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Canada’s Tamils Force the Rest of Us to Consider Sri Lanka’s Bloodshed

May 5, 2009

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.


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    May 7, 2009 8:01 pm

    Good to have you back, Cor and thanks for your thoughtful post and to readers/writers for the posts. R

  2. May 7, 2009 11:01 am

    While I do not support the LTTE, nor do I feel comfortable supporting a government that suspends human rights and suppresses those Sri Lankan citizens who seek peace and reconciliation within the country. I have watched as friends and former colleagues in the media have had to go underground because they have tried to shine the lights on the dark corners of this current military offensive. Those who call for peace have been treated as enemies of the state in Sri Lanka and fear for their life. Canada needs to position itself carefully in support of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

  3. shamalj permalink
    May 5, 2009 6:01 pm

    The British who ruled Sri Lanka for nearly 150 years applied a “divide and rule,” method to control the rebellious majority by providing a disproportionate share of political power to the submissive minority. This is the root cause of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

    In 1885, out of 819 schools in the country, 300 schools were in Jaffna where Tamils were the majority (99%). This was a strategic move by the colonial rulers to breed the necessary intellect to rule the majority. By the time Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the major civil service bureaus and military were dominated by the educated Tamils. For instance, the first native commander of the Sri Lanka army and the first native commander of the Sri Lanka navy were Tamils. Consequently, the majority Sinhalese (80% of the population at that time) introduced affirmative action to remedy this injustice — an attempt the elite Tamil minority construed and propagated as “discrimination.”

    Open economic reforms in 1978 sealed the fate of the Jaffna Tamils, especially the youth, who witnessed the collapse of their agricultural economy by sagging demand as markets were flooded with foreign products. Tamil nationalistic leaders, fantasizing a homeland for 100 million Tamils in the world, exploited this situation.

    The West has clearly identified the potential of Sri Lanka, and I hope it also realizes the true nature of the problem in Sri Lanka and will help it eradicate terrorism.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      May 7, 2009 11:54 am

      Thanks for providing what I would describe as an articulate summary of the Sinhalese viewpoint. I can certainly understand the Sinhalese desire to scale back the disproportionate number of Tamils in senior posts following independence, but I can also understand why the “affirmative action” measures you referred to (which included, of course, temporary imposition of Sinhala as the only official language) raised the hackles of the Tamils. All affirmative action in favour of one group is negative action against another, which is why I’ve always considered “affirmative action” to be an underhanded and indeed almost Orwellian turn of phrase.

      Basically, I don’t blame competing groups for trying to maximise their own power and influence within a multiethnic state like Sri Lanka. After all, the French and British in Canada have had their share of tussles over the centuries. I don’t even really blame a group for resorting to violence when it becomes clear that some fundamental grievance cannot be resolved through normal politics, provided the grievance isn’t too petty.

      However, it’s usually advisable to keep the violence within reasonable limits. The Sri Lankan government has virtually defeated the Tamil Tigers, and a bit of magnanimity in victory would probably go a long way towards ensuring that the Tamils don’t end up with bitter resentments that could fuel a new insurgency when circumstances permit.

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