‘Have Compassion. Stay and Watch’: Canada and Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

©Channel 4, "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" (June 14, 2011)

"At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonable says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger, since it is not a man's power to provide for everything and escape from the general march of events; and that it is therefore better to turn aside from the painful subject till it has come, and to think of what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally yields to the first voice; in society to the second."

– Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

In June, Britain’s Channel 4 media station produced and presented a brutal and harrowing account of the final phase of Sri Lanka’s 25 year civil war, entitled ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. The civil war which claimed over 100,000 lives was fought by the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels against government forces and militias. The tigers were seeking an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in response to perceived discriminatory policies by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil population. After years of prolonged fighting and negotiations, the war ended decisively in 2009 with a government offensive into Tiger-held territory.

The film presented scathing evidence of war crimes and systemic human rights abuses committed in 2008 and 2009 by both sides of the conflict, but particularly focuses on violations made by the Sri Lankan military. Video evidence of extrajudicial killings, rape and the shelling of civilian hospitals is presented in stark detail. While the Sri Lankan government maintains the evidence in the documentary has been manipulated, numerous human rights and international organizations have analyzed the footage and conclude that the videos shown are indeed authentic.

The film’s primary objective was to provide a video account of war crimes in Sri Lanka so that possible international action may be taken in the future. However, I believe that the film has a more basic and fundamental message, not only for viewers, but for Canadians in particular. Near the start of the film, Benjamin Dix, a former UN staffer in Killinochchi, Sri Lanka recounts the face of a girl amongst a crowd of Tamil civilians which had amassed at the UN compound as the United Nations was beginning to pull out of Sri Lanka.

Her expression captured the sentiment of the crowd and seemed to say to Dix only one thing:

‘Have compassion. Stay and watch.’

Even though Canada is home to over 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils (the largest Sri Lankan Tamil population outside of Sri Lanka) it is unlikely that this alone is enough to give Canada influence in Sri Lanka’s affairs, nor should this fact be the basis of Canada’s actions.

Neither does this fact justify Canada’s silence either.

In previous years, Canada’s outspoken advocacy of human rights abroad allowed it to ‘punch above its weight,’ and made it a ‘nation to be contended with.’ Despite its leadership role in NATO’s current campaign in Libya, Canada’s silence on Sri Lanka and a number of other humanitarian issues is only one example which reflects “Canada’s transformation from a government that regularly stood with victims of human rights abuse to one that, these days, mostly stands aside.”

And while Canada’s current influence abroad may be questionable, its actions will nonetheless have a strong impact on its Tamil community at home and amongst Sri Lankans seeking refuge. Canada’s attitude towards Tamil asylum seekers has changed over the past two years. It appears Canadians now view these asylum seekers less as people in distress and more as ‘boat people,’ suggesting to many outside observers that Canada’s “historic sense of generosity and compassion is wearing thin.” Canada needs to regain its compassionate voice and speak out against human rights abuses both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, lest it lose the support and moral confidence of its own citizens and people abroad.

In the end, Canada’s influence may be inconsequential, but at the very least, by acknowledging the existence of human rights violations, Canada can send a message to the Sri Lankan government and other abusive regimes that, as a human rights leader, Canada is staying. And it is watching.

The film can be watched here on Channel 4’s website and can also be watched on youtube.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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I've been studying the dramatic military end of Sri Lanka/Tamil Eelam for some time now, and what I've read in words and pages have prevented me from watching the documentary noted above... The case reveals compelling lessons regarding how the discourse of combating "global terror" in a post-9/11 is experienced on the ground. Interesting to note that the government in Colombo has produced it's own take on the end of the war, called "Freedom Speaks". I've been studying the dramatic military end of Sri Lanka/Tamil Eelam for some time now, and what I've read in words and pages have prevented me from watching the documentary noted above... The case reveals compelling lessons regarding how the discourse of combating "global terror" in a post-9/11 is experienced on the ground. ...more
Thanks for the comment! The documentary is definitely hard to watch at times and may not be for everyone (a number of family and friends have indeed refused to do so). However, it really does help put a face to what we have read about the conflict and brings a sense of urgency which written words cannot bring. I do believe it is important to watch (particularly for those who have not personally lived the conflict, such as myself) as it forces us to confront some ugly issues. On this front, the documentary was screened on Parliament Hill for a number of MP's by Human Rights Watch in September (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFuI2YJTW0E). The issues discussed in the documentary and by human rights organizations will likely come back to the forefront once the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission's Report is released to the public by the Sri Lankan Government. The 'Freedom Speaks' documentary is certainly another interesting development though it is yet to be seen whether it has any impact outside of Sri Lanka.Thanks for the comment! The documentary is definitely hard to watch at times and may not be for everyone (a number of family and friends have indeed refused to do so). However, it really does help put a face to what we have read about the conflict and brings a sense of urgency which written words cannot bring. I do believe it is...more
Thanks for this very interesting blog. I have read very little about the conflict in Sri Lanka. I am going to do some more research on it now!