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In Memoriam: The Tamil Uprising of 2009

By Krisna Saravanamuttu

On Mother’s Day in 2009, my community and I rushed into oncoming traffic on Toronto’s busy Gardiner Expressway. Images of the expressway ablaze with the red and yellow Tiger flag of the Tamil people dominated breaking news stories in Toronto. Unceasing waves of demonstrators pushed right through baton-wielding police officers—we were compelled by a force much stronger. What became an hours-long blockade of one of Canada’s busiest expressways was sparked by an enraged Tamil community; the night before, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces had slaughtered a thousand people in an aerial attack. For months, the global Tamil diaspora in major cities like London, Sydney and Paris appealed to the international community to act in accordance with the Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide through sit-ins, rallies, marches, and hunger strikes. This latest attack was more than we could bear.

A United Nations report estimated that between September 2008 and May 2009, 75,000 Tamil people were killed. Local sources on the ground estimate that the number of missing and dead was closer to 120,000 in these eight months. The Sri Lankan Armed forces deployed banned cluster bombs and illegal chemical weapons like white phosphorous in their attacks against Tamil civilians. They routinely bombed religious sites like temples and churches. Just like the US bombardments in Vietnam, the Sri Lankan government urged civilians to seek refuge in ‘No Fire Zones’—small areas of land that were then mercilessly attacked from the ground and sky. Our action on the Gardiner expressway was in protest against a genocide unfolding before our eyes. We were desperately struggling to bring attention to a humanitarian crisis in our homeland. In spite of Canada’s national narrative mythology as a champion of global human rights, the mass media and many Canadians dismissed us simply as terrorists who inconvenienced their Mother’s Day.

But you see, this wasn’t merely a conflict on a small island in a distant Ocean. Western powers have played a hand in the island’s conflict for decades. The British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS)—the same forces used to fight the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—assisted the Sri Lankan government in hunting down Tamil militant resistance fighters involved in the freedom struggle. Both Britain and the United States actively involved themselves in the conflict using both soft and hard power tactics. They used diplomatic isolation, and covertly provided Sri Lanka with training, arms, and intelligence against the Tamil Tigers while the country was engaging in a peace process. Sri Lanka occupies a strategic location in the Indian Ocean, and a particularly strategic location for the United States in its rivalries with China and North Korea. Whichever power controls the island increases their hold over the Indian Ocean and its strategic shipping lanes.

For the United States’ imperial motivations, the main geopolitical value in Sri Lanka is seen in its strategic harbor locations. When Trincomalee port—the fourth largest harbor in the world—fell to Tiger control, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) became a stubborn impediment to US intentions to set up naval bases, according to Dharmaratnam ‘Taraki’ Sivaram, an assassinated Tamil journalist. Stabilizing Sri Lanka by eliminating the LTTE was therefore crucial to the US plan of consolidating its strategic presence in Sri Lanka. Following the US and Britain, Canada—home to the largest Tamil diaspora—banned the LTTE and proscribed it as a terrorist organization in 2006.

While a vast majority of Tamils considered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or Tamil Tigers freedom fighters, media coverage, bolstered by the government’s ban, routinely labeled the LTTE a terrorist organization, and by extension also criminalized the Tamil Diaspora that supported the struggle for self-determination. Tamil expatriates that organized massive protests in 2009 to bring attention to the unfolding genocidal massacre in Sri Lanka were routinely criminalized with the ‘Tamil Tiger terrorist’ label. The word ‘terrorist’ sends the reader a very clear message regarding the Canadian Tamil community’s political aspirations regarding their homeland. Surely there exist other, more neutral words to describe Tamil activities like “activist,” or even slightly stronger words like “militant.” As I know through my study of the law, statements about the social, political or moral world are rarely ever simply true or false, since facts can be construed in different ways. The very language we use to describe the so-called facts interferes with the reader’s decision of what to believe about a persecuted group like Tamil people.

The ban on the Tigers had the effect of moving the freedom struggle from the realm of the political into the criminal. Tamil organizing in Canada was routinely subjected to harassment by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Activists like myself were often subject to scrutiny by CSIS and the RCMP at our homes and places of work. The ban on the Tigers in 2006 distorted the narrative of the Tamil people struggling against state violence and genocide into a political discourse about terrorism. The terrorist label rendered invisible a legitimate struggle for national freedom and self-determination.  

By the time the protests unfolded in 2009, popular opinion was already established by the Canadian state to render the Tamil community and their struggle for national self-determination as illegal. The legal ban on the Tamil movement created the conditions for the media and politicians to dismiss our appeals to stop an unfolding genocide. Instead, Canadian politicians routinely called for restraint by both sides in spite of overwhelming evidence that the Sri Lankan government was committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Our action ten years ago had the effect of finally changing the orientation of mass media in Canada from one of suspicion and wholesale dismissal to one where the mainstream began to finally take seriously our appeals for the Canadian government to do what was right and act against the genocidal acts of the Sri Lankan government. Though we were initially derided for our hours-long occupation of the Gardiner Expressway in 2009, that moment forced the mainstream media to engage with us directly, and allowed the mass public to put a human face to our plight. As we continued to engage in civil disobedience and public demonstrations in the weeks that followed, the public discourse began to change. Our actions were borne out of anguish, and a necessary intervention from a diasporic community to force an unwilling society to see us as people worthy of consideration, and a people worthy of existence.

Mother’s Day will forever represent for me a time to mourn all of the Tamil freedom fighters and civilians that struggled on bravely against the world’s indifference in 2009.

Krisna Saravanamuttu is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. He is a recipient of the
Activist of the Year Award jointly from the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Union of
Public Employees. Krisna has advocated for the rights of Tamil political prisoners before inter-
governmental bodies like the United Nations Human Rights Council. A passionate martial artist, he
aspires to fight for the most vulnerable as a courtroom litigator.

1 Comment

  1. I hear so many echos of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1050s & 60s. The impetus to action being the frustration from long term disregard for the people’s voices, the media’s use of specific language that colors the opinions of it’s consumers, the civil disobedience, the ability to show the media, and subsequently the world, another narrative that includes the voices of the oppressed and subsequent action because of the activism.