by DAMIANO RAVEENTHIRA
How do you get the world to listen?
I share an identity with 300,000 other Canadians yet still feel like the world turned a blind eye on us.
My family is originally from the island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka has a history of civil war between government and a rebel force: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers.
Starting in 1983, the war lasted 26 years – ending with the Tamils defeat and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran assassinated. The war began over government discrimination between two ethnic groups: the Sinhalese, who compose the majority of Sri Lankans and the Tamil minority.
My own family is part of the Tamils. Like others, we were relegated as second-class citizens, and driven out from our own country. I’ve been told by family members that accessing education was always a big issue in Sri Lanka for Tamils. My mother often says that on the university application itself, one of the questions asked was if you were of Tamil or Sinhalese descent. Tamils started noticing that less of their people were being accepted into universities, leading to bleaker futures.
Some have claimed that out of one thousand applicants, none would be selected because of their Tamil heritage. Tamil Tigers were led to fight for an independent land for Tamils. The armed struggle gave rise to a horrific war.
The stories of the refugees are similar, my family’s included.
In 1984, the government came to my mother’s village in search of LTTE supporters. The government wanted to ensure that no one fought for an independent Tamil land. They rushed into a neighboring house and kidnapped all the family’s sons. Before leaving, they showed the neighborhood what would happen if anyone was associated with the LTTE. Taking the older son to the streets, they beat him nearly to death in front of his own family, then placed electric wires under his fingernails and electrocuted him.
My grandparents put their youngest son on a plane destined for Norway after that. He arrived with no money, no clothes, and no knowledge of the language. The rest of my family followed him out of Sri Lanka, landing in countries all over the world.
Today human rights violations and war crimes are taking place in Sri Lanka. Child soldiers, suicide bombings, civilian massacres, and ethnic cleansing have been reported.
These reports mainly come from the families of the victims and often find their way to organizations such as Amnesty International. Several cell phone videos and photos of the atrocities have found their way to the international community as well.
The British network Channel 4 released a documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, in June 2011 showing many of the eye-witness accounts and cell phone footage of the crimes being committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
Things like government forces systematically executing civilian Tamils, and LTTE members that were taken as hostage and then executed are shown. The recruitment of child soldiers and suicide bombers by the LTTE is also in the documentary. A survivor of the insurgencies who prefers to stay anonymous due to the instability in Sri Lanka, states that several government aircrafts often targeted civilian areas such as markets and orphanages.
Journalists critical of the government’s actions have reportedly gone missing. Lasantha Wickrematunge was a prominent journalist in the country. On his way to work one day he was shot. The newspaper he worked for, The Sunday Sun, released a letter that Wickrematunge wrote stating that if he ever did die, it would be the government that killed him.
Journalists allowed to work in Sri Lanka tend to be government propogandists. Self-censorship in the local media is high, and journalists are deterred from expressing their views for fear of deadly repercussions.
In a June 15th, 2011 interview with Al Jazeera English, Rajiva Wijesinha, a Sri Lankan Member of Parliament and adviser to the president, says the government would not allow an international inquiry into war crimes and human rights violations during the armed conflict.
Tamils are relegated as second-class citizens and driven from their own country. Outside Sri Lanka, thousands of Tamils have taken refuge around the world. Tamils world-wide are calling for an international inquiry. They have other challenges to overcome, such as being stereotyped as terrorists.
Canada is home to over 300,000 Tamils, making it the largest Tamil Diaspora in the world. And yet, most people don’t know what’s happened in Sri Lanka over the last 30 years.
When discussing the issue of accountability with British Channel 4 News on April 2011, Yolanda Foster, a researcher from Amnesty International, says the international community needs to support an international warcrimes investigation in Sri Lanka.
“Amnesty believes that an international, independent investigation should be set up without further delay,” she says. “A situation where thousands of civilians were killed and where there were systematic targeting of hospitals.”
Sri Se, a Tamil musician in Montreal, says an investigation into the past is important, but living free is important to focus on today.
“Tamils in Canada just want a homeland that is free of racism and where freedom of speech and expression are allowed without being deemed lower than another race of people,” he says. “The problem now, here in Canada, is that people that know about the issue automatically associate Tamils with the LTTE, which is labeled as a violent terrorist organization.”
The LTTE fought for an independent homeland for Tamils, referred to as “Eelam”. They don’t represent all Tamils, but many Tamils are frightened to speak about the issue for fear of terrorist accusations.
Kartiga Thavaraj, a Tamil-Canadian and president of Journalists for Human Rights at McGill University in Montreal will speak out, though.
“It is a stereotype that Tamils have been trying to break out of for quite some time,” she says. “There is this perception that all Tamils are Tigers or Tiger sympathizers and it’s certainly not the case for everyone. We are a people who are also much more varied in our opinions and thoughts of the conflict than to just be behind the Tigers.”
In April and May 2009, Tamils in major cities across Canada protested to pressure the federal government to open an international dialogue over Sri Lankan war crimes and human rights violations.
Despite their desperation, the international community and Canadian Government didn’t listen to them. Tamil-Canadians felt as if their lost loved ones would never see justice.
Now, the Canadian-Tamil community’s cry is being heard. “In the last election in Toronto, we had Tamil candidates running on every level from school trustee all the way on upward” says Thavaraj.
Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the first Tamil Member of Parliament, was elected in early 2011. Sitsabaiesan offers a voice to represent Tamil-Canadians at the federal level, offering hope for Sri Lanka.
Tamils remain active in helping their community stay connected, too. The Tamil Association at Concordia University in Montreal (CUTAM) was founded in 1993. “Our goal is to foster good relations by creating a sense of unity with one another,” says Gowsic Thevendran, VP of Internal Relations at CUTAM. “We help Tamil youth network with Tamil professionals such as doctors and lawyers in order to help them create a sense of community just so they can connect with the better life that their parents left their homes for.”
Groups like CUTAM are starting across Canada.
The Canadian government has recently taken action regarding the accusations of the thousands of human rights cases that are piling up against the Sri Lankan government. The next Commonwealth summit meeting will be held in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. In an interview with Canadian Multicultural Radio, a Toronto based radio station, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked what his position on Sri Lanka was.
The prime minister says actions speak louder than words.
Canada hasn’t pushed for a wartime inquiry at the international level. The government has the opportunity to bring a report and open discourse internationally about this issue, however Harper hasn’t announced any plans to do so.
“I intend to make clear to my fellow leaders of the Commonwealth that if we do not see progress in Sri Lanka in terms of human rights and some of the issues that are being raised, I will not, as prime minister, be attending that Commonwealth summit,” he says.
Harper continued to say his government supports an international inquiry. It is time for Canada to play a role in helping Sri Lanka bring back democratic values to all people in the war-torn country.
Tamils have been advocating for peace in Sri Lanka, but Canada is their home now. The Tamil-Canadian identity is a hybrid of two very different nations. Without any conflict, these two nations have given birth to a new community.
The feelings within this new community are one of unity. Tamils believe that together they will achieve justice for the lives lost during the war and offer future opportunities and equality within the country. During interviews for this article, I came across an old Tamil proverb that summarized that feeling of unity.
“You can break one wooden stick, or two, or three but if you try to break a handful of sticks, they won’t break. They will only stay until you let them be just wooden sticks.”
Hopefully, the Canadian government will recognize this.