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Opinion: Tamil Protests: The Lost Message

May 13, 2009

By G. Kuganesan

I write this letter, not for personal gain or “Tamil propaganda,” as the Sri Lankan consulate might claim. Born in Colombo in 1981 – the state capital – I made Canada my home at the tender age of three. My entire life has been in the heart of Toronto, in the heart of Scarborough. My friends – white, black, Asian and every mixed breed and creed in between.

I am not an LTTE supporter, though I understand their aim and the logic behind some of their misguided tactics. I do not believe solutions come about through violence, but that is a separate topic, and not the basis of this letter.

I write this letter for the poor North American bigot. Even perhaps, the educated college student, who never had the time or the opportunity to research the facts for themselves. For the ignorant few who label all Tamils as “Tigers,” or a cancerous leech on the gracious Canadian immigration system.

To my surprise, the former and latter swarm in congregations in the comments section of online newspaper articles by the Toronto Star, the Globe & Mail, and even the National Post. Statements that scream: “go back to where you came from Tamils”, “no one cares about your problems”, “my busy commute trumps any cause you may claim – standing their with your tears & your rags for clothes”.

I understand the frustration from commuters in the city, the questionable motives impressed on them by the indiscriminate waving of the Tamil Tiger flag.

But the problem with the message sent out by these desperate protests comes in two parts. One, the heart-broken, emotionally drained protestor that dives into the mean streets, but fails to positively convey the message they wish to share with their peers. The other, the typical Canadian citizen who cannot move beyond their own personal stereotypes –- of refugees, of immigrants – in order to understand the reasons, the rationale, behind these desperate pleas for help.

We spend half our lives turning a blind eye to suffering – justifying people’s misfortunes: The panhandler on the street, who didn’t make enough effort to clean up his act; the tragedies of ethnic or social conflicts in areas which are foreign to us and have no direct bearing on our personal lives. Think Rwanda, AIDS in Africa, inner-city poverty.

The Tamil conflict has deep roots, distant ties that date well beyond the mere formation of a violent LTTE (Tamil Tigers) movement, a history buried in discrimination, segregation, and specific ethnic biases based on the “indifference of man”.

Those are strong words: ethnic discrimination, ethnic segregation, ethnic selection, ethnic “welfare” camps (surrounded by barbed wire).

The problems faced by Tamils are not much different from the segregation once faced by the African-Americans; the ethnic round-up, not much different from the Holocaust; the typical street stereotypes, not much different from the “Muslim terrorist” after 9/11. An ethnic targeting that may not be much different from the Tutsis of Rawanda. They are the same; they are different.

The Tamils do not fight for “an independent state” out of greed. They fight for an independent state for “Freedom,” for safety. Isn’t that the Western ideal? Wasn’t that what our country was built on? Aren’t “Canadian Peacekeepers” the foundation of our international reputation?

People have made Canada their home for freedom, for diversity, for acceptance.

Before the LTTE, there was already something wrong in Sri Lanka. The question is, will we recognize that and realize the patterns of hate, the patterns of deception, that over time have led to the desperate cries of the protestors for their loved ones and family, as they continue to pour into the streets of Toronto….

Facts on the Tamil Conflict (Pre-formation of the LTTE):

(information gathered & partially written by a third party: References & original text are listed in the Facebook Group “I’m not Tamil, but I support peace and justice for Tamils”)

From the time the island of Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, dating back to the 16th Century – the island was sub-divided into three kingdoms: the Tamil Speaking Jaffna, and the Singhala Speaking Kottu and Kandy. The Singhalese were the obvious majority in the latter two regions.
In 1833, the British amalgamated all three kingdoms into the Crown Colony of Ceylon. (The name most commonly known from Ceylon Tea).
The roots of the Sri Lankan civil war began in the mid-1800’s, when the Buddhist revivalist movement pursued a prophecy told in the Mahayamsa – “that Sinhalese kings would conquer and rule the entire island, creating a Buddhist State dedicated to the fostering of Buddhist ideals.” [2]
The prime targets of the Buddhist revivalist movement were therefore the British colonialists, Colombo’s English-speaking (largely Christian) elite, and Tamils.
When the British left in 1948, no safeguards were set in place to protect the minority Tamils during the succession of power.
The Buddhist revivalist movement morphed into Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which resulted in the coming to power of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1956 [3]. The Tamil minority was being systematically disempowered, disenfranchised, and eliminated since 1948.
In 1948 itself, nearly 1 million Tamils had their citizenship revoked and the Tamil representation in Parliament reduced from 33% to 20%. This made it impossible for Tamils to effectively oppose Sinhalese policy affecting them, including constitutional amendments. [4]
State-sponsored anti-Tamil riots were unleashed against Tamils living in Sinhalese regions of the island. [6] These anti-Tamil riots would recur once or twice every 10 years, with increasing brutality and state-collusion. Tamil civilians were (without provocation) beaten, raped, and humiliated by Sinhalese mobs as well as Sri Lankan policemen and soldiers. [7]
In 1971, A ‘standardization’ scheme was implemented to restrict Tamil admissions to university. The national discourse, including school textbooks were significantly “Sinhalized”, denying the historical Tamil presence on the island and constructing the island as a Sinhala Buddhist country. [8], [9]. [10]
… more information available online

References:

[2] Alan Strathern, “Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land “,Cambridge 2007
[3] S. Arasaratnam, “Ceylon”, Prentice-Hall (New Jersey), 1964
[4] Virginia. Leary, “The Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka”, International Commission of Jurists (Geneva), August 1981
[6] T. Vittachi, “Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots”, Andre Deutsch, 1958

[7] The Economist, August 8 1983, p. 43; The Economist, August 20 1983, p. 43
[8] J.C.A. Corea, “One Hundred Years of Education in Ceylon”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1969), pp. 151-175
[9] J. Spencer, “Writing Within Anthropology: Nationalism and Culture in Sri Lanka”, Current Anthropology, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jun., 1990), pp. 283-300
[10] E. Leach, “Buddhism in the Post-Colonial Political Order in Burma and Ceylon”, Daedalus, Vol. 102, No. 1, Post-Traditional Societies (Winter, 1973), pp. 29-54

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