As Civil War Ends in Sri Lanka, New Divisions Arise in New York

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue May 19 17:10:14 UTC 2009

May 19, 2009
As Civil War Ends in Sri Lanka, New Divisions Arise in New York

With the end of more than 25 years of civil war in Sri Lanka this
week, the Sri Lankan diaspora on Staten Island that was able to enjoy
the taste of home together without ethnic conflict is suddenly faced
with divisions within their immigrant community.
For years, whether they were of Sinhalese origin, like the owner of
the Lak Bojun restaurant on Victory Boulevard, or part of the Tamil
minority, like a doctor who has long relished the curries there, they
counted each other as friends — and never talked politics.
For Sanjeewa Wickremaratne, 40, the restaurateur, who served a dozen
years as a captain in the Sri Lankan Army before coming to Staten
Island in 2000, the news that the ethnic Tamil separatist rebels had
been defeated was simply cause for jubilation.

“It’s really joyful because, to be frank, everybody was suffering for
the last three decades,” he said on Monday afternoon, when his
restaurant was empty. “It’s peace for everybody.”  He dismissed the
history of oppression that drove many Tamils from the country or into
the ranks of the guerrillas, saying: “There was no ethnic problem. No
race issue, nothing at all. Only a terrorism problem.”

But the restaurant’s longtime customer, Dr. Anantham Harin, had to
disagree. His home was burned and his father killed by Sinhalese
extremists in the riots and massacres of 1983, he said. And from the
safety of the United States, he watched a tiny guerrilla band recruit
Tamils from refugee camps “because they had lost their homes and their

“I’m glad now the troubles are over, but how they achieved this
settlement, that’s what’s working me,” Dr. Harin, 64, said at Richmond
University Hospital, where he is a neonatalogist. “Genocide, mass
killing and lying and lying — that’s a thing that lies heavy on the
heart. This is not a thing to celebrate.”

Dr. Harin and others in the older generation of immigrants said the
sight of victory parties among Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and in other
cities, including Los Angeles, is exacerbating the raw feelings among
younger Tamils in the diaspora, which is more politicized in Canada,
Britain and Europe than in the United States.

Nimmi Gowrinathan, a young American-born Tamil whose parents fled Sri
Lanka in the late 1970s, echoed such concerns. Though as the director
of South Asia programs for Operation USA she could never support the
tactics of the Tamil Tigers, which have included hundreds of suicide
bombings and assassinations, she said: “The feeling people have is a
psychological defeat. There’s no avenue for change for a marginalized

The terrorism extremes that emerged in Sri Lanka reached New York in
2006 when a sting operation netted four men from Sri Lanka who tried
to buy shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and other weapons for the
Tamil Tigers. They are awaiting sentencing in federal court in
Brooklyn on terrorism charges after pleading guilty to the plot. Few
Tamils in the United States condoned such tactics.

And as so often happens in New York’s immigrant communities, the ties
among Sri Lankans have kept ethnic conflicts in check. The Sri Lankan
immigrant community — estimated at about 5,000 in New York City and
9,000 in New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut — has for 30
years, for example, held joint Tamil-Sinhalese New Year’s celebrations
in April. They have played joint cricket games at August picnics
sponsored by the Sri Lanka Association of New York, which has
carefully rotated its presidency between the Sinhalese and other Sri
Lankan ethnic groups, including Burghers and Tamils, as well as Sri
Lankan Muslims, according to a past president, Pushpa R. Jagoda.

“We are so happy that there is peace in the country,” said Mrs.
Jagoda, a Sinhalese who directs a Montessori school in New Rochelle.
“We just hope people can move on and help the refugees and help the
families that suffered from this terrible war that has been lingering
on in our little island.”

The task now is to find a way to talk together about the politics of
peace, said Ahilan Kadirgamar, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Democracy
Forum, which has been critical of the Tamil separatists and the

“That’s the challenge in the future — how to help constructively now
that the war is over,” he said. “The process of reconciliation not
only has to happen in Sri Lanka, but also in the diaspora.”

But for now, Dr. Harin will continue to refrain from talking politics
at his favorite restaurant.

“I’ve known Sanjay for many years,” he said, using a nickname for the
restaurateur. “I take my friends there. I value his friendship and I
know he’s a good, decent man.” And, he added, recalling rice curries,
fried fish and Sri Lankan desserts, “He’s a very good cook.”

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