Saturday, May 16, 2009

Anti-Tamil-Tiger Propaganda Muddies the Real Issues

Papers, blogs, Facebook, and all manner of online sites are abuzz with discussion of the Tamils' plight. I'm encouraged to read that while many Canadians remain uninvolved in the struggle, they are at least aware (or becoming more aware) of the situation. But of course, there remains a stubborn group which insists that Tamils should not be supported because of the actions of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

Like so many rebel groups, the Tigers have a history of rebellion against opression, and they want an independent state. That is understandable, which is not to say that anyone should condone some of the things they have done. But it is important to understand that the Sri Lankan government is guilty of decades of oppression, violence, and murder. That is not the story we hear, however.

A couple of years ago, on my walk home from work through the University of Toronto campus, I passed a student who was leafletting on the sidewalk. (As is my habit, I stopped to take a leaflet, but stayed right there, looking at it. If it is something that truly interests, me, I thank the person, but if not, I make a point of handing it back.) I stood there for a moment, puzzling over it. It was text heavy, and I was not willing to read the whole thing right there, but neither could I determine what its aim was or who was behind it. What was clear was that it was a propaganda piece against the Tamil Tigers, complete with a glossy, full-colour photo of a murdered civilian - a crude shock tactic.

Amusingly, the student appeared to be a little bit uncomfortable to have me scrutinizing the information in his presence. He first tried to distance himself from the subject matter. A moment later, growing more uneasy, he told me, "I'm just being paid to hand these out."

I did take it with me, intending to look into its origins more closely, but by the time I got home, I was too disgusted by the photo and threw it out.

Here's the thing: in a city like Toronto, you can find people leafletting any day of the week. Leaflets from activists are always done on the cheap: paper photocopies, often one quarter of an 8 1/2 x 11 for maximum economy, run off by volunteers. The anti-Tiger leaflet was a two-sided, full-colour photocopy, on good quality paper. Who had money to print these and hire a university student to distribute them? It certainly wasn't from any volunteer-run activist organization. It also wasn't a message from any social- or political-activist organization I've ever seen or heard of. In other words, someone with time, money, and an agenda went to some effort to implement this. And it's not anybody on the political left.

I am thankful my experiences with activism have taught me how to analyze this experience. But what is the average person to think? Should it be any wonder that people are confused now, as to whether to support the Tamil community?

I now question every claim I hear about the Tamil Tigers. Supposedly, they have been doing some awful things. But where is our information coming from? As communications have been restricted by the Sri Lankan government, the government is in control of most of the news that is being fed to our media.

We have a duty to use independent resources on the internet, and to speak to the Tamil population to get the other side of the story. It's not hard to find Tamils to speak to; they are out on the streets every day.

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