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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Opposition Politics from Afar: The Case of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

03/12/2021 | News - Research

How do diasporas oppose authoritarian regimes from afar? Political opposition to an authoritarian state, in times of war or peace, is not confined to the national territory. The resistance movements of Syrians, Palestinians, Tibetans, Kurds, Tamils, Cubans, Iranians, or Russians to their respective governments cannot be fully understood by focusing solely on opposition forces operating within national borders. When opposition is repressed or combatted at home, migrant communities often become major political players. But how do they do so, and what are their relations with homeland opposition actors?

Based on an in-depth study of the mobilisations of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora during and after the Sri Lankan civil war, Guyot identifies two fundamentally different models of opposition politics from afar, “supportive politics” and “exile politics”, which tend to prevail when the diasporic political field is either largely autonomous or largely subordinated to homeland actors. She analyses the particularly puzzling situation in which a large section of the diasporic political field operates independently from opposition forces at home, with its own political agenda, at times at odds with the views of homeland opponents. To understand these divergences of views between migrants and non-migrants, she argues, we must discard arguments about the supposedly more radical or pro-democratic attitudes of migrants, compared to their counterparts at home, and must focus instead on the way a struggle is conceived depending on the context at home.

During the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009), the armed movement operating in Sri Lanka -the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-, exerted its domination over the diasporic political field. In this context, Tamil diaspora politics were a prime illustration of a prevailing model of “supportive politics”. In this model, the struggle is primarily conceived as a fight to be conducted in the homeland and the diaspora is ascribed a duty to assist the resistance movement at home. Moreover, diasporic political practices are largely isolated from the host-country political environment and are dedicated to the collection of support from the migrant community, which can be massively mobilised.

After the LTTE’s defeat in 2009, Tamil diaspora activists continued to fiercely oppose the Sri Lankan authorities from afar but this time operating as fully autonomous actors and using entirely different modalities of action, representative of a model of “exile politics”. In this configuration, the international arena is considered as the prime site where the struggle must be conducted, and diasporic actors ascribe themselves a duty to lead the resistance. Whether they consist in advocacy or recognition politics, exile diaspora politics are strongly grounded in the political environment of migrants’ host-country and conductive to a broader political inclusion of migrants in their country of settlement.

Based on an extensive fieldwork, Lola Guyot’s thesis provides a detailed account of the mobilisation of the particularly politically active Tamil diaspora, challenging studies that merely describe it as a case of radical long-distance nationalism. The findings of her thesis also contribute to the theoretical literature on diaspora politics: (1) by analysing migrants’ mobilisation as part of broader transnational resistance movement, (2) by explaining diasporic modalities of action in relation to the context of the homeland and not only of the host-country, and (3) by moving away from discussions about the radical/liberal nature of migrants’ views to look instead at the way the latter conceive their role in the struggle across the conflict post-conflict spectrum.

Read Lola Guyot's thesis in CADMUS

Lola Guyot defended her thesis at the EUI on 26 October 2021. She is now a temporary lecturer in political science in Sciences Po Lille and a researcher in the CERAPS (Centre d'études et de recherches administratives, politiques et sociales) in France. Her research interests include diasporic mobilisations, conflict and post-conflict situations, and political violence, with a focus on South Asian politics. She is also a member of the Institut Convergences Migrations (ICM) and was a research associate in the ERC project “Social Dynamics of Civil Wars”. Before her doctoral studies, Lola Guyot completed MA studies at King’s College London and at Université Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne. 

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