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Hunger strikes, rallies against genocide in Sri Lanka

November 19, 2011
Saturday, April 18, 2009 – 10:00
By Tim Dobson

Young Tamil activists Sutha Thanbalasingam, Mathivannan Sinnathurai and Pratheepan Rajathurai were prepared to starve to death in the face of Australian government inaction over Sri Lanka’s genocidal war against the Tamil people. They began a hunger strike on April 11 in Parramatta, Sydney.

On April 12, after news that the Sri Lankan army was moving troops to target the civilian “safety zone”, the hunger strikers walked from Parramatta to Kirribilli House, the Sydney residence of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Australia must act

They were joined by close to 1500 other Tamil activists, who wanted Rudd to personally respond to the hunger strikers demands.

The hunger strikers demanded the Australian government to push the government of Sri Lanka to enter an immediate ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; to immediately allow food, medicine and aid into the conflict zone; to allow vital services, including medical services into the conflict zone; and to allow the Tamil people, both in the conflict zone and those indefinitely detained in concentration camps in government-held areas, to decide independently where they wish to reside.

Police tactics

As the rally moved into the night, police declared the rally “unlawful” and called in riot police to disperse the peaceful crowd. The protesters sat on the ground and linked arms to defy the police order.

Police then announced to the crowd that a ceasefire had been announced in Sri Lanka; in reality, it was a sham 48-hour ceasefire. The tactic was particularly despicable because many of the protesters have family members in danger.

By 11.30pm, police accepted that the pro-Tamil protesters would stay. Dr Vasuki Delillo from the Australian Tamil Electoral Lobby Group announced: “We will not move, we will stay. We will not enter Kirribilli House. We will not obstruct police. We will maintain our dignity. They will not move us on.” His announcement was met with loud cheers.

After camping outside Kirribilli House all night and into the next day, the protesters decided to move the demonstration to Canberra to rally outside of the Lodge, the PM’s official Canberra residence.

On April 13, three young Tamil activists in Melbourne, Ramanan Saba, Theivigan Panchalingam and Banu Kones, began a hunger strike in Dandenong Park. On April 15, they joined the three other hunger strikers in Canberra; 450 Tamil activists remained with the hunger strikers to show their support.

Health concerns

On the night of April 15, the health of the hunger strikers began to worsen rapidly. After 106 hours without food or water Thanbalasingam was rushed to Canberra hospital. Blood tests conducted by volunteer doctors at the protest revealed significant signs of muscle breakdown, a precursor to kidney failure.

After discussion with the other hunger strikers, all three hunger strikers from Sydney took their first sip of water late on April 15. Thanbalasingam explained he only decided to drink water because “people kept telling me I have to be alive and well to tell the Australian public and politicians my story”.

Earlier that day, demonstrators handed Rudd a list of their four demands while he was leaving parliament.

Thousands rally

A demonstration of 8000 Tamils from across the country gathered at the Lodge on April 17. The demonstrators marched to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where a delegation met with a DFAT representative.

The activists declared they would be ending the hunger strike after the DFAT representative assured them the government would do what it could to pressure Sri Lanka.

Concerns from the Tamil community influenced their decision. “People started crying and saying they had already lost thousands of Tamils and could not bear to lose another in front of their eyes”, said Thanabalasingham.

Protest organiser Geetha Mano told Green Left Weekly the rally was held to show that the whole Tamil community, not just the hunger strikers, was united behind demands for the Australian government to take more action. The action was also meant to show solidarity with the hunger strikers, Mano said.

So far, the Tamil protesters are yet to hear from the prime minister’s office, nor has Rudd made any comment on the issue. Foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith has also refused requests to meet with the hunger strikers.

By contrast, Greens Senator Bob Brown made a surprise visit to speak to the six hunger strikers and addressed the April 17 protest. Brown said he would push for Smith to call on the Sri Lankan government to agree to a ceasefire.

Mano told GLW that the response of non-Tamil Australians has been quite supportive. Most people are “quite alarmed and sad” when they hear of what is happening but that a lot of people are “unaware, due to the lack of media coverage of the genocide happening against the Tamil people”.

Thanbalasingam urged more of the Australian public to support the Tamil protests and “join the fight against the genocide taking place”.

[For updates on the Australian campaign in solidarity with the Tamils of Sri Lanka visit http://fastuntoaction.wordpress.com.]

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