As 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are herded into internment camps, the reported sites of physical and sexual violence that remain hidden from international scrutiny, Tamil-Canadian students in Toronto are considering how best to engage with a conflict on the other side of the world.
Some students fear for family back in Sri Lanka, as stories of grave human rights abuses come to light. Even for those whose direct relations are all in Canada, it’s hard to turn away from the lurid reports emerging from a place their families once called home.
Shoban Jaya is a grade 11 student at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute who has been protesting almost daily for months. The 16-year-old became active after seeing a video in which a Tamil girl is taken away from her mother by Sri Lankan military officers and raped off-camera. Though his grades have plummeted from the time he spends protesting, Jaya continues to participate, saying he fears an immense death toll if the international community does not act soon.
“I can carry [my education] on tomorrow,” he says, “but I can’t look at the struggle right now the same way. Because if [we do not act] today, there will be no tomorrow,” he said.
Ramesh, a 24-year-old student protestor from McMaster University, agrees. “You can’t ignore it, you can’t stay home and be silent. We’ve been silent for too long.” He compared the Sri Lankan situation to cases of genocide where many believe the international community acted too late, such as the Holocaust and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. “We don’t want the world to act too late; we know the world always acts too late,” he said.
Both activists were in attendance at the May 10 Gardiner Expressway protest where UTSU executive director Angela Regnier was arrested. The act was criticized by the Toronto police as being “unsafe” and “unlawful,” but Jaya and Ramesh contend that the risk was justified to bring attention to human rights violations that the media had largely ignored until then. “After blocking the Gardiner, a lot of my colleagues [at work who had] never talked about these issues before […] said ‘tell me what’s going on back home.’ Same with the media,” said Ramesh.
The Tamil Students Association at U of T has taken a decidedly apolitical stance, focusing instead on educating the university community about human rights in Sri Lanka. “We didn’t want to make a political statement, so we’re just about solving the humanitarian crisis, getting NGOs into the country, [and] getting the media back into the country so we can know the truth,” explained TSA vice-president Ramya Janandharan.
Janandharan is critical of the media representations that she says frame the conflict as resolved, saying that the ethnic prejudice and humanitarian issues that caused the conflict are still present. “[The Tigers are] that catch that makes it interesting news, but they fail to realize that it’s a long-term issue… the Tigers are just a symptom of the conflict and not the cause of it,” she said.
Aranie Rasalingam, the TSA’s awareness coordinator, recalled her parents’ experience in the 1983 series of riots in Sri Lanka known as “Black July.” Approximately 3,000 Tamils were killed, including Rasalingam’s uncle. Her parents’ home was set aflame as they slept, and though they escaped and immigrated to Canada in 1987, Rasalingam fears similar atrocities.
“It’s not something that just happened in ’83, it’s happening again now,” she said. “So it really makes you wonder, what is everyone doing? It’s not like people don’t know.”