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 Post subject: Close Connection - Toronto's Tamil community and Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Dec 03, 2005 6:13 pm 
Toronto - Tamil Tigers Head Quarters

Whose Truth?

@ CBC

For Tamils, the tsunami is just the latest tragedy in a country devastated by 20 years of civil war. For the rest of the world, the tsunami forced the country's tortured politics into everyone's consciousness. Here in Toronto, it's raised new questions about the intimate connections between Toronto's Tamil community and Sri Lanka - ties that are political, financial and emotional.

At more than 150,000 people, Toronto's Tamils are the largest urban community of Tamils in the world.

Since December, the Tamil community here raised millions of dollars in aid for victims of the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Toronto Tamils have a long history of giving to charity for their homeland. Much of that charity is controlled by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

The Tigers are a terrorist organization, notorious for their recruitment of child soldiers, suicide bombings and political assassinations.

Some Tamil groups in both Canada and the U.S. are considered fronts for the Tamil Tigers, and are banned from collecting funds.

In our series, Whose Truth?, CBC Specials Producer Mary Wiens spoke to Tamils to examine their ties to a homeland in conflict. Ties that include support for the Tamil Tigers.

These are complicated ties. In the Tamil controlled territories of Sri Lanka, the Tigers also deliver social services and control the distribution of tsunami relief in Tamil areas.

Even the recruitment of child soldiers by the Tigers is condoned by some Tamils here in Toronto. Very few Tamils will openly criticize the Tiger movement.

In Whose Truth?, Tamils in Toronto talk about what it means to support their homeland.

The CBC reporter Piya Chattopadhyay went to Sri Lanka to cover the emergency relief efforts. She came home with some insights into Toronto's Tamil community, and shared them with Andy Barrie on Metro Morning.

AUDIO: Listen to Piya Chattopadhyay (runs 7:48) Image

In North America, the Tamil Tigers are banned as a terrorist organization. But many Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto see the Tigers as freedom fighters, and their only hope for an independent state.

Father Francis Xavier is one of those supporters. He is a psychotherapist, pastor and long-time counsellor to the Toronto Tamil community, the largest in the world.

AUDIO: Listen to Mary Wiens' profile of Father Francis Xavier (runs 6:22)Image

The LTTE website Tamil Net published the image of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the map of proposed separate state of Eeelam featured in the background. The map includes approximately two thirds of Sri Lanka’s national coastline and sea resources.

On the kitchen wall of his apartment in Scarborough, there is a calendar that shows the smiling leader of the Tamil Tigers. To western governments, Pirabakaran is the leader of a terrorist organization. To Father Francis Xavier, Pirabakaran is a hero, and he's proud to count himself as a follower.

"We are all sympathizers", he says. "I could be called a Tiger because all those who wanted an independent free state, or self-determination, our homeland. When you hold this view, people call it a Tiger so, in that sense, I am a Tamil Tiger, but in the real sense that I take up arms, no, I personally am against violence."

AUDIO: Listen to Andy Barrie speak with John Thompson of the Mackenzie Institute. He believes extortion and violence are used to bolster local fundraising. (runs 7:14)Image

The Tamil Tigers are notorious for their use of child soldiers. They were also one of the first militant groups to use suicide bombings, carried out by a branch known as the Black Tigers. The organization has also carried out political assassinations, including that of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

There is a contradiction here. Father Francis Xavier is a pillar of Toronto's Sri Lankan Tamil community. He is associate pastor at the Parish of St. Columba and All-Hallows, and counsellor at a treatment program for victims of domestic violence. Father Francis Xavier is also an ardent supporter of the Tamil Tigers.

At 76, Father Xavier's eyes are failing. He flips through an atlas, searching for Sri Lanka, where he was born, in an attempt to make sense of the seeming contradictions.

As a young man, Father Xavier married a Sinhalese woman. That was before the genocide in the 1980s that killed thousands upon thousands of Tamils. In those days, he would not have believed the tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils would lead to civil war. He first realized how serious things were when he took his son to a hospital in Columbo for a medical test, and the doctor refused to see him.

