Paris: ‘Little Jaffna’ in Paris is a cluster of streets branching off from the rue du Faubourg Saint Denis in the capital’s 10th district. It stretches all the way from the Gare du Nord railway station to the metro station Chapelle on the northern fringes of Paris, in what is generally referred to as the “immigrant neighbourhood.” The area is usually tight with people, alive with commercial activity and the hum of business. It is packed with “cash and carry” stores, sari “palaces”, sweet meat vendors, restaurants, video and music shops, butchers selling goat meat, tailors, barbers, travel agents, and fresh fish-wallas.
For the last week, however, this hub of commerce has come to an eerie standstill. Peeling posters bearing the face of LTTE leader Velupillai Prahakaran’s are spattered across the walls. Not a stray cat seems to walk the byways and black drapes and flags cover closed shop fronts. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Paris, estimated to number between 60,000 and 75,000, is in mourning. There was shock and disbelief when news arrived that the LTTE supremo had been killed.
“No one believes he is dead,” Shalini, a 20-year-old medical student who came to Paris at the age of 10, told The Hindu the day Sri Lankan television announced Prabakaran’s death. “I am certain he has already left the country and will soon give us a message on how the struggle should go on. He is the only true leader of the Tamil people. We revere him, we worship him, and I am sure later today he will give us a sign that he is still alive.” Now that the LTTE has formally acknowledged his death she seems rudderless, adrift.
“We are waiting for instructions. The struggle will continue. New cadres will come up, equally determined to give their life for the cause.” Four weeks ago, the community, which tends to keep to itself, began campaigning publicly, urging world leaders to intervene to stop the ‘massacre’ of civilians in the Sri Lankan Army’s last push to militarily defeat Prabakaran and his Tigers. They congregated at the Trocadero, on the lawns opposite Les Invalides where Napoleon lies buried, in front of the French foreign office at the Quai d’Orsay, outside the National Assembly buildings, at the Champs de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and, during the May Day celebrations, at the emblematic Place de la Bastille where the French Revolution kicked off in 1789.
They wore red T-shirts stamped with the LTTE emblem of a snarling tiger and the organisation’s flag fluttered in their midst. They were a sea of dark, angry, desperate faces in a country where people of colour are rarely seen demonstrating en masse. Old women, small children, young men and women, students and workers declared their full-throated support for Prabakaran. “We are devastated,” said Jean Maria Julia, the former president of the Federation of Tamil Associations in France. “Some families have lost as many as forty members.”
Many Tamil associations in France have decided to stand behind the Sri Lankan Tamil community. But not everyone has kind words for the LTTE. “I feel terrible when I see those innocent civilians killed. What have they done to deserve this, herded into camps like cattle? Prabakaran did not know when to negotiate. He became too fond of the gun and made his people here into Mafiosi,” says Shanthamma, a Pondicherry Tamil whose parents once owned a shop in Little Jaffna. She said agents of the Tigers forced them out of their original premises in what has now become Little Jaffna. “First they came with a ridiculous offer to buy our shop. Then there were threats on the phone and through the post. Finally, we found our windows were being broken, our merchandise tampered with. We preferred to quit. How else do you think did they manage to lay their hands on this entire street [Faubourg Saint Denis] and all the streets around it? It was done with threats and coercion. We do not care for the Tigers. They did terrible things in the name of self-determination. What had the members of the Pondicherry Tamil Community done to them? Yet they forced us out in order to put up their own shops so that they could collect their so called Freedom Tax.”
Angélina Etiemble, a sociologist and researcher who has carried out extensive studies on the Sri Lankan Tamil population in Paris, told The Hindu: “The LTTE was so well organised that every individual Sri Lankan Tamil was more or less forced to pay between 536 and 839 euros per year — the rate was 2.32 euros per day, deemed to be a ‘decent’ living wage for those engaged in the cause or deprived of their livelihood by the war. Shop owners had to pay up more, between 1,678 and 2,287 euros per establishment.” Ms. Etiemble says she is not surprised by the level of loyalty to the LTTE or the almost total indoctrination of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. “They used their media network to the full — newspapers like the Poobalam Weekly, controlled directly by the all-powerful Tamil Coordination Committee.
Another weekly, Eelamurasu, is closely watched for any deviation from the official line — its founder was shot dead in 1996, allegedly by the Tigers. The Tamil Television Network (TTN), which operates from a suburb called La Courneuve, and several cultural associations hammer home the message of martyrdom. These are well known methods of propaganda. The supporters come to believe that they are the Chosen People, whose mission on earth is to defend the Tamil cause, to deliver their brethren from injustice. The associations claim they are defending Tamil culture and language. But at the same time they create fiercely loyal, brainwashed militants. Perhaps we in France were slow to see what was happening with the Tigers and slow to react.”
The disturbing aspect of the loyalty to the LTTE by considerable sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is the acceptance of terrorism and violent struggle. Jean Maria Julia rationalised the killing of Rajiv Gandhi, saying his intervention in Sri Lanka had led to the killing of 8,000 Tamil fighters. The LTTE in France was run along military lines and opponents of Prabakaran soon learnt to shut up. There was also the feeling of belonging to a larger cause, a larger victim-hood.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees began arriving in France in the late 1970s and France was generous in according them refugee status and political asylum. They appeared to have a solid network of community help. Sri Lankan Tamils soon found jobs, so the government left them alone. It was only much later that French authorities woke up to the fact that the LTTE leadership in France was engaging in traffic of all kinds, that the community was being coerced and threatened and that alongside genuine nationalism, many Sri Lankan Tamils experienced tremendous fear.”