Monday, May 18, 2009

Why I'm joining Tamil protesters in Auckland today

I just walked down Queen Street, on a beautiful Monday morning, enjoying the late autumn sunshine and the red and orange tints of the exotic trees that grow on the edge of Myers Park. When I reached Aotea Square, I encountered a group of my fellow Aucklanders who couldn't enjoy the pleasant weather and surroundings. Ignored by shoppers and office workers on their lunch break, a few member of this city's Tamil community were unloading placards and flags from a van, in preparation for a demonstration. I stopped to talk to them, and the stories they told soon broke my tranquil mood.

Last night, in a tiny area in the far north of Sri Lanka, thousands of civilians were blown apart by artillery and rocket fire, as the Sri Lankan army launched a 'final offensive' against a small group of Tamil Tiger fighters surrounded by terrified refugees. The refugees have been trapped for weeks without adequate food, water, or medicine, and without access to international aid agencies. Despite the pleas of the United Nations and a series of foreign governments, Sri Lankan authorities have refused to call a ceasefire and allow the Tamil refugees to receive the aid they so desperately need.

The latest bombardment by the Sri Lankan government is particularly senseless, because the embattled Tamil Tigers have said that they are prepared to surrender to a third party like the UN, as long as the civilians surrounding them are allowed to flee to safety. Embarrassed by the continuing condemnations of its treatment of the Tamil civilians, the Sri Lankan government has now apparently decided to 'solve' the refugee crisis through mass murder.

I talked to one young man in Aotea Square who has had more than a dozen family members trapped by the fighting in northern Sri Lankan. He told me that last night's bombardment by the Sri Lankan army had killed two of his sisters, and that he feared that a third sister had also been killed. I told him how sorry I was about his loss, but the words felt hollow. I felt embarrassed by the lack of interest passers by were showing in the placards and flags the Tamil protesters were holding. I felt embarrassed by the lack of response by non-Tamil Kiwis to the many earlier protests against Sri Lankan attacks on Tamil civilians. What has happened, I wondered, to the New Zealand tradition of protesting against unjust wars and racist governments - the tradition that gave us the campaign against the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid movement, and the large protests against the US invasion of Iraq? Why, I wondered, are Kiwis so oblivious to the suffering of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka?

I asked the man who lost two of his sisters last night how long he planned to protest against the new atrocities in Sri Lanka. 'I can't stop' he replied. 'We can't stop. Our people are dying by the thousand. We will stand on Queen Street, and then go up to TVNZ headquarters later in the day. For us there can be no normal life while this goes on.' I said goodbye to him, promising to visit the demonstration later in the day. As I walked back up Queen Street, I no longer noticed the sunshine, or the pretty trees on the edge of Myers Park. It's hard to feel happy when you know that other members of your community are having their family members blown apart by shells and rockets. I hope that more members of the Auckland community will join the protests today against the atrocities in northern Sri Lanka.

To contact the protest organisers e mail

For more information on this issue, visit the website of the New Zealand Tamil Society.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The UN is saying that 7,000 civilians were killed between 20 January and 7 May. The vast majority must have been killed by the Sri Lankan army - they have the heavy weapons and air power.

1:29 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I've just been looking around the net at reports on the situation, and it's clear that the Sri Lankan government has been saying for twenty-four hours that there are now no civilians caught up in the fighting any longer.

This would be great if it were true, but I fear that it is a way for the Sri Lankans to claim that anybody who is killed during the 'final offensive' against the Tigers is a combatant. This sort of excuse for the indiscriminate targetting of civilians has been seen in other wars - during the US assault on the Iraqi town of Fallujah, for instance, all civilians were given a day or so to leave the war zone, and all those who didn't leave were deemed to be part of the enemy force, and therefore legitimate targets.

After the end of the conventional war in Sri Lanka, the question of what happens to the surviving Tamil refugees will be very important. Sri Lanka is moving them into camps which they are will be forbidden to leave for many months, if not years. Aid agencies worry that the camps offer little in the way of resources, and that refugees might die in large numbers from disease or even malnutrition. It doesn't look like the refugees will be able to take part in the elections which Sri Lanka's populist government in likely to call in the wake of its victory in the conventional war against the Tigers.

It's hard to see how throwing hundreds of thousands of Tamils into de facto prisons is going to help the cause of long-term peace in Sri Lanka. It's small wonder that NZ's Tamil community is calling for a boycott of Sri Lankan products, and for the cancelling of the Black Caps' cricket tour of Sri Lanka.

1:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fundamental question is, why for 26 years a group of people fought to gain autonomy? surely there must be a deep; almost an unshakable desire within their hearts to be their own people. And that we should respect even if we don't condone their methods

10:43 am  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

The reporting of these events on our media has been nothing short of scandalous. Putting in a few "it is claimed"'s hardly translates to independent verification of any of the Government's claims.

I'm tired of watching bewildered, dusty, undertrained reporters repeating nonsensical offical rewrites of recent history like so many parrots.

"The Tamil Tigers have been defeated. Now the international community just has to persuade the Govt to release the c.300,000 Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka from the appalling camps they're imprisoned in and 'allow' them to return home."

Is that supposed to sound like the end of a civil war? What do they expect us to think this war was about in the first place? Sheer perversity on the part of a few 'terrorists', completely unsupported by their own community? I like the little asides about distinguishing "ex-fighters" from "genuine civilians" before the camps can be cleared ...

Like causes breed like results. There are certainly no triumphs to report here.

8:27 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

George Orwell would grin sadly at all this...

9:44 pm  
Blogger Rene Benthien said...

It will be interesting to see how the GoSL deals with this opportunity. Tamils are angry but also war-weary. They are looking for something they can trust. Being part of an oppressed community is tiring work.

Hopefully Rajapaksa will clear out the camps quickly. Though why he still isn't allowing unfettered access to the media is puzzling to say the least.

7:31 pm  

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