"He looked at me, and I looked at him," Father Xavier remembers. "I became very emotional. I said can you please ... he said no. And then it came to my mind: something is happening that is very serious, that even in a situation when a child is sick, there is no acceptance of us, and soon afterward the riots started."

That was 1977. The refusal to treat a Tamil child was the least of what was to come. After the election, there were horrific reports of Sinhalese thugs locking up buses filled with Tamil passengers and setting them on fire, women and children being raped, and Tamil villages where most of the men had been killed. Together with his Sinhalese wife, Xavier began visiting refugee camps filled with Tamils. As a counsellor and theologian, his help was desperately needed.

Atrocities and refugees

"During the riots, there were children who were thrown into the fire who escaped," he remembers. "There were cases in which young women saw their father being tied to a tree and gasolined to death and their mother raped. The stories were horrendous, so at that time I went to Vavuniya area, in order to help the refugees."

Father Xavier sent photographs to Amnesty International and to churches in the West, documenting the stories. In the spring of 1983, he was arrested and evicted from the camps. Church officials ordered him to leave Sri Lanka for his own safety. But those 12 years in the refugee camps had made him a different person. "I think what happened to me was my whole psyche changed. I myself was made to feel I am not worth a person, my child could not even get an examination at a government hospital, how much more were those people suffering who were disenfranchised."

And he came to believe that Tamil people must have their own state, Tamil Eelam, and that the Tigers were their only hope of achieving a separate state. Along the way, it's transformed his understanding about the traditional Christian teachings of forgiveness, of bearing the cross.

"What is important is now I cannot allow myself to be crushed and become depressed, and say now today I've got to accept this, this is sort of an earlier Catholic way of thinking, carry the cross and all the world will be all right, and I said no this world has to be made all right, and here we have to live with dignity, and that is the way I got out of depression, rising up gave me the soul strength of being a different person."

Rising up to fight for Tamil Eelam, and helping to keep the cause alive among Toronto's Tamils. He's well known to Toronto's Tamil community, as the former head of the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, a group the government called a "benevolent front for the Tamil Tigers." Xavier says no one can hope to understand the popular support in Toronto for the Tamil Tigers unless they understand how much Tamils have suffered.

Toronto's role in Tamil Eelam

He says the Toronto diaspora is very important to the independence movement in Sri Lanka.

"Any army to continue a fight, they must know their people stand with them and this is the most vital fundamental thing for Tigers over there: we are standing with them, shoulder to shoulder. Without that, they can't continue."

The solidarity has its troubling side. It was in the 1980s that the Tamil Tigers first caught the attention of Toronto police as exceptionally well-organized criminals. Police began by investigating complaints about extortion. The investigations expanded to include allegations of heroin trafficking and people smuggling.

But Xavier dismisses the idea that the movement has to rely on threats and intimidation to raise money. The Tigers aren't angels, he says, but if you understand Tamils, you know that no one's forcing anyone to support the movement.

"It is important to enter into the people's minds, hearts, psyche, to experience the pain and the hurt, which is the home of hope ... so I think what you raised, you know, if anyone at this stage will help.... people will give, because the fact is it is a feeling that is coming deep from the heart."

Tamils, he says, have faced one tsunami after another. Those experiences have made them who they are.

Many Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto keep strong ties to their homeland, ties that include support for the Tamil Tigers - a terrorist group that is fighting for an independent state.

It's a complicated connection. In the Tamil-controlled territories of Sri Lanka, the Tigers also deliver social services and control the distribution of tsunami relief. Many Tamils even condone the movement's use of child soldiers.

In Toronto, Tamils have raised millions of dollars for the Tigers' humanitarian wing, and very few will publicly criticize the movement.

One of the few who does is Tamil journalist David Jeyaraj.

