Melissa Leong, National Post Published: Tuesday, November 06, 2007
S.P. Thamilselvan, political head and chief negotiator for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was killed on Friday morning in a bombing raid by the Sri Lankan Air Force.
Organizers of the vigil had expected more than 10,000 community members from the Greater Toronto Area, home to the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of South Asia.
Many families stood on the sodden grass of the Markham Fair grounds, near McCowan and Elgin Mills roads. A few carried flowers, others displayed homemade anti-war signs.
"It’s raining outside, there was a big lineup to get in. Still, we wanted to be here to tell our Canadian government to help bring peace," said Nathan Kanapathi, a 42-year-old travel agent, who shared a black umbrella with his wife, his 11-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.
The Ajax resident fled to Canada from Sri Lanka following the 1983 anti-Tamil riots that marked the beginning of the country’s civil war.
Yesterday, after a moment of silence in the dark, Mr. Thamilselvan’s brother, Ravi Paramu, who lives in Markham, tearfully addressed the crowd. He appealed to the Canadian government to support the political aspirations of Tamils. The LTTE wants a separate nation for the tiny island’s ethnic Tamil minority.
Local Liberal MPs took the stage, beside a large image of Mr. Thamilselvan projected on to the side of a white tent, and called on the federal government to intervene in the conflict.
"I’m there not to take sides," John McKay, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood, said last night before the memorial event. "I’m there to encourage the peace process and encourage the return to the negotiating table.
"I wish [Stephen] Harper was more enthusiastic about committing himself to the peace process and less enthusiastic about designating people as terrorists. Labelling people is dead easy … it accomplishes nothing. It compromises your positioning as a neutral third party."
Within three months of taking office, the Conservative government used its powers under the Anti-Terrorism Act to make it illegal to provide support to the Tigers. On April 6, 2006, the Tigers were added to Canada’s list of proscribed terror groups.
Jim Karygiannis, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Agincourt, visited Sri Lanka after the country was hit by the December, 2004, tsunami and met with Mr. Thamilselvan, whom he described as "always smiling" and "very smart." His death has set back the peace process, he added.
"If the Canadian government says, ‘We don’t want to engage because one side is a terrorist organization,’ then there is a failure there."
Historically, conflict has often yielded armed battle; yet resolution favours dialogue, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, the Liberal MP representing Etobicoke-Centre, said after addressing the mourners. He pointed to Britain’s negotiations with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), once considered a terrorist group; the talks brought stability to Northern Ireland.
Last year, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj resigned as deputy foreign affairs critic following an uproar over his comments suggesting Canada should negotiate with Hezbollah.
The Tamil Tigers are a traditional guerrilla movement like Colombia’s FARC, but they use the tactics of terrorism, notably suicide bombings and political assassinations; as a result they have been designated internationally as a terrorist organization.
"I know [Thamilselvan] was a member of the LTTE and he did his fair share of fighting, but he was the negotiator," said Maria Minna, the Liberal MP who led a peace mission to Sri Lanka in March, 2005.
Ms. Minna said last night’s gathering was about honouring Mr. Thamilselvan’s attempts at achieving peace in the long-running war, which has killed about 70,000 since 1983.
"It is time, quite frankly, that the rest of the world and the United Nations step in."