An Open Letter to Sinhala Canadians
Dear Fellow Sinhala Canadians:
It is time that we express our immeasurable gratitude to Sri Lanka for our early education, facility in language, social skills, leadership qualities and all other factors that have led to our many successes in Canada. We can best do so by asserting the founding principles of the country of which we are now residents and citizens – peace, order and good government and helping Sri Lankans residents to wrest back our common homeland from an increasingly despotic family dynasty.
Let us not close our eyes to the vast human rights abuses that continue to occur in Sri Lanka just as many average Germans did when they pretended the Holocaust never happened.
Let us acknowledge that in the 26 year conflict in Sri Lanka all sides did commit horrible atrocities. While one side (the LTTE) is no longer around to be held to account for their atrocities as they were annihilated, the government of Sri Lanka and more particularly the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty must be held accountable for the atrocities they are responsible for. They unlike the LTTE are not only alive and kicking but are increasingly turning their guns on Sinhalese people whether they be poor fisherman in Chilaw, young workers in the free trade zone in Katunayake, catholic nuns in Moratuwa and recently even on one of their own party member’s from Wellampitiya (who has family in Calgary).
Most of us expats judge Sri Lanka by the three week “romance” which includes such things being able to reach Galle in 45 minutes on the so called “super highway”, the cleaner streets of Colombo, the lack of security checks, the 6 hours it now takes to Arugambay as opposed to the 11 hours it took just three years ago, “High Tea” at Cinnamon Grand or the opportunity to sip a Gin and Tonic at sundown at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel.
But, if we take the time to listen to a waiter at the Hilton, a pavement hawker, or a taxi driver we hear what life is for the so called “99 per cent” of the population (to borrow a phrase from the Occupy movement). I dare suggest that if you take the time and listen to the average people of Sri Lanka (rather than your friends who attended elite schools or your family members who host you to dinner at the Cinnamon Lakeside) the words you hear most are “badu mila” (cost of living) and “dooshanaya” (corruption).
Of course, the Sinhalese are rightly proud that the military under the political direction of the Rajapaksa brothers vanquished the terrorists who perfected suicide bombings and recruitment of child soldiers. But, at the same time ordinary people do lament that while the General who commanded the victorious army rots in jail the tiger terrorist [!!!] “Colonel Karuna” who ordered his child soldiers to mercilessly execute Buddhist monks and unarmed police officers sits at the right hand of the president at the cabinet table by day while cavorting at five star hotel with young Sinhala women at night. “Eka sardarana naa ney, Sir?” they say in a hushed tone fearful of being overheard.
At McGill University in Montreal I had the privilege of studying constitutional and human rights law under the Right Honourable Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella, current Liberal Member of Parliament Irvin Cottler and the grand daddy of International Human Right Law Professor John Humphries who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shortly at the end of world war II.
When I was a lawyer with the Attorney General of Canada I worked on immigration and war crimes files with a distinguished Sri Lankan-Canadian lawyer. As such I am well versed with the evolution of international human rights, war crimes and genocide concepts that began with the Nuremberg Trials and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since 1996 I have visited Sri Lanka two to three times a year and maintain extensive contacts with members of all Sri Lankan political parties, civil society organizations, the military, artists, journalists, business persons as well as current and former Colombo based diplomats. I had the opportunity to visit the war zone and meet the troops. A close friend from high school is one of the most senior Sri Lankan army officers who were killed by the LTTE.
My late parents were from the majority Sinhala community and taught me by example the essence of Buddhist-Christian co-existence. Except for the time I studied in the U.S. I have lived in Canada since I immigrated here in 1973. I am thus uniquely qualified to write about the crisis that Sri Lanka faces because of the arrogant and bewildering conduct of President Rajapaksa, his family and their acolytes.
Since January 2009 the government of Canada and some Canadians have been privy to satellite imagery and first person accounts which provided irrefutable evidence of widespread war crimes in Sri Lanka. Last August the general public became privy to some of this information through Wikileaks.
More graphic details were recently broadcast on British TV and the producer of that program was interviewed by CBC radio. To me the images are not so much about the depravity of Sinhala soldiers but rather, to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, the “banality of war”. Please review them and come to your own conclusions:
The government of Sri Lanka has both blamed the “Diaspora” (read “Tamil”) for spreading lies and called upon the “Diaspora” (this time read “Sinhala”) to spread the truth.
The “truth” is that the Sri Lankan government was repeatedly advised to acknowledge that “war is hell”, civilian casualties are inevitable, but war crimes are not acceptable and so it ought to prosecute a token number of military personnel and to then pardon them [BY WHO?] (Yes this sounds cynical but hey, those of you who remember the Nixon resignation and pardon will surely understand that this is what “real politik” is all about).
In the alternate the Sri Lankan government was advised to form an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission just as South Africa did (and we also have done in respect of our native people) which would spare all participants from prosecution be they be Sinhala or Tamil.
In an unparalleled and on-going display of triumphalism and hubris the government rejected this advice with President Rajapaksa as well as his brother and Defence Minister Gothabaya Rajapaksa repeatedly claiming that there were no civilian casualties as the war was fought with a gun in one hand and the Geneva Conventions in the other.
Under intense pressure the government appointed a commission of 9 people of whom 8 were either current or former government officials. The so called Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was not independent by any stretch of the imagination and so no one was surprised when the LLRC produced two reports essentially absolving the government and the military of responsibility for any war crimes.
