Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Art by Kristel Brinshot.
CW: Descriptions of fatal violence.
Tasha Manoranjan is the founder and executive director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), a human rights organization working for justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. She spent over a year documenting human rights violations committed against Tamils in north-eastern Sri Lanka, and remains committed to pursuing accountability and self-determination for Tamils on the island. Manoranjan received her B.A., magna cum laude, in Justice and Peace Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She earned her law degree at Yale Law School, where she served as the Features Editor and Book Reviewer for the Yale Journal of International Law, Chair of the South Asian Law Students Association, and Community Enrichment Chair of the Women of Color Collective. While at Yale, Manoranjan wrote a paper entitled “Beaten but not Broken: Tamil Women in Sri Lanka”, which was subsequently published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Manoranjan is currently a Senior Policy Advisor at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but the views expressed here are her own.
PEARL’s mission is to “advocate for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people in the North-East of Sri Lanka.” What is it about the Tamil people’s history that makes self-determination so important for them?
The Tamil people in the North-East of Sri Lanka have experienced the brunt of Sri Lanka’s decades of ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka began discriminating against the Tamil people immediately after gaining independence in 1948, starting with disenfranchising Tamils and then systematically stripping away civil and political rights. Tamils initially protested these policies of oppression and exclusion with non-violent methods, and after those protests were repeatedly met with state violence, Tamils began an armed resistance against the Sri Lankan government. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) soon rose to the forefront as leaders of the Tamil resistance.
I have always cared about human rights — in middle school, I started sending Amnesty petitions to free political prisoners around the world; in high school, I started a Women’s Rights Club.
The war officially began in 1983 with genocidal attacks against Tamils in the capital, Colombo, and other areas around the country — Sinhalese mobs armed with voter registration lists identified homes owned by Tamils and went on a rampage, murdering 3,000 Tamils while the police stood by or actively assisted. My cousins were in Colombo at the time, and when the Sinhalese came for them, they hid under my grandparents’ bed as my grandmother tried to bribe the mob with jewelry in exchange for their lives. The fact that my cousins were U.S. citizens is what saved them — those U.S. passports enabled them to flee before the mob burned down my grandparents’ home.
The war lasted until 2009, when the Sri Lankan government prosecuted a brutal military campaign against LTTE-controlled areas in the North-East, known as Vanni. The government first ordered international NGOs and U.N. officers out of Vanni, in an attempt to ensure there were no neutral (or white, rather) observers to the genocide. The military then established “No Fire Zones” for Tamil civilians to allegedly shelter in — and then bombed and shelled them with heavy artillery. The UN estimates that 70,000 Tamils may have been killed in a matter of months — Tamil figures suggest the number may be closer to 150,000 Tamils.
Tamils have long fought for a separate state for the Tamil nation, known as Tamil Eelam. The ability to self-govern as a people, free from oppression, is the only way Tamils can live and flourish on the island, and that is why self-determination is central to PEARL’s mission.
How did you come to activism? What was your journey like?
I have always cared about human rights — in middle school, I started sending Amnesty petitions to free political prisoners around the world; in high school, I started a Women’s Rights Club. I was raised [hearing] stories about my father’s activism — he was involved in protests in Jaffna, demanding the Sri Lankan government stop discriminating against Tamils — and about why my parents left the island.
I visited Eelam for the first time in 2004, the summer after I graduated high school, and my life changed forever. I met schoolgirls who had lost their parents in the war — one whose father was killed in front of her, eating breakfast at the kitchen table when an artillery shell hit their home — and I realized the incredible privilege I had growing up in America. I also understood the power of that U.S. passport — that I could use my privilege to support my community in a unique way.
I returned to Washington, D.C., where I was starting university, with a newfound purpose: to uplift the Tamil nation. Initially, I wanted to help in a humanitarian way, by rebuilding the schools that had been damaged or destroyed by years of conflict. And then, in December, a tsunami off the coast of Indonesia struck Sri Lanka’s coastal areas and the international community rallied with billions of dollars in aid to rebuild. Sri Lanka’s then-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, funneled those funds to Sinhalese areas, many of which were untouched by the tsunami. I realized then that Sri Lanka’s problems are political — not humanitarian — and require a political solution.
I started learning about political advocacy and went to an anti-poverty organization’s Lobbying 101 training, and adapted their techniques for the Tamil cause. I founded PEARL in 2005 with like-minded Tamil youth, to influence U.S. foreign policy on Sri Lanka.
PEARL is one of the few Tamil diaspora groups led by women. Why do you think that is important? How do you think it has informed PEARL’s work?
The Tamil community is traditionally quite patriarchal, so founding and leading an international Tamil advocacy organization as a woman is revolutionary in and of itself. A lot of young women have gotten involved with PEARL after having difficult experiences with the older “uncle” organizations, and it’s crucial to me to maintain PEARL as a safe space for activists who face oppression due to gender, caste, class, sexual orientation, and other systems of oppression. One young woman said PEARL helped her find her fire again, so I think we’re doing something right.
The ability to self-govern as a people, free from oppression, is the only way Tamils can live and flourish on the island, and that is why self-determination is central to PEARL’s mission.
How has the experience of being a member of a large diaspora impacted you and your activism?
I am very grateful to be part of the Tamil Diaspora. Though the reason we exist as a diaspora is Sri Lanka’s state oppression and genocide, we have maintained our strength as a nation through our global network of connections. I met my husband and many of my close friends and amma-crew through being a part of this vibrant diaspora.
What do you think the rest of the world can and should learn from Tamil resistance?
The Tamil people, and women especially, have shown remarkable resilience in the face of generations of genocide. Tamil families of the disappeared have been protesting for over three years, demanding answers about their loved ones. Their courage and determination to continue fighting for justice, however they can, is an inspiration to myself and many in the diaspora. I hope I am half as strong as these mothers and grandmothers whose existence and politics demand recognition and respect.
About the Author
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.
Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa.
Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.