AUDIO: Listen to Mary Wiens' profile of David Jeyaraj. (runs 6:55) Image

He lives in a small townhouse in Scarborough, where many of Toronto's Tamils live, but he doesn't advertise his address. "Generally, I keep a low profile," he says.

"I don't drive but I will never go to a Tamil function by TTC because I don't want to get caught in a bus stand."

To the Tamil Tigers, criticism amounts to betrayal, and Jeyaraj has often been accused of betraying the cause because of his journalism. Jeyaraj reports critically on both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

He was forced to stop publishing his newspaper after he wrote an editorial calling on the Tamil Tigers to participate more fully in the peace process with the Sri Lankan government. Tamil shopkeepers who carried the paper told him they were being threatened and intimidated, and Jeyaraj himself was badly beaten. Twelve years later, it still hurts where his leg was broken.

"We were treading a fine line and, in the early 1990s, I was a supporter of the struggle. I was not a critic. We basically reported the facts."

For Jeyaraj, the facts about the Tamil Tigers have become very disturbing, particularly its use of suicide killings and child soldiers.

"Child soldiers is not merely a moral issue, it's a crime against humanity, the same as sex with a minor," he says. "Even with his or her consent, it is no excuse. An offence is an offence."

To a Westerner, that point of view may seem obvious. But Jeyaraj says for many Tamils, it's not that black and white. He quotes a saying in the Tiger independence movement: "A hero or heroine from each household." Every Tamil family is expected to send a son or daughter to join the Tigers, something Jeyaraj says Tamils in Toronto don't like to talk about.

"The thing is like the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. People just don't want to go into that question, because they think that the Tamil side must not lose ultimately in the war, and they don't trust the Singhalese state yet, so this is a necessary evil."

Human Rights Watch, a New-York based group, says the recruitment of child soldiers begins when they are 11 or 12. Even though the Tigers have signed a ceasefire with the Sri Lankan government, the rebel group continues to recruit children. Jeyaraj says it's also a class issue, with some Tamils in Toronto paying a lot of money to avoid having their children conscripted.

It's a touchy subject, and Jeyaraj has lost some friendships because he's challenged Tamils who defend the use of child soldiers.

"One lady just walked out, said 'I will never talk to you again,' because her 13-year-old son was there. Maybe I laid it on too thick when the discussion was becoming very heated on this. I caught him, and said, 'If this fellow goes and gets killed or blown up, you will accept that?' That was too much for her to take, pointing to her son like that. She just stormed out.

"These are middle-class educated people with bigger aspirations for their children, but even the ordinary farmer and the fisherman, they also have their aspirations for their children, right?"

Jeyaraj recalls a passage from the Bible that his mother often used to repeat.

"I still remember what she said, the thing about the children, 'suffer the children to come unto me,' and look what we are doing to our children.

"That's why I'm disgusted with these guys."

He's so disgusted - with anonymous phone threats, stalled peace talks, child soldiers - that he's even thought of giving up on journalism as a futile exercise.

Speak truth to power

"Last May, I turned 50," he says. "It's a kind of magic day, it led to introspective thinking and I felt sick. I'm 50 now. Am I going to spend the rest of my life writing about these [people]? So I stopped writing, but now I'm writing about them again."

Disgusted as he is about the movement's use of child soldiers and suicide killings, Jeyaraj still sympathizes with the movement's goal of a separate Tamil state.

Even today, Jeyaraj says he would vote for the Tamil Tigers if they became a democratic political party. Writing critically about the movement is the only way he knows to rescue it.

"Speak truth to power," he says. "Even though I'm not much of a churchgoer, I have deep principles. Maybe this is too fanciful, but there is a prophetic tradition, the prophets are not part of the state, materially they are not rich, but they go and have the courage to tell the king where he goes wrong. Even in Tamil literature, there is that a good king needs critical counsel."

And more than ever, Jeyaraj believes the independence movement in Sri Lanka - and the Toronto Tamils who support it - need to be called to account.

