It's time to support our Tamil friends
Skyler and and I took part in a march down Queen Street last Saturday in protest at the Sri Lankan government offensive. Apart from Green MP Keith Locke, we were the only non-Tamils present. We only knew about the event because a Tamil friend had texted us an hour or so before it began.
The three hundred or so members of the Tamil community who had turned out for the march at short notice were unused to staging public demonstrations, and didn't feel confident enough to walk down the street, or chant slogans. They moved in double file down the Queen Street footpath silently, holding aloft homemade placards with slogans like NEW ZEALAND SPEAK OUT and SELF-DETERMINATION FOR TAMILS written on them in felt pen.
These polite, modest people were repeatedly abused by passing motorists, who shouted witticisms like GO BACK HOME THEN YOU BLACK BASTARDS! and MUSLIM TERRORISTS! My partner and I had been invited to the march by Tamil friends, and after they introduced us we struck up a series of conversations. We heard about siblings who had been killed by Sri Lankan artillery bombardments, parents who had been obliterated by bombs dropped from above the clouds, and cousins who had vanished into 'refugee camps' surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by Sri Lankan soldiers. I listened to these stories, heard the abuse from passing motorists, and looked at the blank faces of shoppers ducking into Borders and Smith and Caugheys, and thought: how must we look to them? Most of us do not shout abuse, but is our studied obliviousness not in some way worse? Does it not look like a calculated insult?
It was interesting to compare last Saturday's demonstration with the march down Queen Street organised a couple of weeks ago to protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza. That demonstration numbered at least a thousand souls, of whom no more than a third were Arabs. Why is it, one of my Tamil interlocutors asked, that everyone cares about Gaza, but nobody takes any notice of our plight in Sri Lanka? I found it hard to answer him.
There are certainly compelling similarities between the situations of the Palestinians and the Tamils: both have found themselves under massive attack by right-wing governments which have seized upon Bush's rhetoric of a 'War on Terror' to make an impossible attempt to settle a long-standing ethnic dispute by military means. Both peoples are residents of open air prisons. Both peoples are being bombed and denied vital humanitarian aid. The UN has come under sustained attacked in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, as well as in Gaza.
The Tamils on last Saturday's demonstration were so amazed that my partner and I supported them that they asked one of us to speak. I said a few words, identifying myself as a member of New Zealand's trade union movement, talking about our movement's history of supporting progressive international causes like the anti-apartheid movement and the movement against war in Iraq, and suggesting that our movement ought to be a natural ally of the Tamil people in their struggle against war and oppression. I'm not sure how convincing I sounded.
I hope that many more non-Tamil Kiwis will come to Wednesday's demonstration (I believe the protest starts at 3pm with a march from Aotea Square starting at 5pm) to show these courageous people that their plight is not being ignored.