When I learned that Sri Lankan Ambassador Palitha Kohona was going to speak at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, I knew I had to do something.
Kohona is alleged to have played a role in the White Flag incident, in which the Sri Lankan Army massacred soldiers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a day after the rebels had surrendered. Kohona has since become a senior diplomat in the Sri Lankan government. The White Flag incident is not the only case of atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan army in the wake of the LTTE’s surrender — the army is known to have killed many civilians.
My initial reaction was to turn on my hippie mode: to dig up my tie-dye tees and “war criminal!” placards and go to Kohona’s speech to heckle him. However, both my cowardice and sensibility held me back. I read more about him and I learned that the evidence connecting him to the White Flag incident is quite tenuous. I decided instead to put on my cleanest shirt, attend his talk, and ask him politely about his involvement in the massacre, if any, and about Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people.
Being a brown-skinned alien in the US makes this more complicated. I wondered: Would the Ambassador have security? Would I be arrested? Would that go on record, and endanger my residence and visa privileges?
My concerns were not entirely fuelled by paranoia.
At the City University of New York, students who protested General David Petraeus, of Iraqi Death Squad fame, were met with brutal police repression. One student was repeatedly punched in the kidney as policemen handcuffed him, the Guardian reported. In total, six students were arrested.
At Brown University, students submitted a petition to cancel a talk by Ray Kelly, police commissioner in New York City, in protest of the New York Police Department’s policy of selectively targeting black citizens for stop-and-frisk searches and spying extensively on Muslim residents. When the University rejected their petition, students forced the talk’s cancellation by turning up to heckle and boo Kelly. Brown is now considering punishing these students.
Ultimately, my small act of defiance at Kohona’s talk failed to be a spectacle. At the end of the Ambassador’s talk on diplomacy in environmental sustainability (which was informative and engaging), I asked him if he would like to comment on the allegation that he was involved in the Sri Lankan Army’s massacre of surrendering soldiers on May 18, 2009. I could tell that my question stunned the audience, and Kohona refused to answer it, moving on to the next question. I stormed off in a rush of adrenaline.
I am skeptical that my act did anything to change the minds of the rather sparse and drowsy audience. I have no doubt that the Ambassador will sleep untroubled tonight; the ease with which he brushed aside my question is a testament to his professional training and my amateur bumbling.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that what I did was important, at least personally. The Sri Lankan civil war means little to me emotionally. Even though I am ethnically part Tamil, I don’t even speak the language and have never been affected, even indirectly, by the Sri Lankan persecution of the Tamil people. But it is precisely because I have nothing at stake in the Sri Lankan conflict that I care about it.
I believe that those who are isolated from oppression have the luxury of doing something about ending it. It would have been morally indefensible for me to allow a representative of the tainted Sri Lankan regime to speak without protest, or at least interrogation. Similarly, I believe that Yale has an ethical responsibility to close its doors to war criminals, alleged and proven.
Last year, Yale hosted Tony Blair, a cheerleader of the invasion of Iraq that has now led to the deaths of half a million people. Yet his speech here was followed by sycophantic questions and trivialities. Not one student protested. Our counterparts at Brown and CUNY may be more raucous and less behaved, but I believe they have clearly asserted the position that they will not welcome oppression in any of its forms.
At Yale, however, our position is ambiguous.
Srinivas Gorur-Shandilya is a fourth-year student in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.