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.