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Tamil protesters stage massive demonstration in Toronto

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By 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, police dressed in riot gear had already begun to set up a perimeter around the south lawn of Queen’s Park to ensure that a pro-Tamil rally against the civil war in Sri Lanka wouldn’t spontaneously spill onto the downtown streets of Toronto.

The heavy police presence came after thousands of Tamil protesters and supporters overwhelmed a handful of police officers on bikes Sunday as they made their way on to the Gardiner Expressway, closing it for hours.

On Tuesday, organizers predicted that close to 100,000 pro-Tamil supporters would converge on Queen’s Park Wednesday to form a human chain at noon. On January 30, tens of thousands of Tamils gathered to build a human chain that stretched along Bloor to Yonge, down to Front and up University to draw attention to the carnage in their homeland. At the end of April, another huge protest was launched in Toronto that lasted almost a week.

Last Sunday, in what organizers claim was a spontaneous and unplanned effort, thousands of Tamils marched onto the Gardiner Expressway onramp at Spadina. On Wednesday, the Tamils promised yet another rally on the streets of Toronto. Organizers promised they wouldn’t block traffic or cause disruptions. But police remained on standby just in case.

At 11:22 a.m., 150 Tamils, many carrying Tamil Eelam flags, settled at the bottom of the south lawn at Queen’s Park. Adjacent to the statue of John Sandfield Macdonald, the first Premier of Ontario, a temporary memorial was erected in tribute to the three thousand Tamils that organizers claimed were killed last weekend by the Sri Lankan Army.

A few minutes later, as a helicopter circled overhead, the chanting began. “We want a permanent ceasefire” reverberated through Queen’s Park as 200 protesters  consisting of children, teenagers, adults and seniors formed a circle near the hunger striker tent, where the sign hanging on one of the poles was updated to confirm 47 dead, 112 injured the day before. Next to them, a food drop off station was set up where six volunteers collected and sorted non-perishable items from the Tamil community for delivery to the Daily Bread Food Bank.

One of the volunteers told me that throughout Tamil history the tiger has always been used on their flags. Previously, flags had a shield and two swords. Today, the shield and swords have been replaced with bullets and guns. “Weapons of war depict a fight towards our freedom,” said Thanarajan Jasuthasan. “This is the sad reality that weapons have to be used in order to fight for a separate homeland, to save our lives.”

In 1990, the people of Tamil Eelam adopted the current symbol (without the LTTE – Tamil Tigers) as their national flag. “But governments are using that as an excuse to say that we are representing terrorists,” he said. “We are not terrorists. We are fighting terrorism. And our flag cannot be confused with the Tigers’ flag.”

For Thanarajan, 27, the central issue now is to save lives rather than get caught up in the flag controversy. “As governments use the flag as an excuse not to take action, lives are lost,” he said. “We are not representing terrorist groups. It’s terror that’s being done unto us.”

When Thanarajan and other Tamils demonstrated in Ottawa, he said the federal government used the flag issue as an excuse not to address the crowd. But even after they removed their flags, as a gesture of goodwill, the Conservatives still refused to talk to them. “That’s very disappointing,” he said. “We gave them a chance.”

Thanarajan, who came to Canada in 1993, still has family in Sri Lanka and is frustrated that he can’t communicate with them. “The Sri Lankan government is always doing some sort of genocidal act and it’s not covered by media,” he said. “My parents sent me here so I wouldn’t be another person who ended up dying.”

Thanarajan said it’s impossible to get an accurate death count during the current civil war because people are running for their lives. He’s been told, however, that dead bodies are scattered all over the place. “Right now I have shivers just telling you about it,” he said.

Through relatives, Thanarajan has heard stories about women being raped, children separated from their parents, doctors forced to perform abortions on pregnant women and removing their ovaries. Thanarajan wanted to tell me more, but choked up with emotion, unable to continue speaking about the atrocities.

New satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area in northern Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

Local sources have reported that more than 400 civilians have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded since May 9, 2009, as a result of artillery attacks on the thin coastal strip where fighting continues between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

On Friday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser on the prevention of genocide said that “it is not too late” for Sri Lanka’s Government forces and rebels to end their brutal conflict, underscoring the toll the clashes are taking on civilians.

There is still time for the Government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to halt their fighting and “pursue a reconciliatory and peaceful path with the ethnic Tamil population,” Francis Deng said in a statement.

Meanwhile, donations poured in for the Daily Bread Food Bank for needy individuals and families throughout the Toronto area. By noon, twenty milk jug crates each containing a dozen canned food items stacked four crates high sat on the lawn near the drop-off station.

Stephanie Lawrence, a Tamil Canadian, explained that the food donation idea came about as a way of bringing awareness to what’s going on in Sri Lanka. “Even though we can’t help our people back in Sri Lanka, we don’t think it’s fair that people here in Canada don’t have access to the basic necessities,” said Lawrence.

She hopes the Canadian government will pressure an end to the civil war by placing economic and political sanctions on Sri Lanka. Lawrence is shocked that a big nation like Canada is unable to influence the government of Sri Lanka to bring about a ceasefire.

Although Lawrence doesn’t have family in the war zone, she has friends who’ve lost several members of their immediate family. “There’s a lot unfortunately that the Canadian population cannot see,” she said. “We’ve seen countless images on the Tamilnet websites of dead children.”  Lawrence described one child who’d lost both legs, desperately trying to grasp on to a person walking by. She’s seen shattered limbs that look like “string cheese” flopping in the air. In another image, she saw a child crying out as flies hovered around his dead father’s face.

“I wasn’t born in Sri Lanka but after watching these images I can’t sit by and not do anything,” said Lawrence, who’s heard stories of women being raped in the refugee camps. “If the international media is not allowed to enter the conflict zones than how can we trust those who say the Tamil Tigers are doing this and holding civilians captive.” For now, Lawrence said aid workers and others are posting images online.

By 12:10pm, over a thousand people have joined the demonstration at Queen’s Park chanting “Stop the Genocide” as volunteers are overwhelmed by food donations at the drop off station.

Ryerson student Banusha Pathmanathan joined the demonstration Wednesday at Queen’s Park to fight against human rights violations in Sri Lanka. She said stories about rape, bombings, and uses of chemical weapons are being suppressed by the Sri Lankan government. “If the Tamil Tigers are really responsible then why are they asking the media and aid workers into the safety zone?” she asked. The 19-year-old said people should be careful who they call terrorists, noting that Nobel Peace prize winner and civil rights leader Nelson Mandella was once labeled a terrorist too.

“Most of the Tamil Canadians were born and raised in Canada,” said Banusha. “This is our country. We live and work here. Everyone should stand up for each other.”

Around 5pm, 12,000 protesters left Queen’s Park and marched peacefully through the downtown core before returning to Queen’s Park. The next day, Premier McGuinty raised the issue in the Ontario legislature, urging the federal government and the United Nations to pressure all sides to bring an end to the conflict.

Thousand of Tamil demonstrators occupied parts of downtown Toronto for several hours Friday night. They began with a sit-in at Yonge and Dundas streets before moving to the U.S. consulate on University Avenue.

Their protests were expected to continue, with a candlelight vigil planned later Saturday in front of the U.S. consulate.

On Saturday afternoon, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his country’s military had defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Click here to see photos from Wednesday's protest

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