Toronto Tamils war over peace

Local dissidents who want peaceful end to war back home target of attacks

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The handwritten sign taped to the front door is the only indication that the Tamil Resource Centre is located at the back of the building. But this library and drop-in just south of the St. Jamestown apartment towers at Parliament and Wellesley is at the eye of a storm within a storm.

Tamils in Canada, the largest Tamil community in the world outside Sri Lanka, have recently been under a media microscope. A string of stories in the National Post and a prominent story in last Sunday’s New York Times have suggested that millions of dollars raised here by Tamils flows through a pipeline back to their island homeland off the tip of India, where it funds a civil war that has claimed over 55,000 lives over the last 15 years.

The Tamil Resource Centre is caught in the middle. Its members want to do what they can for their birthplace, but they’re on the outs with those in their community who think war is the only way to peace.

Bomb threat

A bomb threat on July 1 during the TRC’s 10th-anniversary celebrations at the York Woods Library near Keele and Finch is the most recent incident to cause organizers to fear for their safety.

But it’s not the first time the centre’s enemies have sought revenge through violence. It was twice the victim of arson — once in 1989 and again in 94.

Sam Rajendran, the TRC’s secretary, thinks it was the theme of the play War And Exile that provoked the bomb threat. The play’s promotional poster says, “Tamil people long for peace and they want this meaningless war to end. Warmongers on both sides want to keep the war going.”

The anonymous intimidation is stressful for Palan Jayakaran, the poet and playwright who directed the play Irandu Pullikal (Two Points), one of four plays scheduled for staging at the 10th-anniversary cultural show. He also co-directed Yuththa Sanniyasan (War And Exile), which was cancelled because some of the actors were too scared to perform.

“This is the same kind of humiliation we faced in Sri Lanka with the war,” says Jayakaran. “We need open space to promote democracy and freedom of speech.”

The TRC has always ruffled feathers in the Tamil community. Its staunch defence of freedom of expression and human rights has caused its members to be tagged as traitors by supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the guerrilla group fighting the Sri Lankan government.

Armed struggle

Rajendran agrees with the LTTE that Tamils are oppressed. However, the 300 or so members of the TRC believe that there should be a negotiated settlement with the Sri Lankan government instead of an armed struggle.

“There is so much energy and resources devoted to the so-called liberation struggle and war,” say Rajendran. “We believe political liberation goes hand in hand with social liberation.” He says those whose voices have been marginalized in the Tamil struggle — those challenging gender, caste, religion and sexual-orientation views — are the target of the centre’s cultural work.

Members of the centre blame backers of the Tamil war effort for violent attacks, the most serious of which occurred in 1994 when the TRC was gutted by a firebomb thrown through the back window. At the time, the centre was believed to have the largest collection of Tamil literature outside Sri Lanka. No one has ever been arrested in connection with any of the violence.

Rajendran puts the centre’s experiences in a larger Tamil context. He speaks about a trend that started in 1986 in northeastern Sri Lanka, an area controlled by guerrilla groups. “Many militant groups were guilty of crushing civil society groups in order to put all the emphasis on the armed struggle and militarization,” says Rajendran. “We are not preoccupied with criticizing LTTE, as we are not interested in conventional politics. The problem is that when we do this kind of work, the LTTE wants to control it.”

The Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT) believes the harassment is coming from Sri Lankan government forces, not from Tamil groups. “There is a concentrated effort to undermine Tamil credibility by the Sri Lankan government,” says FACT representative Neru Gunaratnam.

According to Gunaratnam, the Sri Lankan government’s foreign minister is targeting the Toronto Tamil community and enlisting pro-government supporters to do their work. (NOW’s calls to the Sri Lankan high commission in Ottawa were not returned.)

Pressure groups

FACT has been pegged as an LTTE front group by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which released a report in March that states, “Most LTTE international propaganda tends to be conducted through politically sympathetic pressure groups and media units, the activities of which are coordinated through overarching umbrella front organizations. The most active bodies in this regard include… the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils.”

CSIS describes the Tigers as a terrorist group. Media officer Dan Lambert says the LTTE is operating in Canada and is involved in fundraising for the war.

Gunaratnam says CSIS’s characterization of FACT is false. “Saying FACT is a front organization of LTTE suggests that we are involved in illegal activities, which is not true.”

When I ask about the July 1 bomb threat against TRC, he says that pro-LTTE groups are also threatened. On June 10, a rally organized by the World Tamil Movement was cancelled when the Molson Amphitheatre’s owner received a threatening call.

As for Tamil Canadian support of the war effort back home, Gary Anandasangaree of the Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre says this freedom fight is no different than the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

“There’s a civil war, and the Sri Lankan government is committing mass atrocities,” he says. “People have to protect themselves.”

As for harassment by the LTTE within the community, Anandasangaree feels it’s overblown. “The real issue is the media attack on the community,” he says.

Harassment of Tamil Canadians who speak out on human rights issues has been a long-time concern of Amnesty International. Kevin Shimmon, AI Sri Lanka coordinator, feels that the way the media portrays the community misrepresents the diversity of Tamil public opinion. “The Canadian public only sees the headlines. There is so much more to the community,” says Shimmon. As a result, all 200,000 Tamils in Canada are perceived to be supporters of LTTE.

While the situation for those who speak out seems bleak, Rajendran has hope. “Tamil children growing up here in Canada learn to appreciate diversity and democratic values,” he says. “They will not put up with this kind of intimidation.”

Full name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

Population: 18 million

Percentage of the population who are Sinhalese: 74 Tamil: 18 Moor: 7

Languages: Sinhala (official) and Tamil

Percentage of people who are Buddhist (generally Sinhalese): 69 Hindu (Tamil speakers): 15 Christian: 8 Muslim: 8

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