Canada’s Tamils Force the Rest of Us to Consider Sri Lanka’s Bloodshed
Last October, I noted that Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger guerrillas (officially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE) were under heavy pressure from government forces, and wondered how the 300,000-strong community of Tamils in Canada might respond if the war continued to go against the Tigers. Seven months later, the Tigers appear to be on the brink of virtual annihilation, barely hanging on in a 4.5-kilometre strip of coastal land that represents the last remnant of their “state” of Tamil Eelam. Some 50,000 Tamil civilians are estimated to be trapped in the area, and there are widespread reports that at least some of these people are being forced to serve the Tigers as human shields. On the order of 200,000 civilians have already been displaced by the fighting, and dozens were apparently killed just a few days ago when the army accidentally shelled a clinic inside the remaining rebel-held territory.
In Canada, Tamils have understandably been engaging in massive and sometimes disruptive demonstrations to urge the Canadian government to press for an end to the fighting. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda did travel to Sri Lanka to pledge $3 million in aid for displaced civilians and request that both the rebels and the government agree to a ceasefire, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband made a similar call last week during his own visit to the island. However, the Sri Lankan authorities clearly sense impending victory, after a quarter-century of recurring and sometimes brutal conflict, and do not seem to be in a conciliatory mood. They’re evidently far more interested in crushing the rebel opposition – and capturing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who may still be in the area – than in contemplating any kind of humanitarian pause for the evacuation of civilians.
Several years ago, when the LTTE were going strong, the support they received from some Tamil groups in Canada forced the rest of us to ask whether we really wanted our country to be used as a fundraising base for a ruthless insurgency directed against the not-unfriendly nation of Sri Lanka. In 2006, of course, the newly elected conservative government settled this by adding the LTTE to its list of proscribed terrorist groups, making all the fundraising activity illegal.
Now, however, the ground has shifted to the point where we Canadians need to ask how much pressure we should exert on that same not-unfriendly nation with respect to its treatment of the Tamil minority, now that the insurgency is heading for effective defeat. Is it enough (or even too much) to throw a few million dollars at the displaced Tamils and make an easily-brushed-off call for a ceasefire, as Bev Oda has already done? Or should we try to actively force Sri Lanka to halt the fighting and perhaps even address the Tamils’ political grievances? The only thing that seems certain is that the 300,000-odd Tamils in our midst are not about to permit us to ignore the issue.