these colours dominate all the pictures. These are the same colours as on the LTTE flag, the yellow tiger, the red background […]. "
About the white ribbons that were fastened on a cemetery fence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to protest the forced cremation of COVID-19 victims, a participant stated:
"I interpret the white colour as purity, as innocence, peace for the dead. [...]Normally, the dead bodies of people of the Muslim faith have to be buried wrapped in a white cloth. I see these many white ribbons as this white cloth that should be wrapped around the body. Instead, the government burns their bodies. It is terrible. "
Two female participants expressed that they feel touched and sad to see this. One participant, who is the mother of two children, especially was touched by activities on Sencholai massacre remembrance day, where flowers were burnt, and photos of dead children were shown and remembered.
One male participant was a little hesitant to talk about his feelings and said: "No, I don´t feel so much."
The other male participant clearly said: "I don't feel anything. It doesn't do anything to me. I was a soldier, and I saw a lot of things. It doesn't do anything to me anymore."
In an article "We Are All Alive…But Dead ": Cultural Meanings of War Trauma in the Tamil Diaspora and Implications for Service Delivery ", the researchers Pushpa Kanagaratnam, Joanna Anneke Rummens, Brenda TonerVA analyse perceptions of war trauma in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and interviewed 51 Sri Lankan Tamils living in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada. They observed (Kanagaratnam/Rummens/TonerVA 2020: 4- 5):
"All community member respondents expressed at some point during the interviews about the plight of Tamils and the consequences of war, leading to collective numbness or a sense of apathy having become the norm of the whole community. This is reflected in the following quote by a community member […].The majority of participants explained how the community as a whole has in some way become "thick-skinned" or "stone-hearted" due to the prolonged exposure to loss, violence, devastation, and chaotic conditions that come with more than two decades of political unrest and war. Many had horrendous experiences but indicated that they have learned to live with it. "
Further, they refer to Solomon and Mikulincer (2006), who draw parallels between the collective and individual reactions to a history of trauma, indicating that collective manifestations are similar in many ways to individual post-traumatic reactions (Kanagaratnam/Rummens/TonerVA 2020: 5).
Some reactions to the selected images of resistance speak to an emotional numbness at a collective level. Participants could relate a lot to "thick-skinned" and "stone-hearted" as a norm in the Sri Lankan Tamil community, this is seen especially more in the older first generation. Emotions and feelings are not talked about in the community. All of the participants could relate to this. They sometimes observe this numbness also on themselves. This is what they make of this notion "numbness": "thick-skinned", "stone-hearted" and not talking about emotions, feelings; not allowing or also not being able anymore to feel something and just "go through" emotional problems.
However, the participants and me could observe in the community that this "stone-hearted" and "thick-skinned" as a norm in the community is slowly changing with the younger generations, the second generation.
After further reflection, an oscillating motion between hope and numbness could be observed. Three participants stated that these acts of resistance demonstrate to the community and also to the world that they are not defeated and that the struggle still continues.
One participant described similarly to the two other participants:
"The struggle for freedom is still not over...it goes on and on for so many years. There is still no justice, no freedom for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is still not over. [...] You can see it in the protests and all the memorial days. Tamils are still going on...maybe because they can't do otherwise. But they are still going on, still protesting...and it's not over...still,…[…]. But these pictures and statues and these commemorative speeches and everything show that they… or we are not giving up and not defeated..yeah […]. "
Another participant states:
"After so much violence, Sri Lankan Tamils are still capable of organising themselves, organising remembrance days, activities, Tamil schools, Tamil sport festivals and so on. In Paris there is a whole city quarter "La Chappelle "that basically Sri Lankan Tamils rule. They have shops there, tea house, clothes shops, everything […] they…or we still can build up something. "
b) International solidarity
All participants feel that these images, these activities in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora are there for self-representation. Sri Lankan Tamils represent themselves.
One participant remarked:
"Most of the pictures you show me happened abroad, not in Sri Lanka [...] ah yeah okay some do, but most of them not...yes it is important. The politicians have to see all this...[...] You can see from the pictures of Pottuvil to Pollikandy that these pictures are much more blatant and extreme than the protests and actions that happen in the diaspora. There are not so many people there....but yes, it is still important. Everybody needs to know about it. Many Germans don't know anything about Sri Lanka and what is happening there...so yes, it is important to be visible and to protest. "
The images of resistance are means to ask for international active and radical solidarity and also show visibility, as well as representation. Social Media plays an important role in sharing and publishing widely these records of resistance and serves as a tool for the diaspora-home connection.19
The question about the potential to make a difference with acts of resistance shown in the images was the most sensitive issue. All participants expressed that protests, performances, statues of memorials can only make a limited difference.
One female participant states:
"The protests or statues are good yes...but it doesn't always bring something..or it doesn't always change something. Politicians, organisations or powerful people who are in charge have to do something and change things. But just protesting and taking pictures or doing performances...I don't think that really brings anything [...]."
