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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> Cyber Cafes in Sri Lanka - Vidanage
Cyber Cafes in Sri Lanka
Harinda Ranura Vidanage
Tamil Virtual Communities
A study of cyber cafes in a Colombo locality reveals that for Sri Lanka's Tamils establishing linkages with the worldwide Tamil diaspora is no longer an act of mere communication but one that seeks active interaction. The internet has facilitated several alternatives that reconfigure and resist dominant assumptions and the virtual existence of Tamil Eelam does not replicate geopolitical configurations. Instead, spatial metaphors used to describe the internet exist in tandem with other models.
This article attempts to locate the formation of a Tamil virtual community in cyber space as a result of the use of computer-mediated communication. It looks at how the Tamil diaspora is linked to their Sri Lankan counterparts and especially to what extent cyber cafes have facilitated this. The research is based on the phenomenon of the emergence of cyber cafes as terminals of linkage between the Tamil community and the larger international Tamil diaspora against the background of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
The primary research was done in a two-tiered framework. The first tier included field research carried out in the Wellawatta city limits and focused on the emergence of an unprecedented number of cyber cafes and Net 2 Phone facilities and the dynamics behind the establishment of these centres. How effective have they been in connecting the Tamil diaspora with the Sri Lankan Tamils and has it in the process contributed to the formation of a virtual community.
The second tier of research has been via internet by participating in online chats with members of the Tamil diaspora, listening and interacting with them through discussion group participation and even posting messages at Tamil news servers.
The secondary research was done mainly through a survey of web literature including scholarly contributions sighting the link between diasporic nationalism and computer mediated communications technologies and the consequent space it allows for the establishment of web communities, cyber societies and virtual communities. References are also drawn from articles on the Serbian, Croatian, and Armenian diasporas as well.
For very many people, online interaction has meant a focus on technical matters. Often, identities are hidden, faces unseen. This distance is expressed in the terms we use for online communication: virtual reality, virtual communities, and cyber space as opposed to RL (Real Life). People like Howard Rheingold, Sherry Turkle, etc, would interpret such online inter-actions to be as deep and as personal as life offline, sometimes more so, as many of the barriers and inhibitions we carry with us within our community are dropped in the safety and anonymity of the online environment.
Diaspora is frequently described as an 'imagined community'. Borrowing from Benedict Anderson (1983), this characterisation underlines, on one hand, the improbability of experiencing first-hand contact with the entire group and, on the other, the adherence of its members to similar beliefs, symbols and myths. Anthony King (forthcoming) points out that Anderson's work was limited to that of the nation state; however, a number of other diaspora scholars apply the notion of 'imagined community' to emphasise the diasporic connections facilitated by various media and the simultaneous consumption of the same content by members of a transnational group [Karim 2003].
Diasporas are often viewed as deterritorialised 'nations'. The concept of nation has long been linked to a singular ethnic group's placement within a particular geographic location. This notion is integral to the mythical lore of many groups, establishing strong emotional links to a particular landscape that serve to exclude other overlapping territorial claims.
Forced or voluntary migrations diminish the physical links of those who leave the homeland; but they take with them the mythical and linguistic allusions to the ancestral territory, which they invoke in nostalgic reminiscences. Some hold on to a hope of eventual return. This creates the demand for cultural products that maintain and ritually celebrate the links of the diaspora with the homeland.
The dispersed settlements of transnations also exchange symbolic goods and services, including media content, among each other, thus sustaining global networks. Homeland politics forms a major topic for the media of some diasporas, especially those consisting largely of first generation migrants. Ties to the former country remain strong in these cases and individuals seek out the most current information, especially in times of crisis
The new media seem especially suited to the needs of diasporic communities. Transnational communities are also making extensive use of online services like email, internet relay chat, usenet, listserv, and the world wide web.
These global networks allow relatively easy connections between members of communities residing in various continents. As opposed to the broadcast model of communication, which apart from offering limited access to minority groups is linear, hierarchical, and capital intensive, online media allows easier access and is non-linear, largely non-hierarchical, and relatively cheap [Karim, Smeltzer and Loucheur 1998].
The ability to exchange messages with individuals on the other side of the planet and to have access to community information almost instantaneously changes the dynamics of diaspora, allowing for qualitatively and quantitatively enhanced linkages
Alternatively the location of electronic data, uniform resource locators in particular, situate the internet and the world wide web (www) as geographically based systems with corresponding geopolitical reference points in the physical world. Rather than recognising the networks formed through online data exchange, the prevailing archaeology of the Internet and worldwide web ties individuals to physical locations. This perpetuates the belief that our planet consists of a conglomeration of nation states with bounded territories and national subjects, sustaining, as a consequence, the inequities inherent to this way of organisation.
But some websites, however, resist this model, such as those launched by cyber citizens of Tamil Eelam, members of what might be termed a stateless nation that uses the world wide web to argue their agenda, organise, and inform electronic visitors. The designers of these sites employ the notion of networks rather than presupposing that geographical referents are the primary framework for meaningful exchanges paving way for the transformation of diaspora interaction into a virtual community.
