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Toronto-area Tamils observe ‘Martyrs Day’

[The Globe and Mail, Sunday, 29 November 2009 11:19 No Comment]

Their keynote speaker’s ejection from Canada amounted to barely a hiccup for Toronto-area Tamils, thousands of whom flocked to an annual "Martyrs’ Day" commemoration of Tamil Tiger fighters who died in Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.

The day-long event at a sprawling banquet hall in Brampton went smoothly yesterday despite the arrest of Sebastian Seeman, a firebrand Tiger sympathizer brought from India earlier in the week.

Mr. Seeman, on bail in his native India for sedition charges after making pro-Tiger speeches this year, addressed a Tamil youth gathering in Scarborough on Wednesday, but federal officials booted him home on Thursday before he could speak at the Martyrs’ Day event.

"We always have a Plan B for everything," Sahab Jesuthasan, 22, a spokesman for the event, said as a stream of visitors filed past him to place gloriosa lilies, the official Tamil flower, on a shrine to the fallen.

The red-carpeted aisle leading to the shrine was lined with bouquets topped with miniature red Tamil flags bearing the crossed-rifles-and-roaring-Tiger emblem of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, which are outlawed as a terrorist group in Canada and other Western countries.

"We did not expect that to happen," Mr. Jesuthasan said of Mr. Seeman’s arrest. "I guess Canada doesn’t respect the right of freedom of speech."

Officials said Mr. Seeman was arrested and sent home because he was inadmissible to Canada, not for his remarks at Wednesday’s rally. His speech reportedly included a call for revenge on the Sinhalese, who form the majority in Sri Lanka and are blamed for decades of Tamil oppression in the South Asian island country.

In the predawn hours yesterday, a wooden porch was set on fire at a Buddhist temple in Scarborough where Sinhalese Sri Lankans are known to worship. It was the second such fire since May, when the Tigers were defeated in their 26-year conflict with the Sri Lankan government.

"We’re still looking for the person or people responsible," Constable Tony Vella of Toronto police said. "I know there are a lot of people with a lot of speculations on who may have done it, the motivations behind it, but it’s still unclear."

As police stepped up patrols around the temple, organizers at the Martyrs’ Day event took comfort in a pronounced lack of law-enforcement presence compared to last year’s ceremonies.

"It was very intimidating for a lot of people who came in last year," Mr. Jesuthasan said, adding that officers knocked off the hats of some uniformed participants, photographed visitors’ licence plates and videotaped them as they paid their respects.

This year, he said, organizers met with officials from CSIS, the RCMP, Toronto and Peel police officials a month in advance and secured a non-harassment pledge in exchange for assurances that Tamils would not use the event to raise money for the Tigers, which is illegal given their terrorist designation.

A Peel police spokesman said officers were aware of the event and would be "monitoring" it for criminal activity, but planned no disruptive action.

[Full Coverage]

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