For one young Tamil woman we'll call Luxmy, support for her homeland has transformed her goals as an activist. Her life has been threatened so many times that she prefers to keep a much lower profile in Toronto than she did in Sri Lanka.

She believes change in Sri Lanka will have to come from the grassroots, not from the people with power. She has seen too many of her activist friends hurt to believe that her old brand of activism is the most effective.

AUDIO: Listen to Mary Wiens' profile of Luxmy (runs 7:42)Image


"You know doing something big and then you being killed or kidnapped or have to hide, instead of that doing work slowly but for a long time," she says. "That's what I also was thinking myself. I'm also very, very fed up with all the politics back home."

A period of terror

Luxmy is from Jaffna, in the north of Sri Lanka. Since 1983, armed conflicts in the north displaced thousands of families. Many villages were left without any men: they were killed, forced to flee or had joined militant groups. Army soldiers raped countless women. It was a period of terror for many Tamils, just as it was for Sri Lankans in other parts of the country.

Luxmy was part of a group for women formed in Jaffna at that time. It provided a place for destitute women to find shelter and get job training. Just 14 when she joined the group, she remembers it as one of the happiest times of her life. The experience also taught her a lot about leadership, as she was often in trouble with both sides in the conflict.

She was once travelling to Colombo with a group of rural women when their bus was stopped by government soldiers and diverted to a deserted building. Luxmy remembers seeing women's underwear in the room where they were taken. Many of the women started screaming, convinced they were going to be raped - and possibly murdered - like so many other Tamil woman had been during the conflict.

Even though Luxmy was younger than most of the other women on that bus, she took charge. She remembered the name of a very senior army official in Colombo, and ordered a soldier to call him.

"So I just mentioned his name and, 'Do you know what you're doing?' and 'This is not the way to check,' and 'Why do you have to bring us here?' and 'What is your name, what is your badge number?' and 'Someone has a pen here,' " she recalls. It was, she says, "just acting. But inside I was so scared."

The soldier made the call, and was ordered to release the women.

A war beyond borders

Luxmy often found herself caught between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. Finally, there came the day she was forced to flee Sri Lanka. She went to Germany, where she formed another women's' group, trying to bring together Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists and Christians. Again, she was threatened, from people within the Tiger movement. One day, late at night, she was so badly beaten she had to be hospitalized. She still suffers from memory problems. Friends of hers in Canada heard about the beating, and arranged to get her to Toronto.

Now, being a human rights activist is no longer primarily about challenging authority for Luxmy. She will if she has to, but she says those one-on-one confrontations are too dangerous, and do not produce meaningful change. She believes real change will come from the people themselves - working from the grassroots - like that domestic violence group she formed.

But even in Toronto, changing political opinions is hard to do. So many Tamils came here because of the civil war, and brought with them, Luxmy says, their old habits of blaming the other side.

"People who are living here have come here a long time ago and they have old memories and they have old opinions. And my mother just came and she said, 'You know what? I don't want anything. I want peace.' And that's what I have heard from a lot of people.

"Everybody has done damage, and we have to look at that if we're talking about peace."

Luxmy is careful to stay neutral. She's careful not to attach herself to any group that could damage that neutrality. As for her homeland, Luxmy says Sri Lanka needs more than tsunami relief.

She says the country needs the outside world to bring international pressure to bear on all sides in the conflict to come together without blame.

AUDIO: Canada's former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy spoke with Andy Barrie about the use of child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. (runs 7:24) Image


Related Articles:
:arrow: Sri Lankan children - Casualties of War
:arrow: Canadian Connection: LTTE Front Organizations and Networking
:arrow: Sri Lankan Tamils an extinct species in Sri Lanka!
:arrow: Canada’s refusal to ban Tamil tigers "a mistake of incredible magnitude"
:arrow: "No More Tears Sister" - documentary on Rajani Thiranagama - A human face on Tiger tragedy
:arrow: Hit man for Tamil Tigers aims to stay in Canada


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