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Violence still plagues my Sri Lankan homeland

Feb 10, 2011 1:34:40 PM- transcurrents.com

By Emil Van Der Poorten
Edmonton Journal February 10, 2011

If anyone told me 10 years ago that I would be sitting down at a keyboard to produce a piece such as this, I would have said they were nuts.

I was born before the Second World War in Sri Lanka and lived the first 35 years of my life in an affluent, landowning family. As a consequence, I was saved the usual challenges that most citizens faced in a developing country in southern Asia

The imposition of land reform that severely restricted the extent of land I was permitted to own had a serious negative impact on my ability to earn a livelihood because the division of plantation land into a maximum of 50-acre parcels did not provide an economical agricultural unit. In addition, there was the clear and present danger of that 50 acres being appropriated by a government that saw anyone who had opposed it in the previous election as being fair game for victimization.

Off to Canada I went, with a wife, a young daughter and an infant son, at the end of 1973.

While the travails of integration into a new society and economy did present challenges, we had those challenges significantly cushioned by family already established in Ontario and by English being our first language. After two years in Toronto, we moved west; first to southern Alberta and then to the north-central part of the province.

When we first arrived in Ontario on a snowy December night, questions about culture shock were more than relevant, and they were asked. We answered, quite honestly then, that it wasn't an issue. A part of it "not being an issue" could well have been the fact that grappling with the challenges of a new life in a new country -- inclusive of earning a living -- consumed whatever energy we could muster.

However, when we moved, in 1981, from Claresholm to Slave Lake, there was need for acculturation and adaptation to a different life. Here, in the isolated communities of northern Alberta, getting water from a hole in a frozen lake to one's home before the pail froze over constituted "running water." I do exaggerate, but not too much.

Despite the often desperate conditions of the Cree of the North, with whom I worked in a preventive social services program, I count the six years I spent among them and the white folks of the area as the greatest of my 32 years in Canada. My lasting impression of the northern aboriginal people was of their warmth and great sense of humour, a very necessary attribute if one was to survive in often desperate circumstances.

In 1989, we moved, after 15 years in small-town Alberta, to Edmonton.

A political junkie from early in life, it wasn't long before I became active in the New Democratic Party. Beginning with presiding over a constituency association in Slave Lake in the heady days of the mid-to late-'80s when the NDP's popularity peaked, I went on to employment as an organizer for the provincial party and then to manage provincial, federal and territorial election campaigns in several parts of Western Canada.

Then, for a variety of personal reasons, I decided a few years ago to return to the land of my birth and, specifically, to my ancestral home. Despite protests, particularly from a new partner in life, I was soon contributing articles with political content to four of Sri Lanka's Englishlanguage Sunday papers.

As anyone who has been politically active in Canada will vouch, getting a rude reception at the door or over a phone line when canvassing for a candidate is a disconcerting experience until one puts things in perspective and realizes that such hostility comes only from a small percentage of the Canadian electorate.

While I had also experienced the mild violence of Sri Lankan politics in the '60s and '70s, I certainly wasn't prepared for what I encountered in terms of murder and mayhem when I returned.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government ran a superb public relations campaign when they had the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the run and in the last year of "Eelam War IV." This included demonizing any and all "peaceniks" and declaring open season on anyone having the temerity to criticize them. This continued after the war ended and, in fact, its pace has accelerated.

"Human rights" has become a term of opprobrium and anyone championing the concept, in even its mildest form, is immediately branded an anti-national traitor and in the pay of the "western, imperialist, capitalist powers of the international community."

The founding editor of the Sunday Leader (the last independent English-language paper standing) was gunned down by assassins, widely believed to be from the security services, within sight of an armed services roadblock, and the killers have not been apprehended yet, despite two years having elapsed.

An additional chilling fact is that the government continues to maintain the same level of armed personnel -- estimates range from 350,000 to 500,000 -- despite the war being over.

Under the circumstances, "going home again," in its fullest sense, really is problematic.

Emil van der Poorten is a former Edmontonian struggling with the political strife in his homeland of Sri Lanka. [courtesy: Edmonton Journal]