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Video Interview: CBC Newsworld Interview with Phillip Koneswaren

May 22, 2009

Phillip Koneswaren, interviewed by Peter Forestell
CBC Newsworld
May 11, 2009

A full transcript follows.

Peter Forestell: Tamil protests continue today right here in Canada.  In fact, right now, crowds are gathered outside the Ontario legislature and the Sri Lankan consulate in downtown Toronto.  This comes after hundreds of protesters crowded onto Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway last night, stopping traffic for hours on one of Canada’s busiest highways.  Well, last night’s blockade comes after months of persistent protests by members of the Tamil community.   Joining me now to talk about that is Phillip Koneswaren.  He is the vice president of International Tamil Radio.  It broadcasts in Canada and in Europe.

Philip, good to see you.

Phillip Koneswaran: Thank you for having me here.

Peter Forestell: Let’s just begin by getting a sense of what – you have call-in shows, so you have a way to plug into the broader Tamil community in Canada, which is quite large — something around 250,000 people.  How would you describe the reaction within that broad community?  Is it unified?  Is there dissension there?

Phillip Koneswaran: Well, what I can say is that the Tamil community itself may be divided in how – in its political stance.  A majority of them will, as an example, support the LTTE, there may be some that don’t, and so on.  But I think I speak for all Tamils when I say that we’re uniformed in our stance against the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka.  What I mean by that is that over the last couple of months, we’ve seen an extreme rise in the number of deaths in civilians. That is both in the firing area as well as the so called safe regions, camps…  And what we’re trying to do through these protests is to bring some attention to the deaths of civilians.

Peter Forestell:
So everyone is that unified, you would argue, in not wanting to see the further deaths of civilians —

Phillip Koneswaran:
Oh absolutely.

Peter Forestell: But what about the situation of the Tamil Tigers, who are a separatist – a militant separatist group who have over the years carried out numerous suicide bombings and numerous attacks against the state of Sri Lanka.  Is there any uniformity in support for that organization?

Phillip Koneswaran: Well, yes, there is, because unfortunately at the moment, with the lack of the international community helping Tamil people, the only organization that has, that is standing up for the Tamils are the LTTE.  And it has been so for the last 30 years.  No one else has come forward to look at — “Hey, what’s happening in Sri Lanka?  What is happening to this clear minority?  Why are they going – disappearing?  Why do we never hear from people in prison?”  The LTE has been the only force that has been representing the Tamils.  I’m not saying that they should be the only ones.  I’m not saying that every Tamil supports them.  But this is the fact, that they have been the force that has been representing us.

Peter Forestell: When people call in to the radio call-in shows on your network, what are you hearing from them about the role of Canada in this whole… ?

Phillip Koneswaran: Well, see, Canada is home to about a quarter of a million Tamils.

Peter Forestell: Right.

Phillip Koneswaran: Although we are mostly all very Canadian, but, we are first, second generation Canadians, we have very, very strong ties to our homeland.  Many people have relatives, families, and so on that have disappeared, that have been killed in the recent months.  And our community here in Canada is under a lot of emotional stress right now.  We need the Government of Canada to step in and say, “Okay, we’re going to do the best we can to protect civilian lives in Sri Lanka.”

Peter Forestell: Well, we just had Bev Oda in Sri Lanka, the Minster responsible, she just came back, it just came up again in Parliament today.  What more could be reasonably expected of the Canadian government?

Phillip Koneswaran: I don’t think we’re asking for military action, definitely.  I think, as an example, in 2008, Canada itself did about 120 million dollars of exports to Sri Lanka and 300 and somewhat million dollars of imports from Sri Lanka.  What we’re asking, maybe is to put more pressure on the government to protect human rights and to minimize civilian deaths by means of financial embargoes, through diplomatic process.  We have a High Commissioner in Ottawa, and through him we can cause a lot of pressure for the Government of Sri Lanka to let them know –

Peter Forestell:
It honestly doesn’t look like the Sri Lankan Government is going to listen to anyone right now with victory, from its vantage point, so close. It has the Tamil Tigers, the rump of the Tamil Tigers, confined to a 2 sq. mi. area.  They could conceivably wipe out that militant group —

Phillip Koneswaran: Absolutely, and I —

Peter Forestell:
— within a matter of days, and be done with the problem, and then —

Phillip Koneswaran:
Once again, I’m not going to put up an argument for why the LTTE should be saved.  But what I’m saying is –

Peter Forestell:
How much more can the Canadian government do than [inaudible]

Phillip Koneswaran: For the civilians, I’m talking about the civilians.  I’m not talking about the LTTE.  What the political situation is between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE is really an internal matter.  But what I’m talking about, it is a problem for us Canadian Tamils when we see our people in Sri Lanka being killed for any reason, whether it is because their government is trying to defeat the LTTE or otherwise, the fact is, the civilians are dying when the government has said, yesterday the government said that “not one civilian died in the weekend attacks”.  I mean, that’s a little difficult to believe.  I don’t think we need pictures.  And the second problem is, we’ve not had independent journalists or aid agencies allowed into the conflict zone.  And the question is: why?

Peter Forestell:
They’ve been shut out of the region by the Sri Lankan Government.

Phillip Koneswaran: And the question is, why?

Peter Forestell:
Just a final question, a very quick one, what has been most amazing here in Canada has been the level of organization.  How has that been possible?  How has it been possible to get hundreds of thousands of people –

Phillip Koneswaran: We’ve grown.  As a community, we’ve grown  over the last 30 years.  And we have our internal media — radio, television, newspaper, and so on.  And we get a lot of information on what is happening in Sri Lanka as opposed to what the mainstream community sees on mainstream media.  As an example, I see pictures and videos of civilians that –

Peter Forestell: That never make it on the air

Phillip Koneswaran: — have been killed.  That have been killed.  Exactly, exactly, and this never —  I think if, for a week, mainstream media were to publish everything that we see, you know, your questions may be different.  And the way Canada sees this would change.

Peter Forestell: Alright, Phillip, good talking to you.  Thank you.

Phillip Koneswaran:
Thank you for having me.

Peter Forestell: Phillip Koneswaran is Vice President of International Tamil Radio.  It broadcasts in Canada and in Europe.

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