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OTTAWA–Canada’s 300,000-strong Tamil community, the largest Tamil diaspora on earth, has been mobilizing for months in major cities in Canada to draw attention to the dire situation in Sri Lanka.
“There is a collective grief amongst the Tamil community in Canada right now,” says David Poopalapillai, national spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). In recent months this "collective grief" has brought sections of at least two Canadian cities to a standstill.
Since Sri Lanka’s military captured the port city of Kilinochchi, a stronghold of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the country’s northern region, the death toll within the mostly Tamil region has risen to alarming levels.
In response, Tamil-Canadians have organized fasts, parliamentary meetings, vigils, protests, and acts of non-violent civil disobedience to draw attention to what many see as a campaign of deliberate killings of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan government. This campaign included a march of more than 45,000 through downtown Toronto on January 30, the biggest march in Canada against an international conflict since Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon during the summer of 2006.
These actions form one of the largest and most coordinated acts of international solidarity in recent Canadian history.
On March 16, activists formed a human chain around busy streets surrounding Toronto’s Union Station, bringing swathes of the downtown core to a halt. Smaller demonstrations have taken place in most major Canadian cities.
Last Tuesday, April 7, in tandem with similar actions in England, Norway and other international communities, busloads of Tamil-Canadians converged upon Ottawa, arriving from Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere.
After a rally on Parliament Hill, approximately 500 protesters broke off into several coordinated groups and proceeded to squat several intersections in Ottawa’s small downtown throughout the afternoon and evening.
Rush hour traffic was largely brought to a halt.
Demonstrators, many of whom waved flags bearing the emblem of the LTTE, continued to block the intersections until 7:30 pm, when they were pushed back by police to the corner of Wellington and Metcalfe streets in front of Parliament Hill.
There they have remained, their numbers swelling to thousands over the Easter weekend.
“Our community is dying there, it’s going to be wiped out if we let this happen,” said Kumughan Nallarhenm, who drove from Toronto to Ottawa with his family last week to protest in front of parliament. “So I cannot sit idly reading at my home or going to the office.”
Nallarhenm’s sentiments were shared by most of the Tamils who have clogged Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill over the last week. Many either have family in Northern Sri Lanka or know individuals trapped in the area.
Sahabthan Jesuthasan, a student at York University and member of the Coalition to Stop the War in Sri Lanka, has several family members in Kilinochchi.
“When the government ‘freed’ the area, we stopped hearing from them. We found out later that their house had been shelled and bombed,” he explained, adding that the lack of independent monitors in the most heavily affected areas of the conflict have made identifying the whereabouts of his relatives impossible.
“What’s worst is not knowing what happened to them. Nobody knows what’s going on.”
Until very recently, Canada has played a small role in Sri Lanka’s conflict.
Sri Lanka’s civil war began in 1983, following the destruction of many Tamil-run businesses during riots by Sinhalese nationalists on the eve of local elections. Tamils responded at first with non-violent protests, which were largely ignored by the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE subsequently managed to harness the frustrations of the country’s Tamil minority. Since then, violence on both sides has been responsible for over 70,000 killings along with other human rights abuses over the course of the 27-year war.
Assassinations of political leaders and bombings of heavily crowded urban areas have become a characteristic of the conflict. Prior to January, the LTTE had managed to function as a quasi-state entity in several northern cities, operating courts, tax administrative offices and even a bank.
A peace process, brokered by the government of Norway, began in 2002. By 2006, in the midst of already fragile negotiations, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse began a concerted international public relations campaign focused upon casting the LTTE as the main barrier to peace.
Backed by former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Donald Camp, the campaign overlooked the Sri Lankan government’s own history of discrimination of ethnic Tamils and its funding of paramilitaries in the North. The campaign included the launching of a pro-government website modeled after the Tamil website tamilnet.com.
Canada was the first country to respond to this campaign, following the advice of lead editorials by the Globe and Mail and the National Post.
The newly-elected Harper government officially placed the LTTE on its list of terrorist organizations in April 2006. Then Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day announced that LTTE supporters were “not welcome” in Canada during the press conference announcing the ban.
“The LTTE’s repeated use of violence,” said former Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mackay, “is unacceptable and seriously calls into question its commitment to the peace process.”
Mackay made no mention of any use of violence carried out by the Sri Lankan government over the course of the civil war. The ban was followed by several RCMP arrests of Canadian citizens, who were alleged to have aided in fund raising for the LTTE.
No such actions have been taken to censure other nationalist elements in Sri Lanka, such as the Buddhist National Sinhala Heritage Party, which many international observers credit with pushing the Rajapakse government to adopt a more hard-line nationalist vision.
Subsequent to Canada’s decision, the EU placed the LTTE on its own terror list in May 2006.
In June 2006, the peace talks collapsed. The Rajapakse government began a renewed offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Despite UN calls for a ceasefire, the Sri Lankan government resumed its military campaign early this year.
This campaign has included aerial and artillery attacks of so-called “safe areas” into which civilians fleeing the conflict have been sequestered.
UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay has estimated that 2,800 civilians have been killed since January, although some have claimed the toll has reached 3,500.
The Sri Lankan government has barred entry of journalists and humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross into the region. UN officials have warned for months of a food crisis in the northern region that may affect hundreds of thousands of people. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 190,000 civilians have remained in the inappropriately named “safe areas.”
"Sri Lanka's so-called 'no-fire zone' is now one of the most dangerous places in the world," said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a recent report.
“What actually happened was that the LTTE ban brought about by the Canadian government and also by other governments gave a strong boost to the Sri Lankan government to go for a military solution,” says Poopalapillai.
Poopalapillai said that Canadian Tamil organizations were not consulted prior to the LTTE ban.
The CTC, along with other Tamil organizations, have called upon Canada to impose economic and political sanctions upon Sri Lanka, and to remove its consular officials from the country until a ceasefire is declared. Many in North America have also begun a legal campaign to declare an injunction against a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan to the Sri Lankan government. Many Tamils believe that part of the loan would be used to finance the Sri Lankan government’s war effort.
The international protests have begun to have an effect.
The Sri Lankan government declared a two-day ceasefire over the Easter weekend, and both Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and the leaders of the NDP and Liberal parties have made statements in recent days calling for stronger action to support a ceasefire.
Organizers say the protests, which have included several hunger strikes, will continue until Canada adopts a major shift in its policy towards Sri Lanka.
Stuart Neatby is a former managing editor of The Dominion.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.