Field research was carried out in the area of Wellawatta due to the establishment of unprecedented increase in numbers of centres. The area was selected for its Tamil population that consists of most of the Tamil intelligentsia in the Colombo district. The researcher came across information not in any formal publication but through discussions with prominent Tamils living in Wellawatta for more than five decades.
They explained the concentration of Tamils in Wellawatta as the outcome of the migration of Tamils in Jaffna who came here after completion of their higher studies, with basic degrees in universities of Moratuwa, Colombo or Peradeniya. As many wanted to settle in an area closer to Colombo, Wellawatta became the first choice as the cost of living and land acquisition cost were relatively lower than in the metropolis. Furthermore many wealthy Tamils who had migrated earlier to Colombo and were already established in business and politics and lived in the heart of Colombo, owned most of the land in Wellawatta; they sold it to Tamils at nominal rates.1
Added to this the location of the Kadiresan kovils was another important factor. According to one gentleman, an early settler in Wellawatta, an ancient Tamil proverb advises not to 'go to a village that does not have a kovil'. Also the fact that it was neutral of any religious influence when many surrounding locations were Buddhist, Catholic and Islamic areas also helped. The late settlers, with whom the researcher had informal discussions, said that the main reason for their choice of Wellawatta was for security reasons. Thus late settlers saw it as a Tamil enclave.
The formal history of Wellawatta with the exact number of Tamil settlers is quite elusive. E B Denham records in his review of the 1911 Census that Wellawatta was quite significant as it was one of the few areas in Colombo which saw a remarkable increase in population from 4,253 to 6,232 by 1911 which was an increase of 46½ per cent. Also he says that by this year, apart from Kandyan Sinhalese, the Tamil population also increased by 50 per cent. He also refers to the early chettis building a few Kadiresan kovils in the area of Colombo. After the 1911 Census exercise, the entire census that was carried out in Sri Lanka incorporated Wellawatta to the Colombo municipality.2
The recent census exercises by the department of census and statistics indicates that for 2001, the increase of the share of the Tamil population has been the highest in Colombo district; the Colombo municipality has the maximum number of Sri Lankan Tamils numbering 2,49,915 apart from the northern districts, where the census was not done.
The number of communication centres under the categories of normal communication centres, Net 2 Phone facility centres and browsing centres numbering exactly 46 are established along the Galle road stretch of Wellawatta which spans approximately 1.8 kilometres between the Dehiwala canal and Kirilapone canal. In Bambalapitiya, the area next to Wellawatta it is 15 while in Dehiwala, the area before Wellawatta it is 12. According to the company registrar of Sri Lanka and Colombo municipal council, Wellawatta is home to the most number of communication centres in Colombo and of the whole island.3
Net 2 Phone implies a provider of low-cost, high-quality, retail voice over internet provider (IP) services, either directly or through partners. Recognised as the first company to bridge the internet with the public switched telephone network, Net 2 Phone currently routes millions of minutes daily over data networks, saving consumers and businesses up to 90 per cent off traditional long distance rates. The user only has to log into the website and dial the number of any country he wants to dial to. The whole process is done through the internet, thanks to the advancement of computer mediated communications technology.
A sample was taken as during the years of travel to Colombo, the researcher noticed increase in the number of new call centres being put up and lately the change of services from simple communication centres to internet cafes, offering Net 2 Phone facilities.
Other than the traditional communication centres, which offered call services and only had IDD facilities provided by local telecom operators, the other categories used computer mediated communication technologies. These two categories provide for two types of communication methods of the users. These will be elaborated later.
The researcher used some common questions on 10 chosen call centres from the second category. The questions ranged from ethnicity of their clients, destinations where the calls were taken, duration for a single call, how often would a client make a call if clients were known to him and if he or she had information of whom the clients were talking to.
The responses were that most of the internet calls were made to Canada, the United States of America and United Kingdom, apart from that Germany, Switzerland and South Africa also received a number of calls. More than 80 per cent of the clients were Tamils; there were Sinhalese clients and Muslims as well. Most of the Sinhalese clients made calls to Italy and United Kingdom. The clients were frequent visitors; at least four times a week they would come to make calls and most times would also use the email facilities. According to the service providers most of their clients were communicating with relatives in other countries, who constituted the Tamil diaspora.
Some of the users said they were content for the moment because these services allowed them to be in close contact with their loved ones. Some of them were not comfortable answering questions like 'do you think that you are part of a internet community or society?'. Some responded saying that they did not really think about it but some said yes in response. Many used the medium because of its efficiency and the cheap rates per minute compared to local IDD charges. Calls made to the US, UK and Canada is merely charged six (Sri Lankan) rupees per minute.
On the other hand the browsing centres also provided internet browsing facilities and according to the operators in a sample of seven browsing centres most young Tamils used this for online chatting, emailing and voice mailing. This according to some was a virtual socialising arena where interactivity was very high and the users said that they sometimes chatted hours with friends in other countries and made new friends as well. They said Asian chat rooms and Tamil chat rooms were their primary choice for logging in. A premier browsing facility provider said that there were people who used chat sessions for more than 10 hours.
