Tamils seek intervention in civil war

  • March 9, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Mass rape, forced abortions, hospital bombings and war crimes have been constant themes for the Tamil community as it has protested and prayed for international intervention in the civil war in Sri Lanka.

The most serious allegation against the Sri Lankan government found on signs at every Tamil rally is genocide. Tamil protesters have compared government attacks on Tamil civilians with the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda.

“They’re targeting an ethnic group. They’re targeting them because they’re Tamils,” said Ann Ariyadasa, a University of Western Ontario graduate student in journalism who helped organize a rally at Dundas Square in downtown Toronto Feb. 27. The protest attracted about 1,000 Tamils and featured Tutsi survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

“The Rwandan community strongly condemns the killing of innocent civilians in any part of this globe, while the international community shows the same old indifference, whether it is in Darfur or in Sri Lanka,” said John Rukumbura, director of the Rwandese Canadian Association of Greater Toronto, in a statement before the rally. “We cannot stand idly by and witness the tragedy that is occurring against innocent Tamils in Sri Lanka.”

Ariyadasa wanted people to see the parallels between Sri Lanka and Rwanda because she believes the international community and Canada are standing by and watching another preventable genocide.

“Hospitals attacked, forced abortions, rapes — those are symptoms of genocide,” she said.

Academic experts on genocide aren’t quite so ready to call what’s happening in Sri Lanka genocide.

“It cannot yet be proved whether the government of Sri Lanka, that I know of, is intentionally trying to destroy every member of that ethnic group,” said Jill Savitt, executive director of the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project.

Sri Lanka is one of eight countries the Genocide Prevention Project puts on a “red alert” list, where it believes conditions are ripe for a genocide. Other countries include Afghanistan, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan.

The trouble with labelling the Sri Lankan civil war a genocide now is that genocide can’t usually be determined until after it has happened. Darfur is the only example of a government-directed mass murder qualifying as a genocide while it was still going on, Savitt said.

Savitt said she understands why Tamil protesters are using the language of genocide.

“There’s a human security emergency happening in that country that the world is not paying attention to,” she said. “I can understand the frustration that the advocates feel that no one is taking any action.”

The evidence so far doesn’t show the kind of scale of mass murder to qualify Sri Lanka as a genocide, said Canadian Centre for Genocide Education founder and president Rich Hitchens.

“Most genocide scholars would probably not say that what is happening in Sri Lanka is genocide,” said Hitchens from London, Ont. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a significant enough concern that there’s not more that governments should be doing.”

The situation in Sri Lanka calls for concerted, persistent and effective action by the international community under the UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, said Savitt.

“Economic marginalization, incitement to hate, use of rape — all these things that are being done have happened before every genocide we’ve seen,” she said. “Most genocides are entirely predictable.”

Genocide or not, Ariyadasa wishes religious leaders would call the Sri Lankan government to account for the deterioration of human rights in the country.

“Any voice that comes up, whether it’s Catholic or religious, would be helpful.”

Mario Pushparatnam of the Canadian Tamil Congress is clear that the conflict in Sri Lanka is ethnic and not religious. He knows that the conflict has religious overtones, with Buddhist monks sometimes preaching a hard line against any peace process and promoting Sri Lanka as a pure Buddhist homeland, while many Catholic and Hindu religious leaders have been among the most effective advocates for the Tamil community.  The role of religion in the conflict now is to call for peace, he said.

The military has declared the conflict zone too dangerous for media and non-governmental organizations. Reports of rape and forced abortions from Tamil sources cannot be verified and are denied by the government.

Since Feb. 4 the Canadian government has pledged $4.5 million in humanitarian assistance for Sri Lanka.

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