Torontoist vs. Torontoist in… Tamil Protests
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Torontoist vs. Torontoist in… Tamil Protests

In Torontoist vs. Torontoist, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue important to our city. We invite our readers to join in the debate in the comments section after the post.

Last night, several thousand Tamil protesters took over the Gardiner Expressway for several hours, the latest and most remarkable protest in a series of attention-grabbing moves by the Tamil community that included shutting down University Avenue for several days two weeks ago. The protesters’ methods have, without a doubt, drawn an enormous amount of vitriol, but also a large amount of attention for their cause. Do the ends justify the means? And are the ends even justified at all?
Torontoist’s Christopher Bird and Matt Kim each take a side, after the fold.


Peaceful. Civil. Disobedience.

I want you to repeat those words over and over in your head because that’s what this is about. The Tamil community in Toronto is behaving in the way that we want political protestors to behave. Their initial protests were entirely legal and completely peaceful. When their messages went unheard, they escalated to peaceful civil disobedience—in this case trespassing and obstruction of traffic. Civil disobedience is a staple of political protest, from the Indian Satyagraha movement to sit-ins at lunch counters.

And seriously: obstruction of traffic is cause for handwringing now? It’s the Gardiner on a Sunday night. This isn’t rush hour. They didn’t block any ambulances or fire vehicles. Most importantly, there was no violent activity. They wanted attention for their cause, which is more or less the whole point of political protest, and decided (not unfairly) that their previous protests had been insufficient. They were not acting unreasonably and they did not harm anybody—the worst they did was force some drivers to wait for a few hours. If you don’t like that their protesting impacted people’s lives in a nonviolent matter, there is little to be said to that beyond “well, tough.” If the police choose to charge them for obstruction then they’ll be charged. That’s kind of the point of civil disobedience.
Have the Tamil Tigers used tactics that any reasonable observer would call violent terrorism? Yes. Of course, the obvious counter-response to that is that the Sri Lankan government has used tactics that any reasonable observer would call violent oppression. The other point that has to be made is that the Tamil Tigers are the political representation of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka; any realistic dialogue that can hopefully bring the Sri Lankan conflict to an end has to involve them if it is to have any legitimacy. Like so many other violent ethnic conflicts, the Sri Lankan Civil War has no good guys or bad guys. Everybody has blood on their hands, and if Canada wants the conflict to end—and with a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 Tamil-Canadians, we should—it’s going to have to engage both sides.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter if the Tamil Tigers are beatific saints or worse than a thousand Hitlers. What matters is that members of Canada’s Tamil community, who are not the Tamil Tigers, are protesting peacefully and responsibly. If they’re doing that, then they can wave any damn flag they like.


On Sunday, Toronto’s Tamil community blocked the Gardiner Expressway in protest. The move was both understandable and to be expected. Understandable because the situation in Sri Lanka is getting desperate, with the latest from the northern conflict zone estimating 378 people killed and 1,122 wounded as shelling by the Sri Lankan army intensifies. Expected because Canada is home to the largest diasporic community of Tamils in the world, and many of those killed were their relatives.

Which is to say, in a roundabout and circuitous way, that we sympathize with the loss of loved ones. But that is, sadly, all we can do.
The collective outpouring of emotions—anger, frustration, ineffable grief—should not, cannot, and is not being subjected to scrutiny here. Instead, it is the simply the lack of available emotions that we as fellow citizens are left with.
Over the course of the war’s twenty-six years, as words such as “right” and “wrong,” or “just” and “unjust” have become inapplicable, so have the emotions associated with such terms. Protesters are, quite obviously, certain about which side is virtuous. But good, just, and right are words we can not attribute to either the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or their counterparts in this battle, the Sri Lankan government.
The leader of Sri Lanka’s government, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, exhibited a callous disregard for the loss of life this war inflicts, be it civilian or combatant, when he dismissed the calls from the international community for a cease-fire to allow the entry of aid into the conflict zone. Captured fighters are sent off to internment camps, the abhorrent conditions of which were recorded by three British journalists, who were promptly detained and then ejected from the country. Evidence of systematic shelling of a hospital—an unambiguous war crime—is now emerging as well.
His devotion to death finds a match in Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, who, along with the rest of his Black Tigers, wears a cyanide pill around his neck. Prabhakaran, who pioneered the tactic of suicide bombers, also adopted the tactic of hiding amongst civilians, making it extremely difficult to distinguish civilians from combatants. This, combined with an indiscriminate use of force by the Sri Lankan army, has undoubtedly exacerbated the death toll, which now exceeds 70,000. Human rights groups have also denounced him for forcing children to fight.
Neither side allows media access.
As such, how can we offer anything beyond our sympathies for those lost? Both sides seem fully committed to the idea of annihilating each other or dying in the process. Placing “economic or diplomatic sanctions” on Sri Lanka, as Shyanthy Thezarajh asks, is impossible; it would amount to support of a side in a war that is wholly repugnant. Approving of the protest Sunday is likewise impossible. Peaceful as it was (the traffic on the Gardiner has been worse), the protest wasn’t completely innocuous. The flags of the LTTE—a terrorist group neither peaceful or responsible, one that continues to show indifference to the value of human life—are flown in vast numbers. Supporting the protesters is tantamount to supporting a side in a war in which the only ones truly deserving of our unchecked feelings of pity, compassion, and support are those caught in the middle. In a blend part Torontonian, part Canadian, we’re sorry, but only that.