Bala Vigneswaran is the man the media calls in when there is a refugee crisis. An astute observer of international as well as domestic Australian politics and culture, Bala is a fearless defender of the rights of Tamil boat people. William de Ora spoke to Bala about his views and work with Tamil refugees in Australia
I met Bala Vigneswaran at his home in Glenwood, Sydney, the final morning of the third Australia-India test match. Bala greeted me with a broad smile and firm handshake. I had the impression that I was in the presence of a calm and confident man.
I had the feeling that I was intruding, and I couldn’t shake it off. When I called him to book a meeting time, he told me he was absorbed in the test matches. If it wasn’t for our meeting, he would’ve been glued to the TV.
Bala looked as though he was in a hurry to get the interview done with. There was no informal chit-chat. Through the corner of my eye I got a glimpse of the inside of Bala’s home. I could hear the sounds of family.
“You said you wanted to talk about me?” Bala said matter-of-factly. “My concerns are about the plight of Tamil refugees. I am not into big-noting myself.”
I replied, “Some say you are pushing the agenda of queue jumpers. They say these boat people are bypassing the ‘proper’ processes at the expense of legitimate new arrivals.” I knew from my research that Bala was a strong defender of the rights of the Tamil refugees. I switched on my tape recorder and waited for Bala to respond.
But Bala wasn’t in any hurry to defend or even answer my question. He kept his gaze firmly planted on me, even during a brief pause in the conversation. This was unnerving to say the least. I hoped that he would have known that there would be more to what I was saying, especially as we were talking from one brown person to another.
“What part of Sri Lanka are you from?” he asked me politely. I felt a pang of guilt as I answered, “Colombo, but I’ve been away just shy of 50 years.” I knew it had been a long time. For most of the 50-odd years I felt like I had disowned my heritage, my culture and my background. I had only been back twice since leaving Sri Lanka. The last time was only a few months ago. It was in fact like an epiphany; a feeling that I had finally come home. I had embraced who I truly was. Today, I was sitting in front of a man who was totally comfortable in his brown skin.
In a soft-spoken voice Bala asked, “So, you wouldn’t have seen all the atrocities?” He wanted to gauge whether I was a person who was regurgitating what I had read and heard or whether I had first-hand experience of the crimes against humanity, no matter what race they may be.
“As a child growing up in Colombo, during the 1958 riots, I witnessed Tamils getting beaten up with batons and machetes. I still remember it as clear as day, and I wouldn’t have been any more than about six or seven years old…we watched it like it was street theatre,” I said. “Just thinking back, it gives me the shivers, the things we’d seen as young kids, the violence and the complete disregard for human rights.
“As a child, I knew it didn’t seem right, but I never really understood it. For some reason, in those days the Tamils were the enemy. I had never thought about it much again, until today. It’s a memory that can be erased from a child’s mind, but not forever, and when it comes back, it’s horrific.”
“You know…” Bala paused for a moment. He looked straight at me, “…on the 15th of May 1985, my father was murdered during the war at a small town called Mihindala. And we never found his body. The government said he simply disappeared. They gave no other explanation. But, we know what really happened.”
As a Sinhalese, we had done horrific things to our fellow countrymen, and vice-versa. This was the great tragedy of the civil war. The men I had witnessed getting beaten up could have very easily been Bala’s father. Who knows? Or, it could have been someone else’s father, husband or brother. The thought made me feel sick to my stomach.
“Bala, with what happened to your dad, you could have ended up bitter and twisted. You could have lived a life of being a victim and carried that venom to your grave. Instead you found peace within, and I am interested in finding out more about the man behind the public persona.”
“I am a refugee as well.” Bala got up from his chair. For a moment I thought this was the end of the interview. It seemed I wasn’t going to get what I came here for. But then he surprised me. “Let’s move to the living room, this room is a bit too warm.” He took me to the living room. For the first time he made me feel the test match wasn’t all that important.
One life, two worlds
Bala Vigneswaran was born on 19 September 1961 in the small town of Alaveddy, in Jaffna. His early education was at Mahajana College. After completing year 12, Bala enrolled at the University of Peradeniya as a civil engineering student, and completed his Bachelor of Science of Civil Engineering degree in December 1984.
He recalls his very first job with the National Building Research Organisation. Four years later, he left Sri Lanka on a scholarship to do a Masters in Environmental Engineering at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, where he was awarded the Kim Tendall Memorial Prize for the best performance.
Once he’d completed his studies he said he wanted to go back home and look for a job. Bala says, “But the country was in real bad shape. There was no chance of going back.”
An opportunity came in 1990 to head to the USA for his PhD at the University of Massachusetts. By 1997, he had a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“In 1997,” Bala says, “the day after April Fool’s Day was one of the most important days of my life. On the 2 April I got married to my wife Suba. I wanted to go home, but Sri Lanka was heavily militarised and people weren’t able to move anywhere due to the unrest. We couldn’t get married at home; instead we had our ceremony in Colombo. I would have loved to have got married amongst my brothers and sisters and all the family,” he says.
