As Toronto Tamils honour war dead, some fear Sri Lankan election could spark more violence

Maveerar Naal, or Tamil Remembrance Day, is marked by Sri Lankan Tamils around the world on Nov. 27 to commemorate the lives lost during Sri Lanka's civil war. But this year, the election of a new president is sparking concerns that more violence could be coming.

Wednesday marks the 10th Tamil Remembrance Day since the civil war in Sri Lanka ended

This Tamil Remembrance Day memorial, or Maveerar Naal memorial, is set up at the University of Mississauga's commemoration ceremony. Tamil student associations at the University of Toronto's St. George, Mississauga and Scarborough campuses had a joint memorial event. (Sarika Navanathan)

Toronto's Sri Lankan Tamil community is pausing Wednesday to remember a civil war that killed tens of thousands of their people  — but even though the conflict ended a decade ago, many are worried the recent elections in Sri Lanka will spark more ethnic strife. 

On the 10th Tamil Remembrance Day since the war ended, Tamils can't help but focus on the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's former defence minister, who won the presidency just 10 days ago. 

He was revered by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority for his role in ending the bloody civil war in 2009, but Tamils fear him for what they call a "genocide" by the government as it tried to crush their campaign for an independent state.

"[It] brings back a lot of trauma and fear, I think, in the Tamil community," said Sarika Navanathan, president of the Tamil Student Association at the University of Toronto's St. George campus.

Rajapaksa's brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president at the height of the war, is now prime minister.

"It's unfortunate to kind of see the regime come back full circle 10 years later. You would think things may have changed and we might have a better future. But on the outset, it definitely doesn't look good for the community," Navanathan said.

Sri Lanka's newly elected president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, waves to supporters as he leaves the election commission after the announcement of his victory in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Nov.17, 2019. (Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press)

What is Tamil Remembrance Day?

Sri Lankan Tamils have been commemorating the deaths of Tamil soldiers on Nov. 27 since the early 1990s. The day is referred to as Maveerar Naal in Tamil.

In ceremonies across Toronto, a city with one of the biggest Sri Lankan Tamil communities in the world, people place flowers in front of replicas of gravestones, meant to honour the lives lost in the war.

Sarika Navanathan says she was shocked but not surprised by the country's recent election results. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

As the conflict reached its climax in May 2009, members of the Tamil community in Toronto blocked the Gardiner Expressway to raise awareness of the escalating conflict and draw attention to civilians who had been killed or forced to flee. 

Tasha Manoranjan, executive director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), says the day of remembrance was initially meant to honour soldiers fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but because they became targets towards the end of the war, the tradition now includes honouring civilians as well.  

"Particularly towards the final stages of the conflict in 2009, from January to May in 2009, there wasn't really any distinguishing between LTTE combatants and civilians because the entire Tamil community was under attack by the Sri Lankan government," she said. 

"That's kind of blurring the distinction in terms of commemoration on November 27."

Commemoration marred by fear 

Manoranjan says heading into Maveerar Naal, there is a fear among Tamil Canadians that violence could escalate again and bigotry could again be rampant in the country. She worries that the new Sri Lankan government won't care about the needs of the Tamil community.

"It's just another heartbreaking, heartbreaking pause in the struggle for justice."

Ken Kandeepan, spokesperson for the Canadian Tamil Congress, hopes the new government is receptive to the needs of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. 

Tasha Manoranjan, executive director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, says Maveerar Naal is an extremely significant day for Tamils. She says Gotabaya Rajapaksa's election is a 'terrifying spectre' for the community. ((Submitted))

"With this majority and with the support of the majority community, [Gotabaya] should make best efforts to craft a solution which is acceptable to the Tamil community."

He says the international eye on the Sri Lankan government will play a role in ensuring things move toward reconciliation and equality.

"We hope that that level of scrutiny, along with the moral persuasion imposed or exerted by the Tamil diaspora, will ensure that even if things don't get better for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, it doesn't get any worse."

Sri Lankan high commissioner responds

The Sri Lankan high commissioner in Ottawa, Asoka Girihagama, says Gotabaya Rajapaksa's election should not spark any fear in the Tamil diaspora 

"This conflict was created not because of discrimination," he said. "The Rajapaksa regime wiped out terrorism. If there is no kind of terrorist groups who want to divide the country ...  peace will prevail." 

But Sarika Navanathan says people shouldn't ignore what the Rajapaksa regime did and what the war meant for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Ken Kandeepan is on the advisory board with the Canadian Tamil Congress. He says the new government needs to hand over seized lands and free those who've been captured since the end of the war. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

"When people do kind of contest it and they say, 'No, the genocide didn't happen,' or 'Tamil people aren't struggling,' or 'They weren't subjected to anything in the past,' that just seems like a denial of history to me." 

Navanathan says even though Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa are back in power, she will continue to use the privilege of living in Canada to commemorate those who died in the war.

"Our parents had already been through this. We were born on that sacrifice and we continue to be here on that sacrifice and we're going make the best of that right."

The Tamil Student Association on U of T's St. George campus held their Maveerar Naal commemorations last week. They put up posters like these to educate people about the day. Maveerar means heroes in Tamil. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

with files from The Associated Press and Taylor Simmons