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The Scope of Canadian Conscience

by Roy Ratnavel

(August 29, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) As my flight descended into Charleston, South Carolina, I could see Fort Sumpter in the horizon through my sunny window of the aged United Airlines CRJ aircraft. Fort Sumter is best known as the site upon which the first shots initiated the American Civil War — subsequently bringing on unimaginable suffering of the people during and after that gruesome period in American history.

This inspired me to write about the people I left behind almost 22 years ago and their unimaginable, still ongoing suffering due to the longest civil war in Asian history. Leading up to the finale of Sri Lankan Civil War, many military strategists, politicians and terror experts in the West have either failed to recognize the deeper issues in Sri Lanka or they have deliberately applied a methodology to cause one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of the century.
The murder of many thousands of Tamils last year by the Sri Lankan government is one more proof of lack of common sense of Western countries intervention in Sri Lanka. The listing of the Tigers, and not condemning the atrocities of Sri Lanka on Tamils severed to only strengthen Sri Lanka's 'racial' tendencies, fanaticism and sheer brutality.

We are now witnessing the outcome of such one-sided Western meddling with Tamil freedom struggle. Proud people of 2000 year old rich culture of Indus Valley are now risking the high seas and their lives, including the lives of many orphans, begging for another chance at life, and all we Canadians can say is, "send them back." Ironically, we call ourselves a nation of 'civilized' people. One has to question if the mankind has already lost it's sanity.

Today, Sri Lanka is a ‘Democratic’ dictatorship run by a tiny elite family of thugs that suppresses the Tamil minority and denies past violence against Tamil civilians. But as always there are few noisiest cranks and sympathizers of Sri Lankan terror apparatus with clockwork prediction ready to suggest that the persecution of Tamils is a myth propagated by Tamil extremists. We know the kind of people who deny the Holocaust. What interest anyone has in denying the suffering of Tamils remains to be discovered.

I would like to recommend to those who are in denial to pick up a copy of a recent U.S. State Department report which highlights well-documented atrocities committed by Sri Lanka last year alone. Despite their sophomoric denials, the systematic abuses by Sri Lankan government forces are among the most serious imaginable. Finally, this year UN has ordered a warcrime investigation on Sri Lanka.

Canadian officials too should stop making pedestrian, boringly predictable utterances on public forums. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said, passengers paid up to $50,000 for a spot on the Sun Sea. If this sum is accurate, it suggests these people were desperate enough to spend what amounts to a small fortune to escape their homeland. I think Canada should take their desperation seriously.

Toews laments that “terrorist planning and financing” behind this voyage is extremely prejudicial to these individuals and to the Tamil community. If I were fleeing persecution, I’d be grateful to any and all who facilitated my escape. The Tamil boat-people should not be tainted by a blanket presumption of guilt.

Right now Tamils are sort of isolated, being demonized and the sense is growing in Canada that anything associated with Tamils is somehow alien, foreign and aggressive. And that is very dangerous line of thinking. Minister Toews irresponsible comments only helps to fan this illicit flame of anger.

Even the possibility that the Canadian government may be considering a deal to share intelligence with the Sri Lankan government is reprehensible. Few years back Sri Lanka was voted out of UN Human Rights Council. Sri Lankan government even said our parliamentarian Bob Rae and the Swedish Foreign Minister are a threat to Sri Lanka’s national security. Given such lack of credibility and idiocy, relying on Sri Lankan authorities for background checks on Tamil refugees who have arrived on our shores makes as much as sense as asking Colonel Sanders, "What's for dinner?"

Tamils arrival in Canada started in earnest 27 years ago in 1983 after the Sri Lankan government orchestrated horrendous race riot in July of that year. The mass exodus accelerated in the last decade of last century resulting in the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of Sri Lanka. Since then, collectively Tamil lives were ‘rewired’ in this great land, and all around the free world outside the borders of Sri Lanka.

Prior to this, Tamils world consisted of the notion that populace mattered little. It is a word associated with state aggression and brutality. Tamils were exposed to death and destruction and witnessed many atrocities, engulfing us in general malaise. They are from a country where weapons dominated, and the slaughter of innocents was a form of development aid for the government.

Canadian environment of political freedom and freedom of choice, the process of enantiodromia began in one form or another. Tamils gradual transformation began from an unfairly organized, flawed democratic system into a liberal Democracy where one has the freedom to attempt to shape their own life. Tamils gained the opportunity of knowing and choosing between different forms of life — and, have now established a mounting presence in multiple facets of Canadian life: business, academic, political and social.

While the past may not repeat itself, it does often rhyme, as Mark Twain once said. Tamils’ future chapters to come may be different, but the verses are likely to sound the same. Contemporary events differ from history in that we do not know the results they will produce. Looking back, we can assess the significance of our past experiences, situations, hardships we faced and trace the consequences they have brought in our adopted country. While history runs its course, it is not history to us — rather, it’s our collective experience.

Tamils have worked their own salvation, their survival, in a long series of acts, conditions and judgments. Now Tamils who live outside of Sri Lanka have purpose. This purpose is a big part of Tamil survival. Hereto between life and death, these 492 souls arrived on our shores — chose life. Chose Canada.

Dangerous game of guilt by association could be played with almost anybody with a card and a highlighter. This whole thing has gotten to a panic mode. In our panic, us Canadians lost sight of something very important. If only someone could step up and cut through all this political posturing, grandstanding and fear-mongering and remind us what Canada is all about — a ‘civilized’ nation.

Rather than creating a smokescreen with bitter rhetoric about terrorism, Canada’s priority must be to expedite due process of each refugee claim to determine if they are legitimate refugees. Similar accusations were made last year as well when Ocean Lady came to our shores with 76 Tamil men and it turned out to be unprovable. Canada must stop this predictable pattern of reaction because such entry doesn’t need villains. Hate is diving us, and this hate is then harvested and sold as news.

If Tamils victimized in this conflict and fearing further persecution put their lives in the hands of smugglers, they are only doing what so many refugees before them have been forced to do. As an island nation, there is no way out of Sri Lanka but by air or sea. Anyone who says that ‘these people’ should have applied for entry to Canada through ‘the proper channels’ certainly haven’t paid attention to the news emerging from Sri Lanka.

Canada has an obligation under our law to take refugee claims seriously and give them due process. What is not sure is if Canadian government will send them all back to appease the masses to gain political milage — which will be unfortunate. What is for sure is if Canada sends them back without hearing their stories, then we Canadians have no right to claim that we are a ‘civilized nation.’

As I leave, I wonder if Sri Lanka could ever become like South Carolina after the civil war — devoid of state orchestrated killings but full of economic hope, peace and prosperity. And, how long would that take? Until then, Tamil boats will be roaming the friendly waters. Fort Sumpter appeared through my window yet again, as I ascended towards the cloudy sky.

The writer can be reached at roy_ratnavel@hotmail.com

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