“I can’t do what I do without a supportive family. At the same time what I do with refugees is important. And it is also a therapeutic and healing process for me. The definition of a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war or persecution. I was a refugee, so I know what it feels like to be one,” says Bala.
In 2000, Bala decided to leave his teaching position at Deakin University to become a Product Development Technologist at Orica Chemicals. He arrived in Sydney just after the Christmas bushfires in December 2001, to work for the state government as a water scientist.
In 2002, Bala the refugee became an Australian citizen.
In Bala, I could see similarities as well as the polar opposites of my father. My father was a doctor and politician, and an MP in the SWRD Bandaranayaka Government. My recollection of him was that he never really had time for us as kids. He was always busy championing the cause of underprivileged people, but not really paying attention to his own kids. Even though my dad was and still is my hero, we were never close to him at all. It still saddens me deep down inside that we never spent any quality time with him.
Bala was born in a Hindu family. He says, “I know what it’s like to live away from your homeland. Just like the kids in the refugee camps, you can very easily lose your identity.”
I can relate to this. Like so many new arrivals, I lost my identity very gradually over a longer period of time, although I didn’t realise it, or probably wouldn’t even have admitted it at the time. Bala says he has witnessed how people suddenly feel worthless, their confidence and happiness ripped away from them, leading to anger and violence.
“This is why I am a firm believer in teaching children their traditions, their culture. This is very important for their emotional and physiological well-being,” he says. “One of the ways is to teach kids their mother tongue. So, on Saturdays we run a number of Tamil schools. As you can see, we have very busy Saturdays,” he laughs.
“We also have a proper Tamil education system in Australia. I wanted to see a curriculum developed for Australia. It’s not about using books created for Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka or India. Because these books are for locals whose first language is Tamil. Over here, we don’t live the way we do back home. We need to be careful how we develop the curriculum, so the books are relevant in Australia,” he says.
Bala, who is part of the curriculum development board, says there have been about 2,000 students who have gone through these Tamil schools in Australia. “My kids are genuinely interested in speaking Tamil. They hang out with Tamil friends and go to Tamil and Indian movies. Suba and I don’t force them to do this. So, it’s easier for us, because we are not telling them that they have to,” he says.
“Some parents use the temple with spiritual teaching and others may use music. Everyone has their own way to teach their kids to keep their traditions alive. In learning their culture, these kids, even though they are born in Australia, don’t have to search for their identity,” he explains.
Speaking of queues
I never got the impression Bala was defending the boat people. He was simply requesting a fair hearing. People like Bala provide a voice for these refugees. Without Bala interpreting they would never be heard. With Bala, it’s never a case of simply interpreting what is said. Bala has the ability to stay still and listen, really listen.
“Queue jumping is an emotive term. It’s become a political football game. You need to remember, there is no queue for a Sri Lankan. The so-called queue jumping is not the issue. Queue jumping is a term created to divert attention from the real issue,” he explains. The real question, he says, is, whether they are being given a fair hearing?
“These people are human; I ask the authorities to give them a hearing by processing their case in an effective manner. If they are not genuine refugees, send them back. That’s what we should do rather than labelling them as queue jumpers,” he says.
It’s nearly lunchtime and I ask Bala my final question, “Why do you do what you do?”
“I can answer this in two ways. Let me tell you a real story: my daughter is very interested in what I am doing. We were attending a rally and there was a poster of two children who were burnt to death. She was very upset. I asked her what the matter was and she said, ‘These could have been our friends’. Then she stopped for a moment. ‘They could have been my brother and I.’ I am also a father, and it’s not in me to sit in Australia in the airconditioned comfort of my living room and do nothing.
“You see, I come from a lower middle-class family. Helping is natural in third world small towns. Like Hillary Clinton once said, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Coming from a village, people help each other. So this is very natural for me,” he says.
The two qualities that inspired me about this man is that he has learnt to forgive, and forget, and be compassionate to people, even those who were once his enemies, people who murdered his father. It takes a strong man to do that.
Besides this he moved me with his words, “The most important relationship you will ever have is with yourself. Your emotional well-being depends on how you feel about you, as a result of the relationship you have within yourself. True identity is being true to oneself. This comes with knowing who you are.”
But there was another strong message for me. I needed to remember where I came from, remember my traditions and celebrate them, not forget them.
I left feeling grateful for this encounter. May he persevere for a long time to come with his quest for peace and harmony and a sense of fairness for all, I whispered to myself as I drove back home.
The writer is the founder of IPNA—Investment Property for New Australians. He was born in Sri Lanka and is a best selling co-author of three business books