The Tamil diaspora carried out web-based research regarding participation in chat rooms, discussion forums as well as an analysis of certain web sites hosted. The research was carried out in a few chat rooms but the most successful chat room data was gathered after logging into chat rooms of www.tamilchatworld.com where the participants agreed to answer questions posed by the researcher while chatting.4
Most of the chat room users were frequent visitors. Some told me that they chat throughout the day and many were based in United Kingdom and Canada. They agreed that they did form a cyber society and sometimes felt as members of the same community though separated by real space.
The Tamil discussion forum www.myhub.com was used extensively for research and again the participators responded by posting messages on the separate forums the researcher also took part in. For example in the forum where the history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka was discussed, the Tamil liberation movement was mentioned several times. For example this message was quite striking,
Another was the discussion forum on the prospects of creating a greater Tamil Eelam in Tamil Nadu which saw extensive debate and discussion. When the researcher posted questions of them representing a virtual community, a majority replied 'yes'.
The virtual 'Eelam' citizens, opposed to the actions of the Sinhalese-governed nation state of Sri Lanka, would violate Sri Lankan laws forbidding national critique, if their sites employed the domain suffix of Sri Lanka. For this reason, the five most prominent Tamil Eelam websites - the Tamil Eelam homepage, Tamilnet, EelamWEB, Tamil Sangam, and the Tamil language site TamilEelam each have uniform resource location (URLs) that do not locate their nation according to their geopolitical coordinates.
Incorporating the terms net and web in their names invokes internet and web specific references, locating these sites in a strictly electronic realm. TamilNet emphasises this; no maps appear that outline the contested territory of Tamil Eelam. In fact, TamilNet does not necessarily invoke national affiliation. 'Tamil' refers to an ethnic group that includes a large population not involved in the struggle for Eelam. With no domain name that maps location, no clear base of operations beyond the www, and services aimed for a worldwide audience, these nets and webs, like their names suggest, situate themselves in an electronic network rather than tied to a physical location.
The Tamil Eelam sites refer to the physical location of Tamil Eelam in vague, ideological terms. On the Tamil Eelam homepage (www.eelam.com), for example, the map of the nation of Tamil Eelam is only an outline, shaded a darker pink than the rest of the island. This outline suggests a version of Tamil Eelam that is removed from the physicality of its location, a common practice of Tamils abroad: the nation is marked this way for children, and it appears as an outline in maps, wall hangings, and, perhaps, in the minds of its members. This consistent visual representation of the nation functions as a sign rather than a navigational tool.
By ignoring the specific details contained within and encompassing the lines that form the national shape, it provides an idealised place and national identity. Symbolic Tamil Eelam supercedes and overrides the need for corresponding territory.
Pradeep Jaganathan (Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies at the University of Minnesota) explains, "Nationals of Tamil Eelam have no desire to return to Eelam, nor wish to live there, but helps them to keep living where they live. It is real, lived not as a place, but as an image" whose space exists in virtuality and in the imagination.
The outline of the nation functions like a national flag, a symbol rather than a territory. Thus, rather than following the common practice of linking national webpages to geopolitical coordinates, the Tamil Eelam Homepage uses the shape to bind an imagined national community as a scattered network of its members.
In the same way, the Tamil Sangam website does not imagine the nation state of Tamil Eelam as an embattled physical location. Rather than mapping Tamil Eelam, the homepage displays a palm tree, implying that there might be more to its location than the 'US' while refusing to claim any specific location. To find a geographical reference to Tamil Eelam on the site's homepage, a visitor must click on this image of a palm tree, that connects to a page defining the organisation's mission and displaying a series of three descending maps. The first image is a map of south Asia, then a map of Sri Lanka. Finally, at the bottom of the page in a location that requires scrolling down, the Sri Lankan map with a black outline that represent Tamil Eelam can be seen. Tamil Eelam exists on this site as a sign, a black border, not a detailed and defined nation state with infrastructure or population information (www.sangam.org/Mission.htm).
The Sri Lankan diaspora or the mainly anti-Tamil and anti-LTTE diaspora sites seem to be picking this notion of virtual community up as they seem to understand the logic of new communities that emerge through cyber space.
Has the Tamil community in Sri Lanka evolved to a virtual community through the use of computer mediated communications? The findings reveal that though a fully fledged community has not been evolved the earlier notion of linking with the Tamil diaspora or simply with their loved ones abroad have shifted into a new realm as linkages are not merely about communication, it has shifted towards interaction. Interaction is a critical element in the process of community building.
This brief examination that follows from a mapping of the internet demonstrates that many alternatives that reconfigure or resist dominant assumptions are currently in existence.
The virtual existence of Tamil Eelam illustrates that the internet need not replicate current geopolitical configurations, and that spatial metaphors used to describe the internet exist in tandem with other models. Thus the Sri Lankan Tamil community is heading towards this formation but in this whole equation the Sri Lankan Tamils who are not physically in Sri Lanka and who make up the Tamil diaspora from various locations of the world has already evolved into a virtual community. This is quite clearly demonstrated when one monitors their chat rooms, forums and social interaction through the web and find that such activities are actively contributing to form a cyber Eelam.