She is a polite, articulate university student who speaks quietly, but passionately. Her message is simple: she wants to stop the recruitment and use of child soldiers. `The level of fear and brutality used to force children, some as young as 12 or 13, to become soldiers is severe,` she says.
But our conversation takes a sharp turn when I ask her if she would like to write an opinion article about child soldiers and the reaction in her community here in Toronto to people who speak out against groups who use them.
`I couldn`t do that,` she says, suddenly nervous, speaking haltingly. `There simply is too much intimidation in Toronto. It is too difficult. And please don`t quote me saying that.`
Welcome to the reality of trying to speak out, to start an honest dialogue in Toronto`s thriving Tamil community about child soldiers, about the Tamil Tigers that recruit them, and about allegations that up to $2 million a month is donated by Tamils in Canada to front organizations for the Tamil Tigers.
Clearly the young woman, a Tamil, is worried about the safety of herself and family if she criticizes the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) and those in the Toronto area who financially support the Tigers` 30-year war for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.
She had come to the Star with Jo Becker, the children`s rights advocacy director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, and with Jasmine Herlt, director of the Toronto office of Human Rights Watch.
Becker and Herlt spoke openly ? and on the record ? about how the Tamil Tigers make extensive use of child soldiers under the age of 18. International law actually makes it a war crime to recruit children under the age of 15.
Last November, Human Rights Watch released a major report on the Tigers and child soldiers, claiming up to one-third of their troops are children, with 40 per cent of those girls. Also, UNICEF has documented the cases of at least 3,500 children recruited by the Tigers since a 2002 ceasefire was declared to allow peace talks to start.
And since the Boxing Day tsunami disaster, UNICEF has recorded cases of child recruitment from relief camps for tsunami survivors.
Last December, Becker faced a barrage of verbal attacks at a tumultuous meeting at the Scarborough Civic Centre when she spoke about the Tigers` recruitment of child soldiers. At one point, she was called `a white racist.`
Tamil leaders across Toronto reject charges that the community supports the use of child soldiers, or that money goes to funding the Tigers` military wing. And they fiercely reject suggestions the Tigers are a terrorist group, as some politicians contend.
And yet, a curious silence hangs over the 100,000-strong Tamil community in Greater Toronto. There is little open debate on the charges. For two weeks, I tried unsuccessfully to convince influential Tamils who privately told me they oppose what the Tigers are doing, to let their names be used.
`I feel my immediate family would be affected,` one Tamil educator who has lived in Canada for more than 20 years told me. `It still is a tight community, where everybody knows each other or knows of your family.`
The intimidation comes in the form of physical threats, or late-night calls, or in the case of store owners, such as along Parliament Street where the Tamil community is strong, threats of boycotts, and worse, if they speak out.
`It sounds like out of a movie,` one man told me with sadness in his voice.
Privately, again, Tamils say it is not healthy to be openly afraid of debating issues and of speaking about the need for pluralism within their community.
Such reluctance in the face of alleged threats and intimidation is understandable. But the Tamil community here is maturing, and is a growing force in politics, business and academia. For example, in the 2003 municipal elections, six Tamils in Markham alone ran for council and the public school board.
Despite their successes, many Tamils say they still face bias because of media portrayals of Tamils as terrorists.
All of which makes it more important that Tamil educators, entrepreneurs and community officials accept the challenge and lead the way in fostering an atmosphere where all points of view can be aired openly and without fear.
`It will take a courageous group to get the ball rolling,` one senior Tamil told me this week. `That first group will have to be brave.`
Will he be among the first group?
Not likely. `This is not a battle I`m ready to take on at this point,` he sighs.
If he won`t speak out, then what chance is there that a young ? and fearful ? university student will? [TorontoStar]