On Saturday, August 23, I went to âeoeCall of the Conscience,âe a one-night awareness-raising exhibit organized by the International Forum for Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka (IFPJSL).
About 300 people were in attendance, the vast majority Sri Lankan Canadians. I was amongst about two handfuls of white attendees. I went because every time a particular friend bemoans the ignorance of Western media coverage of Sri Lanka, I cringe. I am a member of that cohort. For a journalist, I am woefully under-informed and confused about the complicated histories and conflicts in Sri Lanka.
I hoped the event, loudly independent of ties to either the Tamil Tigers or the Sri Lankan government, would make it clear once and for all who was on the side of human rights, of freedom, truth and love; and for whom I should be cheering.
I should perhaps have known that where people are involved, there is little chance of such yes-or-no clarity.
What I learned in the cool lobby of Roy Thomson Hall âe" all shining chrome, mirrors and whispering gray carpets âe" is that Sri Lanka is a beautiful, bloody, mess of a country.
The exhibit, featuring six short documentaries by filmmaker K.B. Nath, was interspersed along the winding lobby with wall-sized posters preceding and following each film. The documentaries and posters outlined the history of the conflict, starting with a call to responsibility on all sides. At several stations, long lists of names, citizens, journalists and aid workers who have been killed or disappeared (darkly referred to as âeoeWhite Van Syndromeâe ) covered the wall-to-floor windows.
Contextualizing the images were the pre-event speeches, hosted, by invitation only, for journalists, union organizers, members of Sri Lankan community groups and friends of the IFPJSL.
Beginning the event were speeches by Manoranjan Selliah, an exiled Sri Lankan journalist; Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) President Veerasingham Anandasangaree; and Kevin Shimmin, a union organizer and national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada.
Selliah, one of the organizers of the event, began, âeoeOver the last year, many ordinary people have been disappeared, tortured, bombed and massacred by both sides of this senseless war. This exhibition is about such ordinary people and their suffering. It is also about ordinary people who did extraordinary work, who rose to the occasion to challenge the madness of war; who believed in the value of dissent, and often paid the supreme price of their lives. My conscience and I think your conscience demands that we respond to the call to remember such people.âe
He questioned and condemned the silence and complicity of Tamil society: âeoeFirst, there was the killing of individuals labelled as âe~traitors.âe(TM) And then in 1984, the Anuradhapura massacre of over one hundred Sinhalese pilgrims. And then that horror of April 28, 1986, a pathological killing machine from within our own community was unleashed against our fellow youth, in the form of the LTTE massacre of the other militant group Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO). This is when our broader community witnessed the brutality of Tamil militancy, as Tamil youth hunted down, murdered, tortured and burned alive other Tamil youth on the streets of Jaffna.âe
Anandasangaree spoke about human rights. âeoeAs long as refugee camps exist in our country, whether the inmates are Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or of any other group, we have no moral rights to boast of democratic principles. With one section of our people undergoing untold hardships, being deprived of their democratic fundamental and human rights, we canâe(TM)t boast of our country as one enjoying full democratic rights ... Should our youths, be they Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or of any other group, continue to shed their blood unnecessarily and die in vain at the battlefront? I am convinced that the time has come for the country to find a solution reasonable enough and acceptable to the minorities and the international community.âe
The films, five minutes each, were not narrated. Dramatic orchestral music underscored the drama of still photos and film clips. It was enough. The images of children playing juxtaposed against those of children marching, shooting, dead.
Most alarming to me was the eddy of information on Sri Lankan Muslims. The posters quoted reports citing violence done to the Muslim population (about 75,000 people), who in 1990 were told to leave their ancestral homes within 48 hours sans belongings. This was shortly after 150 Muslims at prayer were killed. As I read, I overheard conversations around me of Sri Lankans expressing a similar shock. Many had never heard of what is sometimes called the âeoeMuslim expulsion.âe
I left the event a little more knowledgeable than before, but also more aware of how much more I would need to learn in order to even have a semblance of understanding of the conflict.
Like so many other countries reeling from the aftermath of colonialism, the violence in Sri Lanka is deeply embedded in a sense of injustice, but further, after so many years of media coverage ignoring/silencing one bloody reality or another, the voices who have been calling for peace, for reconciliation and for justice have organized and the dissenters are growing louder, less afraid.
The last speaker of the opening ceremony, Kevin Shimmin, has spent the last 16 years of his life intimately involved with Sri Lanka, including working with grassroots activists in Sri Lanka and community activists in the Toronto Diaspora. His words propelled this journalist toward a deeper consideration of peace and justice:
âeoeWe need to talk about why the Sri Lankan state remains unaccountable today, after more than two decades of war, for an overtly racist agenda of oppression, for the bombing of civilians, for illegal detention and torture. We need to talk about why the LTTE remains unaccountable for an authoritarian regime that silences Tamil voices of dissent, which continues the forcible recruitment of children. And we need to ask ourselves where have we been? What have we been doing right here in Toronto to work for peace and justice in Sri Lanka?âe
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