Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Sri Lanka’s (nearly) forgotten massacre

By Jonathan Kay | National Post

This isn’t a column about the Middle East. But to make my point, I’m going to start by asking readers to imagine a scenario from that part of the world.

Imagine that, sometime in the next few months, Hamas attacks against Israel escalate to the point of all-out war. Hundreds of Israeli tanks roll into Hamas-controlled territory, supported by artillery barrages and round-the-clock bombing runs. Position after position is overrun, until the retreating Arabs — Hamas fighters alongside innocent civilians — are packed into a tiny coastal sliver of beach. Fathers dig makeshift foxholes to protect their wives and children from Israeli bombs. Finally, Israeli forces penetrate the last defensive barrier, and kill Hamas’ leaders. Amid the battlefield carnage, tens of thousands of innocent civilians lie dead.

Imagine, for a moment, the international outcry that would accompany this bloodshed. It would be the Goldstone Report times a hundred. The daily massacres would be front-page news all over the world, every day. One can even imagine Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon joining the war and invading Israel.

Yet if you re-read the second paragraph of this column, and replace just three words — “Arab” with “Tamil,” “Hamas” with “Tiger,” and “Israel” with “Sri Lanka” — everything I described actually did happen in 2009, when Sri Lanka’s military overran Tamil Tiger forces in the northern part of that island nation. Yet, around the world, few paid these events any attention.

There was no “flotilla” for Sri Lankan Tamils: Most of the Canadian activists who rend their garments over the fate of Palestinians probably couldn’t find Sri Lanka on a map — even though the death toll in that country’s 26-year civil war was an order of magnitude greater than the combined death toll from Israel’s generations-long campaign against Palestinian terrorism.

This isn’t to say that the story in Sri Lanka was black-and-white. The Sri Lankan government had every right to fight the Tamil Tigers, which had mutated from a legitimate political movement into a nihilistic terrorist cult that assassinated leaders, kidnapped children for use as soldiers, staged suicide bombings, and even (through local proxies) extorted money from Tamil-Canadian shopkeepers. But the scope of the war got out of hand: In the last months, Sri Lankan forces effectively carpet-bombed swathes of territory that they had declared safe havens for civilians.

The word “massacre” is thrown around a lot in wartime. But in this case, there is solid evidence behind the charge. This is no Jenin-style pseudo-massacre we’re talking about.

Earlier this year, I sat down here in Toronto with a Tamil family that had witnessed all this firsthand, survived, and escaped to Canada.

The father — I’ll refer to him as B. — had worked in northern Sri Lanka as a photographer and Tamil activist. One day, he would be working a wedding. The next, he’d be taking photos of unexploded Sri Lankan bombs. His was an ordinary middle-class family, until everything turned to hell.

It was three years ago when the army moved into his area, declaring it a “high security zone.” He moved his wife and two young children to a village called Suthanthirapuram, where they lived in a makeshift hut.

But the war followed them there, too. In January 2009, bombs hit the local American Ceylon Mission, killing 17; and some of B.’s immediate neighbours were blown up by cluster bombs. He moved on to a nearby village, where his brother, a doctor, was living with his own family.

Then one day, Jan. 22, B. watched as his brother was blown apart as he stood at the mouth of a bunker they’d dug out together. Without time for a proper funeral, B. and his family took the body pieces in a rolled up sari and fled to the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, as Sri Lankan soldiers flooded the area; and then on to the coastal area of Mathalan — a government-declared “no-fire zone” that became a killing field. By this time, B. and his family were down to one meal a day. The desperate struggle to stay one village ahead of the bombs turned the family into wandering vagabonds.

Finally, they ran out of real estate: B. and his family were trapped on a crowded beach — a stretch of sand a kilometre long and 300 metres wide, where the Tamil Tigers were making their last stand. Amid constant barrages, men dug desperately for cover in the sand, trying to create protective foxholes for their wives and children. When a bomb fell, B. saw figures go up in the air as people, and come down to the ground as corpses.

It’s been more than two years since all this happened. And Sri Lanka’s government would be more than happy to have all of it forgotten. But some world leaders have refused to succumb to amnesia — including our own PM and Foreign Affairs Minister. In September, John Baird declared that there were “credible” allegations of war crimes committed by Sri Lanka — and he continues to press the issue bilaterally with Colombo. More recently, Canada has threatened to boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka unless its government takes responsibility for its behaviour toward the Tamil minority.

This is a positive step for Canada, which is home to the world’s largest Tamil diaspora. Under the Liberals, we swung too far in the opposite direction ­— refusing to list the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group, and turning a blind eye to Tamil fundraising. Stephen Harper corrected that. And many observers credit Canada’s policies with a weakening of the Tiger military apparatus in the final years of the war. But standing firm against a terrorist group shouldn’t mean turning a blind eye to very real massacres against civilians.

Mr. Harper should keep holding the Sri Lankan government and military to account for what it did in 2009. Given the lack of international interest in this part of the world, our role here is important. If not for us, Sri Lanka may succeed in sweeping its actions under the carpet.

Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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