But the commission did conclude that there were at least 5,000 civilian casualties during the final phase of the war (January to May 2009). The government has now said the figure is even higher – 8,000. A United Nations report concluded that there was credible evidence that civilian casualties could have been as high as 40,000.
But, let us not get bogged down in the numbers game. The Tigers killed Sinhala, Muslims and Tamil civilians as well as military personnel. The Sri Lankan government in turn killed Tamil, Sinhala and Muslims civilians and of course Tiger cadres.
What Sri Lanka has to deal with is why the military aimed their rockets at hospitals and areas the UN had informed civilian were asked to move to by the government – the so called “no fire zones”. Sri Lanka also has to deal with its military killed Tiger cadres, their wives (one lady who in fact was Sinhala) and children who attempted to surrender in the manner agreed to by a senior Sri Lankan diplomat. (The late journalist Marie Colvin as well as intermediaries from UK, Canada and Australia were part of the surrender negotiations).
However suspect the LLRC report is it does when it comes to holding Sri Lanka responsible for civilian casualties the report provide many detail of some of the daily indignities that Tamil people continue to be subject to more than 30 months after the end of the war. Though the report recommends certain very mild steps to effect reconciliation the government has come up with one excuse or the other to not follow its own hand-picked commission’s suggestions.
Let me pick one telling example of the extreme chauvinism and meanness of the Sri Lankan government. President Rajapaksa suddenly ordered that that the national anthem not be sung in Tamil at official events even in the Tamil speaking majority areas of the north and east of Sri Lanka. In its interim report released over one year ago the LLRC recommended that this irrational and abusive order be reversed. The government has to date failed to do so. How much more and how many more different ways does the government of Sri Lanka want to humiliate and alienate the Tamil people?
The United States has brought forward a resolution at the United Nations Human Right Council calling for the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of its own handpicked LLRC report. The government is fighting this resolution tooth and nail on the nonsensical slogan that the resolution is an attempt to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. This is simply balderdash as the resolution is non-binding and the Sri Lankan government is free to ignore it.
The U.S. resolution is also not about regime change as the sad but obvious truth is that there is no viable alternative to the ruling party. The chances of a so called “Araliya Revolution” are simply non –existent. The resolution is not about thwarting the democratically elected government of Sri Lanka as President Rajapaksa effectively stole the election by agreeing to pay Prabhakarn Rs. 900 million if he would prevent Tamils in the north and east of voting as most Tamils if they had not been stopped by Prabhakaran would have voted for the UNP. (BTW Prabhakaran should have learnt his lesson then because when Mr. Rajapaksa won the election he refused to pay the balance due of Rs. 300 million!)
During the war the president promised the Tamil people that he would not only implement the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution that would ensure equality for minority groups but also he would go beyond that. Towards the end of the war he gave the same assurance to Canada, India, UK, France, US as well as personally to the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon when Mr. Moon visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war. 34 months later the President has to still to fulfil his promise.
What the President did do immediately after the last election was to change the constitution so that he could be President for life and the critical civilian posts such as that of the head of the police, the elections commissioner, etc, would be decided by the President as opposed to an independent body as the Sri Lankan Constitution had mandated till them.
The US resolution on Sri Lanka will be voted on Thursday March 22, 2012.
What I urge Sinhalese-Canadians to do is to ask of themselves why would the Sri Lankan government fight so hard against a non-binding resolution especially if the government has nothing to hide?
Why does the government continue to visit indignities and humiliation on Tamil people by such simple but very symbolic means as banning the singing of the national anthem in Tamil?
This particularly must hit home to us English speaking Canadians’ who would find it unacceptable if our national anthem was not sung in both English and French not only at public functions but also at private events. Why did the Sri Lankan government deny that civilians had died in the final phase of the war?
Even if you have not been previously involved in politics is this the time for you to be both a proud Canadian and a proud Sri Lankan and stand up for human dignity in Sri Lanka?
Is it time for you to contact your member of parliament and advice him or her of your views on whether Canada should support the U.S. Resolution on Sri Lanka implementing its own LLRC recommendations without further dilly dallying?
Is it time for you to email Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird to share your views with him on this issue?
I leave it to your conscience to guide you.
Though most of us are Canadian Citizens we do have a right to voice our concerns about Sri Lanka especially because the most powerful person in the government of Sri Lanka is a U.S. Citizen. As they say what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
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Please don’t hesitate to contact me for any further information. I welcome brickbats even more than accolades as the former will force me to reconsider and refine my position as necessary.
(Viresh Fernando studied Economics at the University of Rochester, practiced Chartered Accounting, in Toronto and studied Law at McGill University in Montreal. As Counsel with the Attorney General of Canada he was assigned to work with an eminent senior lawyer who too was born in Sri Lanka to work on the first Nazi war crime investigation undertaken by Canada. Viresh visits Sri Lanka two to three times a year and maintains extensive contacts with members of all political parties, civil society organizations, the military, artists, journalists, business persons as well as current and former Colombo based diplomats.
As an advisor to a Canadian Federal Cabinet Minister Viresh helped to negotiate the $225,000 million settlement with the Japanese Canadian community whose property was confiscated and who were wrongfully interred by Canada during the Second World War. Viresh has briefed successive Canadian governments on Sri Lankan and South Asian issues)