Tamil Tigress – The human face of a refugee

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( March 15, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Tamil Tigress - My story as a child soldier in Sri Lanka's bloody civil war - is the title of a book written by Niromi de Soyza and published by Allen & Unwin. The book has not been released yet in Canada and I have pre-ordered my copy.

The publisher’s blurb states: “In 1987, 17-year old Niromi de Soyza shocked her middle-class Sri Lankan family by joining the Tamil Tigers. Equipped with a rifle and cyanide capsule she was one of the rebels' first female soldiers… How was it that this well-educated, mixed-race, middle-class girl from a respectable family came to be fighting with the Tamil Tigers? Today she lives in Sydney with her husband and children; but Niromi de Soyza is not your ordinary woman and this is her compelling story”.

At an interview the author stated that she wrote the book 22 years ago but decided to publish it only 2 years ago when she saw Tamil refugees coming into Australia. She resolved to tell her story - to add her personal voice to the refugees’ story - on the basis that the refugees are also humans who deserved to be treated as such. It is also said in the description of the book that “Two days before Christmas in 1987, at the age of 17, Niromi de Soyza found herself in an ambush as part of a small platoon of militant Tamil Tigers fighting government forces in the bloody civil war that was to engulf Sri Lanka for decades. With her was her lifelong friend, Ajanthi, also aged 17. Leaving behind them their shocked middle-class families, the teenagers had become part of the Tamil Tigers' first female contingent. Equipped with little more than a rifle and a cyanide capsule, Niromi's group managed to survive on their wits in the jungle, facing not only the perils of war but starvation, illness and growing internal tensions among the militant Tigers. And then events erupted in ways that she could no longer bear”.

During her interview the author, when asked why she joined the Tigers – a terrorist group –said she had no alternative as she would have been killed anyway by the bombardment and shelling that went on around her. The only option she had was to take up arms and fight. She hastened to add that the Tigers did not conscript her and had, in fact, discouraged her from joining, telling her to go back to school.

This article is clearly not a review of the book. It is about State legitimacy and terrorism. It is also about the human face of the refugee. Some believe that terrorism is the outcome of sets of structural conditions within the State which endure over time and are often outside the control of those involved. Jeffrey Ian Ross said in 1993 that there are three broad structural factors that spawn terrorism: geography, modernization and the political system. Masters and Hoen, in their au fait article State Legitimacy and Terrorism, cite Ehud Sprinzak who said that terrorism is the outcome of a process of delegitimization. The authors say: “States are best able to secure their legitimacy when their institutions perform well in the interests of the population. Terrorism itself is a strategy employed by oppositional groups to challenge the legitimacy of the State…The way a State responds to terrorist threats can enhance or damage their legitimacy. If the State’s legitimacy is damaged, it can embolden the terrorist group resulting in more attacks”.

More attacks mean more retaliation, leading to the displacement of the civilian population and an influx of refugees across borders. Perhaps Niromi de Soyza was a victim of this process, as were those for whom she wrote her book. She fled the tigers, in her own admission, partly due to the internal growing tensions within them, presumably brought about by intensive State attack. Herself a refugee, de Soyza said at an interview with ABC that she had first gone to Australia as a student and, subsequently, after she told her story to the Australian authorities, she was permitted to remain in Australia.

Saba Abraham, herself a freedom fighter, refugee, vocal spokesperson for the rights of women refugees, in a speech delivered last week to the Zonta Club in Florida said: “For migrant women the challenge is the background that they come from," she said. "Always, this is in their mind and when they come to Australia or anywhere, to start a life from zero, they find it very difficult because they are learning everything. "Firstly, a new language. Second, a change of the system. Thirdly, they are disconnected from their culture, their family members and their community. Besides that, their conditions have been really poor. They have experienced war, torture, lost family and members of their community, and have been injured."

A refugee has been defined as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. Refugees have fled the genocide in Rwanda, the unrest in Tibet, the war in Iraq as well as the war in Sri Lanka. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which has its genesis in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of human rights 1948, which recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. Article 4 of the Convention requires Contracting States to accord to refugees within their territories treatment at least as favourable as that accorded to their nationals with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children.

The Convention accords to refugees the same rights as are accorded to aliens with regard to education, housing, employment, religion, and social security (legal provisions in respect of employment injury, occupational diseases, maternity, sickness, disability, old age, death, unemployment, family responsibilities and any other contingency which, according to national laws or regulations, is covered by a social security scheme).

The genuine refugee, who flees attack, torture and discrimination is but a pawn in the hand of those engaged in war and atrocities. When a nation reaches the state of catharsis where a regime of terror is being outrun, resuscitation of the society left behind should be done through values driven decision making. Effective leadership must move from conscious belief based decision making to values-based decision making if the aim is to create a future most desired by the people. The fundamental question to be asked in this regard is, “when a decision is being taken, is it aligned with the values represented by the government and the democratic aspirations of the people?. If the decision is rational, but not in alignment with the values, it would not be consistent with the objective of development and growth. In every instance, the nature of the decision reflects the value. For example, if a democracy were to value trust, then the leadership needs to take decisions that allow it to display and experience trust. If accountability is valued, then decisions need to be made which bring to bear the need for accountability. Values-based decision making is not reliant upon predetermined reasoning based on past experiences. It is essentially a forward thinking process which asks the question “how can I respond to this situation in such a way that I am able to express my most deeply held values?” The values-driven leader always tries to let his values and not his beliefs guide his decision making.

Despite the many difficulties refugees face in adjusting to their new environment and culture, as well as circumstances that make it difficult for them to do as well as citizens of their new country, refugees do reasonably well in their new country of residence through human endeavour and tenacity. They bring their will to survive, nurtured by the intense difficulties they faced due to war and human atrocities. I was encouraged to learn that a 17 year old girl who felt desperate enough to take up a gun and fight, overcame ghosts of her past, acquired a degree in science and law, obtained employment in a university and now lives with a husband and two children in Sydney the life that any citizen of Australia who has not had the trauma she has had, would have the fortune to live.

For that alone, I am anxious to read her book.