“We would prefer not to have any big, public arguments right now,” said Vimala Ranjithan, a Tamil American physician who lives in Cumberland, Md.
The quarter-century-long civil war between the separatist Tamil Tiger rebel group and the largely Sinhalese Sri Lankan government officially ended in 2009. But halfway around the world, the two groups continue to come to verbal blows, enduring awkward run-ins at seemingly neutral locales.
“They can target you,” said Ranjithan, who wears a disguise with sunglasses when she goes to a protest against what she considers the Sri Lankan government’s discrimination against Tamils. She echoes a fear that many Tamil Americans voiced in interviews: that their critical words in Washington could result in the arrest or harassment of relatives back home.
Sri Lankan Americans aren’t the only Washingtonians who find themselves avoiding their foes on the streets of downtown Washington. The de facto capital of the world is a high-profile stage for expatriate rivals who, on their own turf, might be engaged in guerrilla warfare. Instead, they avoid one another at suburban strip malls, skirt confrontation at embassy cultural events or duck punches at political meet-ups when fights break out over conflicts that are unfolding thousands of miles away.
In Washington’s international circles, the acrimonious relations between long-standing enemies such as India and Pakistan, Palestinians and Israel, and Tibet and China are well-known, not least because they have some of the most organized and well-funded advocacy groups in the country. But the alleged high-profile Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington while he dined at his favorite restaurant was just one example of the subterfuge and animosities still smoldering just under the city’s surface.
What happens in D.C. . . .
From his offices on Capitol Hill, Fred Turner’s job is to focus on how these conflicts unfold on the ground in Washington.
“The truth is that Washington still plays an outsize role on the world stage. And what happens in Washington gets reported back to Budapest, Bakou or Berlin. Of course, that amplifies what happens here,” said Turner, deputy chief of staff for the independent U.S. Helsinki Commission, a government agency whose mission is to monitor the frozen conflicts, human rights violations and security breaches in 56 nations in Europe and Central Asia.
For example, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has a K Street office in Washington. Those who live there consider themselves an independent country, even though the U.S. government does not recognize them as one. It’s known to the rest of the region as occupied Northern Cyprus, separate since Turkish troops invaded in 1974.