It’s been eleven days since Priya Suntharalingam, a Winchester High School junior, has eaten a meal.
The petite 17-year-old is the youngest of eight ethnic Tamils in the country who are fasting to call attention to the plight of their countrymen in Sri Lanka, an island nation off the coast of India where some 300,000 members of the Tamil minority are trapped in the fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil rebel army.
“They are struggling to survive and I am trying to protest,” she said in a telephone interview.
Her friends have tried to talk her out of it. But she has pressed on, subsisting on water, vitamins, and Gatorade as part of a protest called Starving for Peace, organized by members of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, or PEARL.
“I was lucky enough to be born here, away from the bombs, away from the death, and away from the extremist government that treats you like a second-class citizen because of the language you speak,” she said. “If my family wasn’t lucky enough to get out of the country . . . I might have been suffering the same fate.”
Suntharalingam was born in Boston, but her mother moved to the United States from Sri Lanka in 1989 with her husband, eventually joining roughly 350 Tamil families in the Boston area. Suntharalingam learned to speak Tamil before she could speak English, and her mother cooks Tamil food every day.
Suntharalingam stays connected to Tamil culture by participating in the Boston Thamil Association of New England, and through the stories her mother and uncles tell, Suntharalingam said. Three years ago, she traveled to Sri Lanka to attend one of her uncle’s weddings.
“I’ve grown up purely Tamil,” Suntharalingam said. “It kind of runs through me.”
Tens of thousands have died in the conflict between the Sinhalese majority, which makes up 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, and the Tamil minority, constituting about 10 percent.
Tension between the two groups has existed since Sri Lanka became independent from the British in 1948, but the situation erupted into all-out war in 1983, when the rebel Tamil Tigers began fighting for a separate homeland using suicide bombings as a tactic. The Sri Lankan government responded with a brutal crackdown on ordinary civilians.
In 2002, the government and the Tamil Tigers formalized a cease-fire. But last month, the Sri Lankan government began a massive offensive that has shrunk rebel-held territory – once estimated at 7,000 square miles – to just 80.
In recent weeks, hundreds of noncombatants are believed to have been killed in the fighting; the Sri Lankan government has reportedly bombed hospitals, and a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew herself up at a refugee camp. The Sri Lankan military has been reluctant to let World Food Program convoys into the war zone, insisting that a humanitarian pause would let the rebels regroup or escape.
That prompted Suntharalingam and other youths involved with PEARL to plan a hunger strike to pressure the United Nations and the Obama administration to help the Tamils.
At first, her mother did not believe she would be able to last very long because she loves to eat. Now she worries aloud that her daughter will grow so thin she will “disappear.” But her mother supports the cause.
“As a mother it’s difficult,” said Suntharalingam’s mother, Suba, who is vice president of the Boston Thamil Association. “Even though she was born here and lives here, she was feeling for others’ suffering. You have to be proud about it.”
Suntharalingam’s last meal, a Burger King Whopper, was at midnight Feb. 2. Since then, the gnawing in her belly has not been nearly as bad as she expected. Her mind is not as sharp in class, however. She has taken to watching her step dance practice after school, rather than joining in. When she gets home in the afternoon, she runs upstairs and shuts the door, to keep out the smell of her mother’s wonderful cooking. Every other day, she joins a supportive conference call with the others who are fasting. She has blogged about her experience on PEARL’s website.
“It would be nice for people to understand that if our people are gone and our country has disappeared, then there won’t be a Tamil culture to go to,” she wrote. “We all have to take action immediately to save our country, our people, our language, our identity.”
Suntharalingam’s group plans to fast until they have forfeited 10,000 meals cumulatively – each meal representing 30 of the estimated 300,000 Tamils trapped in the war zone. On PEARL’s website, people can pledge to fast a meal themselves, deducting from the total. So far, more than 1,100 Americans, including dozens of Bostonians, have pledged to forgo meals.
Suntharalingam, who wants to become a doctor, plans to travel to Sri Lanka after graduation. For now, she said, her fast will continue.
“As long as I can. I’m hoping a month,” she said.