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Human Rights Watch in Toronto and the LTTE’s Arrogance

By Balan Suntheram

Sunday's public meeting on child soldiers in Sri Lanka hosted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) could have been an opportunity for discussion and introspection within the Tamil community. Instead, the evening devolved into a farce of orchestrated heckling, tired slogans, and indignant monologues by self-styled leaders of the Tamil community. Presumably, these performances were intended to convey the righteous outrage of a united Tamil community to the panel comprising of the Former Premier of Ontario Bob Rae, Jo Becker of HRW, and Noah Novogrodsky of the University of Toronto's Law School. What they demonstrated instead, were the level of intimidation within Toronto's Tamil community, and the singular lack of concern by the LTTE supporters for Tamil children in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

The Scarborough Civic Center, located at the heart of the Toronto Tamil ghetto packed with three hundred people, with many standing in the back of the hall. The week preceding the event had been seen much media attention and talk about the meeting in the community. While the audience was dominated by men in their twenties, thirties and forties, there were also women and old people present.

The evening's proceedings were halted after the introductions by the Chair when Gary, a rising star among the LTTE's fiefdom in Toronto demanded to know why there was no representative from 'our' community on the panel. His self-important speech was amplified by his strategically-placed disciples, who applauded, shouted slogans, and made (disappointingly empty) threats of leaving the hall. Gary, and others attempted to propose Professor Chandrakanthan. They proposed as speaker an old LTTE stalwart, who in turn unashamedly walked up to the panel only to be denounced and shouted down as "priest who supports killing"; Pon Kulendiran and Fr. Xavier also barked their demand to be heard, but were fortunately ignored. The LTTE's repeated assertions of representing a united Tamil community were lost, somewhere, in the cacophony of voices suggesting and rejecting representatives. None of these self-appointed leaders of the Tamil community even attempted to control the young thugs who were organized and brought in to intimidate the audience, rather they joined in the rowdiness.

But such a cacophony is a rare delight in Toronto, where the multiplicity of voices is usually stifled under a heavy blanket of fear. It is no surprise that HRW was unable to find a Tamil human rights activist who could safely comment on the report - very few could safely comment in that room, much less speak as an official panellist. Indeed, as organised elements of the audience shouted with increasing volume and menace that there was no intimidation in Toronto, it became clear that the intimidation was very real indeed. At its height Bob Rae himself declared, “I will not be intimidated.” LTTE stooges are fond of asserting, in wide-eyed disbelief, that ‘this is Canada - how can such talk of intimidation be taken seriously?’ Sunday night was ample evidence of the LTTE's attempts to control all public spaces relating to the Tamil community in Toronto, including a program organised by an international human rights group. This prompted even Bob Rae to declare “in my 25 years of public life, I have never been prevented from speaking.” One man muttered, “the Canadian government allowed LTTE to hold their Pongu Thamil this year, I am sure they will teach the LTTE a lesson next year.”

Indeed, life in Tamil Toronto mimics life under the LTTE in the North and East. Not as violent, perhaps, but just as repressed. As one man commented “these are the same hooligans who made a carnival of the elections in the North and East.” But the relationship between Toronto’s LTTE culture and the LTTE in the North and East is not a one-way street. Toronto also wields substantial influence over events in the North and East. And it is precisely because of the Toronto Tamil community’s influence with the LTTE that HRW sought to engage them in the first place.

Back at the meeting, while all the barking and growling by LTTE front men continued one woman got up and shouted them down asking “don’t you have any decency?” Eventually, after thirty minutes of rowdy behaviour by the forty or fifty organized goons of the LTTE that had come to disrupt the meeting, Bob Rae managed to calm the crowd and made his presentation. He talked at length about the conflict and the need for a democratic culture to take root in the North and East. And he ended by saying, it would even be in the interest of LTTE supporters to make sure the LTTE stopped recruiting child soldiers, because if it did not, it would continue to face condemnation and isolation from the international community. Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division then made a presentation outlining the HRW report and their findings. She read testimony of children and parents abused mercilessly by the LTTE in the East, of the climate of fear that eclipsed the children that she had interviewed, as much of the audience listened with horror.

After the presentations were over and the chair turned to the translator for summary translations in Tamil, the same goons shouted we don’t need translation. Even as a number of people in the back shouted for translation, as it was very clear that a third of the audience needed translation. But the LTTE thugs only wanted to hear themselves, and would not allow the translator to speak. People in the crowds shouted back at the thugs, “You talk of Tamil Eelam, why don’t you want to listen to Tamil?”

The question and answer session was again a tirade of monologues about victimization of the Tamil community, and few made any educated arguments or questions about the report. Nevertheless, Jo Becker answered most questions patiently as the unruly thugs continued to shout and scream. But there was also something very different at this event. For the first time, the ordinary people questioned and argued with the LTTE front-men. It was also an event of resistance to the LTTE’s threats. In the back of the hall one such shouting match almost led to a brawl, as the LTTE goons asked the disagreeing men to come out of the hall. By this time the police had also reached doors of the hall. Emotions also ran high as one man stood up and shouted “the army sent my father’s body cut up into pieces in a garbage bag.” To which a man shouted back “the LTTE killed seven of my relatives, what do you say to that?”

Perhaps the most insightful comment came from a teenage girl who walked up to the microphone. She questioned “all of you are shouting about the army, you have said nothing about the children who are being recruited by the LTTE?” To which a few of the goons shouted, and she in turn shouted back “shut up”, further aggravating the goons who shouted sexist and vulgar slurs. The teenage girl continued to speak as she cried with shame, “why are all of you acting like this? You are adults, you should listen to what the panellists have to say, you should listen to us young people.”

HRW’s lengthy report translated in full into a Tamil booklet of 110 pages was in most peoples’ hands as they left the event. If one emotion can describe the majority of the audience it was shame. One young woman wondered, would “people like Bob Rae ever have any respect for us and our community, after he saw the behaviour of our leaders and university students acting like thugs?” But one activist who helped organise and mobilise for the event said, “This is the reality. Let the world know what the LTTE culture is really like. And it is also a success. We have heard about human rights at the center of Toronto’s Tamil community, something that had not happened in years.” Another man said, “for the first time in many years, people in a crowd had the guts to shout at the LTTE in Toronto.” The LTTE may have finally gone too far even in Toronto, and the Toronto Tamils will have to consider if they want to be identified with the LTTE.



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