My amma and appa used to tell me stories about their childhood growing up in Sri Lanka—the Pearl of the Indian Ocean as they called it. Amma wove tales of mischief and close-knit neighbourhoods and how children delighted in the simple pleasures of candies and buns from mobile vendors in Colombo. Appa took a more serious tone, reciting to me late-night debates he had in Sri Lanka’s north, Jaffna, about the merits of both violent and non-violent resistance to oppression. My understanding of my mother country is formed by my parents’ memories. However, their recollections are often incomplete due to trauma and the difficulty of explaining harrowing experiences to someone alien to utter devastation.
My parents grew up during the height of the Sri Lankan Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2009; a period which tore the country apart by creating ethnic, class and religious divides. As put by the Harvard International Review, the war was mainly underpinned by conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgent group. Once again, a struggle between Sri Lankan civilians and their government due to political instability is creating a restlessness which can be heard across oceans. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former president, and Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former prime minister, are part of a ruling family which has had a monopoly of political power in Sri Lanka since 2005. In July, one human rights group filed a criminal complaint seeking the arrest of Gotabya Rajapaska for alleged war crimes during the civil war. Protests and demonstrations have recently sprung to life due to their poor handling of Sri Lanka’s finances, resulting in the country defaulting on its debt payments. Food inflation has risen over 57 per cent and petrol and gas are now scarce commodities.
In 2022, Sri Lanka’s acting prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose house was recently burnt to the ground by protestors, was formally elected as the new head of state. Over the course of the current economic crisis, the flood of WhatsApp images from my cousins of harrowing protests, five-kilometre lines for gas outside their house and burning buildings—it all haunts me as we watch Sri Lanka erupt in flames.
Yet, even as helpless as I feel as a young Sri Lankan Tamil woman living in Sydney, I am continuously inspired by my family. Especially my cousins, who are using their autonomous voices to fight for an equal and fair nation. I am equally moved by my cousin, Ana, who brought her entire family, including her three-year-old daughter to demonstrations against the Government in Colombo. I am immensely encouraged by my aunts who took their rage to Facebook to call for action from their Singhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher family and friends. They have added to the physical and virtual cries for the citizens of Sri Lanka to rally regardless of ethnic or religious background. Such movements have been thought through in meticulous, purposeful and meaningful ways. The Aragalaya Activists, for example, have been orchestrating a combination of online agitations and meetings with political parties, student groups and labour unions as well as door knocking to pull a unified movement together.
This kind of unity is what propels me to act here in the Australian diaspora, still fractured by the ghost of the Civil War. For example, when the Sri Lankan Easter Bombings occurred in 2019, I became a core organiser of one of the largest vigils in Sydney, which saw interfaith leaders, youth groups, religious communities and more come together and put aside their differences to condemn acts of hatred. I also volunteer for the Sri Lankan Reconciliation Forum. I am part of a team which attempts to unify Sri Lankan Australians by holding vigils, interfaith dialogues and candid conversations between those still fraught by the traumas of war but interested in hearing what each other has to say. I know my greatest tool to achieve reconciliation is to observe and mirror Sri Lankan citizens in their fight for justice.
However, regardless of my motherland’s stirring resilience in the face of oppression, many patronisingly look down on us. Phillip, an Anglo-Saxon former co-worker, would always ask me at my work desk about Sri Lanka whenever he heard something on the news. Most of our conversations were awkwardly shaped around pity. Pity seems to be the only form of sympathy outsiders are able to give to a country which only appears in the ‘crisis’ section of newspapers and the covers of World Vision advertisements.
I extend nothing but pride to my motherland. Pride that so many of its brilliant citizens are leading the world in mass mobilisation effort in order to dispose of an oppressive and abusive government.
It is the image of citizens, including my cousins and aunts, crowding the Presidential Palace that my appa looks upon with a smile from his phone. We’ve already booked our flights to go back in November, so as father and daughter we can continue those same dinnertime conversations about resistance that he once had with his own appa and amma. These are conversations I will have with my own children, when we travel to Sri Lanka. Conversations about our motherland; an island with its plentiful horrors, but fierce determination to be free.
Satara Uthayakumaran is a Sri Lankan Tamil woman from Sydney. The languages spoken in her home are English, Tamil and Auslan. Her work has been published with the ABC, Diversity Arts Australia, YWCA, The Sydney Morning Herald and Woroni. Satara is a member of the Sweatshop Literacy Movement.