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Toronto Tamils: ‘We are people asking for help’ – thestar.com

[MISC, Sunday, 11 October 2009 09:51 One Comment]

The continuing protest on University Ave. has become a plea for attention to the plight of some 250,000 "internally displaced" Tamils in Sri Lanka. JIM RANKIN - TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO It is mid-afternoon, threatening rain, and a most remarkable daily demonstration is under way, some six lanes of live traffic from the U.S. consulate.

Three women sit beneath a tree on a concrete planter. Two men are beneath another tree, wearing placards. Eight more picket signs are staked in newly renovated, as-yet-unplanted flowerbeds outside the provincial courthouse at 361 University Ave.

The demonstrators are quiet. The signs do the talking.

"Boycott! Boycott! Sri Lanka products," reads one. "Tamils want justice," and "Save the Tamils, Mr. Obama, yes you can," read others. Another urges Prime Minister Stephen Harper to bail out civilians from "concentration camps."

What began 172 days ago as a protest by Toronto Tamils against allegations of genocide in the dying days of a decades-long battle between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, is now a plea for the world to pay more attention to the plight of some 250,000 "internally displaced persons" who the government – having since crushed the Tigers – continues to confine in camps.

The United Nations agency for refugees expressed concern for the "displaced" following an incident in late September in which security forces opened fire on an angry mob, wounding several, including a child who is reportedly now paralyzed.

On University Ave., the number of demonstrators has occasionally swelled to thousands. It did so on Day 100, when the formerly round-the-clock protest was scaled back to daylight hours, and on Day 150, when a package of signed petitions was walked across the road and delivered into the hands of a guard at the U.S. consulate.

The building is the closest symbol of a superpower for the Canadian Tamil diaspora.

But, on most days now, the "continuous" protest looks much as it does on this day.

A tourist stops to photograph a Tamil Tiger flag – a symbol of what Ottawa officially regards as a terrorist group – that sits between two U.S. and two Canadian flags. Other tourists pause to read signs and take pictures.

For most, though, this spectacle – unlike the day in May when thousands of Tamils caught Toronto’s attention by blocking the Gardiner Expressway – has become like wallpaper, part of a daily routine.

A man glides by with briefcase in hand, his eyes focused only on the sidewalk ahead. Television news satellite trucks often take up space nearby, but the reporters have no interest in the demonstration, only the goings-on inside the courthouse.

At this point, what would likely attract more attention is if, one morning, there suddenly were no Tamils here at all.

This is not an exercise in civil disobedience. And neither, the demonstrators insist, is the daily display particularly organized.

In the mornings, regulars drop by before work. They do the same in the evenings, sometimes bringing their children. During the day, retirees and those with odd working hours come literally to show the flag when no one else can.

It has been a peaceful protest and there have been no problems between the demonstrators and their closest neighbour, say courthouse staff.

Numbers ebb and flow. Demonstrators are kept informed by word of mouth and other means.

On this day, there is a radio tuned to GTR-FM, a local Tamil station. A sign strapped to a tree informs of any changes in hours, in both English and Tamil.

In Sri Lanka, Tamils are a minority group to the majority Sinhalese. Many Tamils have left the country over the years. In the Toronto area alone, the Tamil population numbers some 200,000.

One of the men who is here today, as he is most days, is Rajah. He is a retired engineer, in his 70s, and came to Canada in 1996.

On a break to a nearby coffee shop, where the price of a caffeine jolt includes a welcome bathroom trip, he shares details of his work and his family, and tells of what’s been happening to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

"Tamils have no safety in any part of the island," he says. "I had to take my children out. If my (now grown) son talks to someone who is from the (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), he will be taken to a police station, taken to the prison."

He also spoke of what it’s like to be part of a protest that has become as seemingly permanent as the statues and monuments that dot the median of University Ave.

"I come here three or four days a week and spend a few hours when there are less people here," he says. "Some days, there are three or four of us."

Is the protest making any difference?

"We are people who are asking help from others, basic help from the international community, to relieve the suffering. Please give food and medicine to the displaced people, allow the press to go in," says Rajah.

"We have a hard time with our message. Canada is one of the best countries in the world, but we have not got enough help from the Canadian government, even though we called Stephen Harper to help us."

The next day, Rajah expresses regret at having shared personal details that, in hindsight, he felt might affect relatives. He asked that he be identified by his nickname, that his family details be left out of this story, and that no pictures of him run in the paper.

Another man asks that his picture not be taken.

It’s a public protest, but some are afraid to be seen as part of it.

As the afternoon goes on and the workday expires, the number of protesters increases to about two dozen. There is a shared belief that the demonstration is helping. Perhaps, say some, this lengthy, long-distance protest may end when the camps empty, families are reunited and allowed to return home.

"That is the main thing. I think all of the Western countries are pressuring" for this to happen, says Suren Mahe, 46, who works for an investment firm and comes by during lunch and in the evenings.

In the meantime, says Mahe, "this is the only thing we can do, democratically, and non-violent. I will always like Canada for this. This kind of thing, you can’t do it back home. Done. Finished. Only here and in the U.S.A. and Europe can you do this."

With rush hour beginning, so, too, do chants aimed at the consulate.

Five children lead the way.

"Please, President Obama." they cry.

"Save the Tamils," the adults reply.

At precisely 6:45 p.m., candles, shielded by plastic cups, are lit and handed out, just as they have been every evening during the protest. For 15 minutes, there is quiet.

Traffic streams by the demonstrators lined on the edge of the sidewalk facing the consulate.

The candles flicker. The lights across the road are off.

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One Comment »

  • Kamal David said:

    Your head line should read: "Tigers disguised as people"! Any one for a hunger strike? Need to find a way to sneak in the dosai without being caught. Can you believe our boy in London got busted?