The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfeRR) has completed 25 years of work among Sri Lankan refugees in the State who narrowly escaped from the ethnic war in the island nation. Its founder,
S.C.Chandrahasan, spoke to Vidya Venkat about the hopes of the refugees and the future he envisions for the Tamils, now that the military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has concluded.
The memory of his father, Thanthai Chelvanayagam, sitting on the verandah of their ancestral home in Tellipalai in northern Sri Lanka is still vivid in the memory of Mr. Chandrahasan. Living as a refugee in Tamil Nadu since August 1983, he says,
“I am told that place where my house once stood is a jungle now. Branches of trees have invaded our rooms through its open windows…” Running OfeRR out of the terrace of a building in Egmore, he says he retained the makeshift roof here to remind himself that he is a refugee after all and one day he must move.
Being on the wrong side of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE forced this lawyer and social activist to flee the island nation.
A prominent Tamil leader in Sri Lanka, Chandrahasan’s father was a Gandhian who believed in non-violent protest. “I knew right from the start that violence would beget more violence,” he says, in the context of the spread of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.
“I had disapproved of it when Tamil militants massacred innocent Sinhala civilians in Anuradhapura in 1985. At the same time, I was critical of the government at that time for enacting draconian laws that gave the army excessive powers to muzzle voices of democratic dissent. In the wake of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, social activists had become vocal in pressing equal rights for Tamils. The government had even suspended with the process of inquest mandatory before arresting presspersons,” he says.
“I survived three attempts on my life while I was there. The last attempt was when I was being interviewed by a journalist like this,” he says with a laugh.
Of the refugee, for the refugee
He has used his refugee status to mobilise support from Indian government and the international community in favour of the war-ravaged Tamils . “We did our best to make sure the refugee population was not misused by LTTE propagandists in the State during the general elections. We mobilised the refugees to assist the locals in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami,” he says.
As for the future of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, he says a lot remains to be done. “I appreciate the positive gesture President Mahinda Rajapaksa made by speaking in Tamil on national TV recently but words alone will not suffice.”
The government must ensure a free press and equal rights for Tamils. “The refugees can effectively contribute towards rebuilding the island nation’s economy,” he says. Internally displaced persons held in camps in Sri Lanka must be given amnesty and mainstreamed.
As of September 2008, a total of 73,378 refugees were living in camps spread across 25 districts in the State.
Between 2006 and 2009, 23,765 refugees from the war-affected areas braved the rough seas risking life and limb to reach India.
“Our hearts bleed every time we hear of a beloved one dying in the war zone,” he says.
“The Tamil civilians have long lived in fear of the Sinhala army and the LTTE gun. We wish to return to peace now.”