Tamil-Canadian business owners from Toronto who visited their Sri Lankan homeland have returned urging fellow community members to invest in the island and support its government.
Their appeal — unthinkable during the three decades of Sri Lanka’s civil war — came after March meetings with Sri Lankan leaders who, the investors say, admit the government was partly responsibility for the war and the suffering it caused.
“They feel the guilt now. They’ve been contributing, and we’ve been contributing,” Kula Sellathurai, co-chairperson of the Canada Sri Lanka Business Convention, told an April 23 news conference in Scarborough.
“They don’t want to see a second generation go through a war.”
The 21 potential investors, on a trade mission with Don Valley East MP Yasmin Ratansi and two other Ontario MPs in the Canada Sri Lanka Parliamentary Friendship Group, met Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena.
They left impressed with his candidness, and his willingness to recognize injustices were done to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority by governments led by the Sinhalese majority.
The entrepreneurs were candid themselves about the role Greater Toronto’s Tamil diaspora, which during the war became the largest outside Sri Lanka, played in donations supporting the violence.
“We, the diasporas, were the ones that helped fund the war for 35 years,” said Stan Muthulingam, the group’s other co-chairperson, at JC’s Grill House.
The war ended in 2009 as the government finally crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In Toronto, where protesters had blocked the Gardiner Expressway during the conflict’s final days, calls continued for an independent Tamil state, boycotts of Sri Lankan goods and international sanctions to stop what organizations described as continuing human rights violations and genocide against Tamils.
But Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president who oversaw the final military campaign, was defeated by Sirisena in 2015 and relations with the Toronto diaspora improved significantly.
By visiting the island now, Muthulingam said, “your perspective on the country will change and you will be a changed person.”
Tamils were “pulled down” by past Sinhalese-majority governments, but Sirisena needs Tamil support and economic development in the island’s war-ravaged north and east to remain in power, said Muthulingam, adding, “we have a duty to strengthen this government.”
Though postwar reconciliation “has to come from people themselves,” Tamils in the north “need our knowledge,” learned in Canada, about operating businesses, said Sellathurai.
“We can pass it on to these people, and they can improve their life.”
The regime is also offering tax holidays, and long leases on land for foreign investors. It’s interested, for example, in arranging cold storage facilities for farmers, hospital management programs and toll roads, Sellathurai said.
There were decades of mistrust created between Tamils and Sinhalese, but convention chairperson Ganesan Sugumar said he sees the current government as sincere about rebuilding the north.
“They are not fooling us. They want us to come, they want us to help,” he said.
“As a business community, we can’t talk about the political side, but we can help the region’s people.”
Kim Derry, a former Toronto deputy police chief in Toronto, was part of the trade mission and said Sri Lanka is open for business. People the group met, he insisted, “want to be seen as Sri Lankans,” not as Tamil or Sinhalese.
Though they didn’t meet, the mission’s timing almost matched a March visit to Sri Lanka by Toronto Mayor John Tory, who signed a partnership agreement with Jaffna, the north’s largest city, and visited a memorial at Mullivaikal dedicated to Tamils killed during the final stages of the war.
Tory also donated books to the Jaffna Library, burnt by a mob in 1981.
In February, the Scarborough-based Canadian Tamil Congress hosted a three-day conference on redeveloping Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces at Scarborough’s Centennial College.
That event, concentrating mainly on health care and education, featured several members of the Northern Provincial Council and Sri Lankan MPs.
The Congress and other organizations have pushed for an independent international investigation of possible war crimes against Tamils in Sri Lanka, and David Poopalapillai, the group’s national spokesperson, said its views haven’t changed.
“We still want the Sri Lankan government to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people.”
The new government provides a “ray of hope” that justice will be served, but the pace of reform in Sri Lanka is very slow, Poopalapillai said.
The congress, however, supports reconstruction in the island’s north and east. “We want the diaspora to go and invest and lift up the livelihood of the people.”
Spokespersons for the convention, who say their next move will be to formalize their group and start a counterpart in Sri Lanka, believe the political situation there is improving, but the government fears giving concessions to Tamils before the next election.
Their message is, “Be patient, give us time,” Muthulingam said. (Inside Toronto)