Two male participants, in particular, expressed very strongly that these practices and performances cannot achieve anything without having the solidarity of the international societies:
"[...] but these images don't achieve anything!...No no, if you really, really want to change the situation, you need the support of powerful organisation such as the UN, the NATO. There is no other way […]"
After further reflection, all participants said that these images are an act of remembering history and retelling history again and again. One stated:
"[…] yeah...these images are telling stories of what has happened. Remembrance days are important and we should not forget what has happened [...] "
However, two of the participants continued to emphasise the need for international solidarity:
"Okay...these pictures or protests are a piece of memory. They tell the story again. One remembers and commemorates the dead. Yes, that's important, but you can't change anything that way, only commemorate and mourn and remember. You need the support of the international society [...]. "
Another participant says:
"After so much violence...at least they [the Sinhala governemnt] should let people…us…to remember and mourn in public. Even this is forbidden […]. "
The analysed images of resistance are sites of historiography and places where the collective memory20 or social memory21 of war, genocide, oppression and the struggle for freedom is constantly revived and transmitted to future generations. Images of resistance are ways in which memory reconstructs the past and constructs the present. They show shared histories, which is important to understand how the Sri Lankan Tamil Community views itself. By gaining knowledge and piecing together the Sri Lankan Tamils social memory, we can often deduce the underlying emotions and societal change that were the impetus for the Sri Lankan Tamil's coalescence.
Vandalism by the Sri Lankan state and violent urban architecture is still happening today and is a revival of the genocide against the Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as history distortion. The images of resistance are ephemeral in character. Due to the constant destruction and negation of monuments, places of remembrance, images etc., these resistant images are fleeting and do not last long. This makes it very difficult to archive these images of resistance. Yet, photographs or videos capture these objects that cannot be stored or preserved due to state vandalism by the Sinhala army. Images of resistance in the Sri Lankan Tamil context are hence often performative and symbolic. They function in the moment, mostly, or for a short time. The given political oppressive circumstances do not allow to preserve these commemorative architectures or objects/images of protest.
This qualitative study offered some strengths but also drawbacks. It allowed researchers to elicit a sample of images with psychological and socio-political importance for diasporic Sri Lankan Tamil participants and study their subjective interpretations using a novel photo-elicitation method. This method acted as a resource for remembering and narrating.
Through this qualitative research, it is evident that first-generation Sri Lankan Tamils who grew up in Sri Lanka and/or in the diaspora are connected to the homeland of Sri Lanka in different ways, sharing the consciousness of a collective traumatic historical experience and identity through collective action in protests or commemorative events. Participants were expressing themselves to belong collectively to a group, Sri Lankan Tamils as an ethnic group and not as individuals.
Participants were not physically present at the site of the protests, but they feel the solidarity that is demanded and shown in protests. Social networks make it possible to be at least medially co-present at demonstrations, be it passively emotional or actually participating via hashtags, reposts, share or like functions.
The research could discover a few new insights: First, most participants stated that images of resistance can not change socioeconomic conditions without international support from UN or other international societies holding power, but are nevertheless important and relevant for the collective social consciousness as a community experiencing war and genocide and for the collective memory. The images are used for more visibility and representation for Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as for diasporic Sri Lankan Tamils in their residing country to call for international solidarity.
Secondly, all of the participants are from the working class, living in the diaspora and isolated from their local Sri Lankan Tamil Community and giving insight in working-class opinions on abstract symbolism and practices in protest situations. Sri Lankan Tamils with a working-class and lower caste perspective seem to be rather pessimistic in symbolic and social practices to make a difference, but still see hope in acts of resistance.
Third, images of resistance show persistence and proof for the capability to continue the struggle, portraying themselves as active resistant subjects.
Fourth, I found that the photo-elicitation method was effective in encouraging participants to offer detailed narratives about different kinds of memories, experiences and opinions of the Tamil freedom struggle in Sri Lanka and of the community. I thereby gained information about participants' thoughts on oppressed and shown feelings on solidarity that might otherwise have been omitted.
The findings have social and cultural implications and may be disseminated to offer Sri Lankan Tamil people creative strategies for resisting and maybe finding hope.
On the whole, social media has a special role in archiving and circulating photos and thus also strengthening the connection between the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and homeland.
The method created a positive experience for participants who found the task highly meaningful and who were pleased to share their opinions and discuss with me since this was for all of them the first time to express their opinion publicly and working on an (semi-)academic article. In the process, I feel that I encountered the participants as resistant political subjects rather than victims of brutal civil war and genocide.
Obviously, generalisation of the results is limited due to the small sample size, gender bias, and relatively difficult (or disadvantaged) social and cultural background of the participants. Further, longitudinal research might explore in greater detail how Sri Lankan Tamil people from different generations develop and create images of resistance and find a hopeful political perspective.
Only cisgender22 and heterosexual23 Sri Lankan Tamil people were interviewed, and consequently, the results are limited to this group.
However, further qualitative research should also focus on queer Sri Lankan Tamil people. It was noticeable that the female participants spoke more sensitively and gently about the content of the images and their feelings, while male participants often spoke in a reserved way about feelings.
It is acknowledged that participants' reflections in the interview were inevitably influenced by the presence of the researcher and the context, as well as by the trusted or amical bond between researcher and participants. This also had its advantages, as participants had fewer inhibitions and could be more open in conversations. The intimate conversations with participants were often very emotive, and in some conversations, aggressive or confrontational language was used.
In addition, it is accepted that there is no qualitative research to present a finalised account. This qualitative study has been unusual in focusing on the meanings of specific images of resistance without elite, expert or academic opinions. Participants in this study presented their thoughts and opinions of acts of resistance and the need for solidarity.
Chandrika Yogarajah is a master candidate of “Modern South- and Southeastasia studies” programme at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and currently writing her master thesis on Home Movies and amateur film archives in the Sri Lankan Tamil context.