A pro-Tamil rally of more than 120,000 people along University Avenue on March 16, 2009. A pro-Tamil rally of more than 120,000 people along University Avenue on March 16, 2009.

Nine months after the Sri Lankan military proclaimed success in the country’s devastating civil war, a national referendum organized out of Toronto has shown that the ethnic and nationalist tensions behind the conflict still run deep.

On December 19, an independent body called the Coalition for Tamil Elections Canada conducted a referendum in 15 Canadian cities, asking the Tamil community to vote on the 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution.

The Resolution, passed in response to the policies of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government, outlines the creation of an independent state for the island’s Tamil minority. Of the 50,000-strong turn out, an overwhelming 99.82 per cent voted in favour of the resolution.

For the referendum’s organizers, the results underline the staunch support that "Tamil Eelam" or "Tamil sovereignty" has enjoyed in one of Canada’s most prominent immigrant communities. Toronto in particular, with the largest concentration of Tamils outside South Asia, has often been called “the capital of Eelam” by Sri Lankan officials.

“This referendum is the culmination of what we were striving for all summer,” says Evan Anandarajan, president of the Tamil Students’ Association at U of T, referring to the protests and rallies which took place across Canada in 2009. “It sends a clear message to the international community that Tamils are frustrated with the oppressive, partisan politics of the Sri Lankan government. In my experience, it is completely representative of how the majority of Canadian Tamils, including U of T students, feel about the issue."

Nevertheless, the results do not mean that there is unanimous agreement on the referendum’s efficacy or legitimacy.

“The 99.82 per cent who expressed their support for Eelam are 99.82 per cent of the people who voted, not 99.82 percent of the Tamil community,” says Anzul Jhan, councillor at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa. “There are more than 48,000 Tamils in the world, and we don’t even know for sure how many Tamils there are in Canada. How can one unaffiliated body then declare itself their sole mouthpiece?”

The referendum’s possible connection to extremist political groups highlights one of the most controversial points of the Sri Lankan conflict: the rampant use of militancy and coercion.

Velupillai Thangavelu, a leading member of the Coalition for Tamil Elections, was previously VP of the World Tamil Movement, outlawed by Ottawa in 2008 as a terrorist organization. According to the RCMP, the World Tamil Movement and its affiliates were actively involved in fundraising for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the secessionist guerrillas who faced the Sri Lankan military in open war from the 1970s to 2009. It is estimated that, in the latter part of the conflict, more than 50 per cent of the LTTE’s resources were procured from such supposedly unaffiliated organizations.

“This Coalition, too, is just a front for the LTTE,” says Lenin Benedict, secretary of the Canadian Democratic Tamil Cultural Association. “Now that the Tigers have been militarily defeated in Sri Lanka and outlawed in most of North America and Western Europe, they are constantly trying to reassert themselves under different names.”

In Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, both sides were condemned for their excessively violent tactics. Amnesty International criticized the state government for repeated human rights abuses, ceasefire violations, and anti-minority pogroms. The LTTE was declared a major terrorist organization by 32 counties because of its use of child soldiers, suicide bombers, ethnic cleansing, and civilian targets.

Benedict is concerned that, rather than encouraging mutual dialogue, initiatives like the December referendum will merely plunge war-weary Sri Lanka into another cycle of violence.

“This referendum will spread militaristic propaganda among impressionable Tamil youth,” he says. “It can’t possibly lead to any concrete, favourable results. The LTTE has already done enough damage by distorting the political aspirations of Tamils into terrorism.”

Sri Lanka is slated to hold parliamentary elections in the last week of January. It remains to be seen whether the Canadian referendum will have any direct effect on the outcome.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Referendum reignites debate leading up to elections
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