As I was heading to an event on Saturday night to mark ten years since the end of the armed struggle and genocide against the Tamil people, messages started popping up on my phone from friends sickened that the hard-right Coalition government was going to be returned to power. The climate crisis was meant to be this election’s battleground and we voted to burn the place down.
Over the next few hours, in a hall in Blacktown, Sydney, my community grieved for the thousands of lives lost in our struggle for justice, freedom and dignity.
As Tamils from Illangai (Sri Lanka), we each navigate our own relationship to the war. To the 2009 diaspora protests. To parents who have buried their trauma deep inside their shattered hearts to protect their children. To broken families with aunties, uncles and grandparents strewn all across the world because those who could escape, did. To the guilt of having survived. To our identity. To the continuing injustice. To memories of loved ones and a homeland no longer. It is a relentlessly demanding relationship that leaves little room for ‘time out’ or ‘safe spaces’.
There were a number of Tamils at the event who had arrived in Australia as refugees in the aftermath of the 2009 genocide. The messages on my phone were sealing their future in this country. Their hope that a change in government was going to provide some relief had just been killed off.
As we left the event, with ten years of guilt, trauma and grief in our steps, the realities of the unthinkable Labor defeat started to sink in. Panic for the refugees still stuck on Manus and Nauru, the young Tamil family from Biloela awaiting deportation, and people on temporary protection visas forever separated from their families overseas fought for space over the top of the ABC’s coverage of the election by all-white commentators.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s carnage, I have never felt more distant from the grieving white climate crisis activists in Australia. Their privilege to choose what cause they want to support – and how much of their mental energy and personal time they want to put in the fight – is something First Nations communities, marginalised, racialized and surviving communities can’t share. We can’t afford to stop remembering, to stop memorialising, to stop fighting or to move to New Zealand. And the grieving never stops.
They have the privilege to say they can’t take another three years of this shit. More than twenty thousand refugees who fled to Australia for safety will have another three years of being separated from their families and will live each minute in fear of getting a letter saying they are now, somehow, “illegal”. Hundreds will be deported. Hundreds will be forced to leave “voluntarily”. There have been nine suicide attempts among Manus Island refugees since the election results were announced. Nine.
They have the privilege to harbour hope that a Labor government will be less destructive for the future of their children. But both the Labor and the Coalition have implemented horrific and violent refugee and asylum-seeker policies in this country and the genocide against First Nations communities continues. When the Sri Lankan government went on an all-out massacre of the Tamils (some estimate that 140 000 were killed in 2009), Labor and the Coalition stood with the government, and still do.
Imagine if, at the protests about the climate emergency and our children’s future, we held up the faces of the two Australian Tamil children (four-year-old Kopika and two-year-old Tharunicaa) who have been locked up under our watch for more than a year and are likely to be deported at any time, and we demanded they and their parents be given visas and allowed to return to their heartbroken and incredible community in Biloela.
And what about the Stolen Generation which is not just part of our past but also a of our disgraceful present? What has happened to the children detained on Nauru – now in the United States or under house arrest in Australia – who were showing symptoms of a coma-like illness that was shutting their bodies down? What about the national crisis of Indigenous youth incarceration and black deaths in custody?
With every coal mine built, with every kilojoule of gas extracted, with every investor who refuses to move money out of carbon and into renewables and now with the re-election of the Coalition government, the chances of preventing a global fascist climate crisis horror show in which millions will perish are reduced. We absolutely need to limit the catastrophe we are hurtling towards and time is rapidly running out.
As we dive into soul searching about what went wrong on Saturday and how to navigate another three years of no climate action and heating, let’s acknowledge that while we are in a climate emergency, we are also in a human rights emergency, fuelled by racism and emboldened white supremacy which is having devastating consequences for First Nations communities, migrants and refugees.
If our fight is truly about a just future, we cannot ignore these other emergencies. To focus on the climate alone is itself a form of denial. As a number of organisations centred in the Global South put it in a recent open letter to Extinction Rebellion, ‘our communities have been on fire for a long time and these flames are fanned by our exclusion and silencing’. Even if the election result had been different, an inclusive movement based on solidarity and interconnectedness, which also acknowledges privilege, is what we must build.
I truly hope that the largely white climate movement in Australia reflects on this and, this time around, not leave anyone behind.
Image: Rally outside the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, 5 April 2019. Brami Jegan.