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Thursday, June 25, 2009 03:18 pm

Sri Lanka’s struggle for peace comes to Springfield

Government declares war’s end, but 300,000 remain captive

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Break the Silence USA, a team of three men who are walking from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, stops to rally at the Capitol Friday.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

More than 50 people assembled on the steps of the Capitol Friday, wearing tan, gray and blue T-shirts that carried their message: Break the Silence in Sri Lanka.

The crowd — with members young enough to ride in strollers and old enough to be grandfathers — chanted “Stop the genocide” and “We want justice.” They wielded American flags and handmade signs that reported the number of deaths, rapes and detainees in the war-torn island country. They even hit the street, passing out fliers to drivers stopped at the intersection of Second and Capitol.

Despite the afternoon’s stifling heat, these Sri Lankan natives and descendants showed up to rally behind Kannan Sreekantha, Vijay Sivaneswaran and Ramanan Thirukketheeswaranathan, three college students who are walking from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka.

The trio left the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago on May 26 and headed south for Springfield. Sreekantha, the team leader of Break the Silence USA, told the crowd that they chose to rally in the capital city because it’s a “symbolic place of peace.” It was here where Abraham Lincoln promoted equality and where the United States promoted its first black president, he said.

“We hope to raise awareness with the general American population to what is happening in Sri Lanka,” Sreekantha said. “The international community is meeting silence — the same thing happened in Darfur. We want to break the silence.”

Sreekantha left Sri Lanka with his family in 1993 and described his homeland as anything but peaceful. According to the group’s estimates, which are supported by Amnesty International, the brutal ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese government and minority Tamil groups has killed at least  20,000 civilians since April.

In May the government declared victory over the Tamils after 25 years of fighting. More than 300,000 “internally displaced peoples” are still held in military-led internment camps without adequate food, water or medicine and nearly 1 million others have fled to neighboring countries. Despite the war’s end, Amnesty International and BTS USA report that the government continues to use heavy weapons against civilians in the camps and refuses entry by international humanitarian aid organizations and media.

BTS USA hopes the 1,000-mile journey will give a voice to the oppressed Sri Lankan people by encouraging the U.S. and the international community to establish relief efforts and investigate allegations of war crimes and genocide in the country.

“We are here because of what happened in the past, but still continues to happen today,” Linda Arun Robert, a Chicago attorney who helped lead the Springfield rally, said. “So every American citizen can join us and ask for action on behalf of Sri Lankan people.”

From Springfield, the three men will travel east through Indianapolis; Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Cambridge, Mass. Wheeling, W.V.; and Pittsburgh before reaching Washington, D.C., during the week of Aug. 9.

BTS USA also plans to promote its cause on a future episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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