On Tuesday, for the second day in a row, Sri Lankan government forces shelled a hospital in the “no-fire zone” in its bloody civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
The United Nations has condemned the attack, which killed 49 people, as a war crime. These victims join the thousands killed and injured and the tens of thousands displaced by the Sri Lankan army’s push to rid the country of the Tamil separatist movement.
In Canada, thousands of people, most of them Canadian-born Tamils, are protesting in the streets, not only at the Sri Lankan government’s genocidal behaviour, but at the refusal of the Canadian government to protest the atrocities.
Canada’s Minister for International Co-operation, Bev Oda, recently visited Sri Lanka and declared herself “frustrated” by what she learned there. So far, that frustration has not lead the Conservative government to apply diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka to stop the genocide.
Oda repeated earlier statements by more senior cabinet ministers when she told reporters that the presence of Tamil Tiger flags at protests “would say to Canadians that … the terrorist organization is part of the demonstrations that happened.”
Whether the Tamil Tigers are involved in the demonstrations or not, there can be no question that some of the protesters, perhaps most, sympathize with the separatist guerillas. In the view of the Conservatives, this puts the entire protest beyond the pale. No one from the Canadian government will meet with representatives of a separatist movement that uses terror tactics.
It’s not surprising that politicians in Canada are anxious to distance themselves from the Tamil Tigers. It’s hard to reject the label “terrorist” for the group that invented suicide bombing. There’s no excuse for bombing churches, mosques, and festivals—deliberately targeting civilians in terror attacks. The Tigers use child soldiers, and are accused of recruiting them at gunpoint.
Canadian politicians, both Liberal and Conservative, have also been at pains to distance themselves from the practice of staging peaceful demonstrations on the nation’s highways. When thousands of Tamil protesters blocked Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff issued a statement condemning the illegal act and pointing out that no Liberal MPs were involved.
Ignatieff went on to say, “The Liberal Party of Canada stands firmly against terrorism, and I restate our unequivocal condemnation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.” Ontario’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty deplored the interruption of traffic, declaring that the Sri Lankan bloodbath “does not justify” the inconvenience to commuters.
If you’ve ever been stuck on the Gardiner with no air conditioning, you know what the premier means. It can be hell on earth. Not as bad, maybe, as sitting on a dusty roadside cradling the head of your child, whose arm has been blown off by mortar fire and watching the only remaining hospital collapse under rocket attack, but damned nasty all the same.
The Tamils lost a lot of support in Toronto by shutting down the Gardiner. That’s because it’s human nature to sympathize most with those whose experiences are most like our own. Few Canadians have been the victims of mass rape and murder, not many of us have seen our families crushed in the rubble of a bombing raid. But most of us have been caught in traffic at some point. We know how rotten it feels.
By the same token, our government has never been in the position of having to use suicide bombers to kill civilians, our forces being equipped with fighter jets, tanks, mortars, rockets, and helicopters. Indeed, we are one of the world’s largest exporters of military hardware, and it’s not unlikely that the Sri Lankan army is using Quebec-manufactured Bell 407 helicopters in the genocide against the Tamils.
It’s tedious to have to keep repeating this, but a civilian who dies under air attack is just as dead as one who dies in a suicide bombing. Having the power of taxation, and thus the ability to build a modern army, is no excuse for war crimes. Terrorism is no less terrifying when it comes from the sky.
If the Canadian government must reject the Tamil Tigers’ tactics—and surely they must—then how much more forcefully must they reject the tactics of the Sri Lankan government, whose forces kill so many more, and a portion of whose arms originate in Canada?
So far as can be determined, Canada’s multi-billion-dollar arms industry is innocent of the blood shed by Tamil suicide bombers. We didn’t sell them the bomb belts, or assist in training their operatives. There’s no evidence to suggest that any of the 500,000,000 bullets produced annually (until recently) by SNC Lavalin found their way into Tiger hands.
Canada has a policy of only permitting arms sales to legitimate governments. Maybe that’s why we’re so understanding about state terror and so opposed to rebel terror. It’s not that we actively support genocide—heaven forbid. But it sure is good for business.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes,
is available in bookstores.