I Invited Canadian LTTE to taste Sri Lankan tea

SEPTEMBER 10. 2009. Martin Reg Cohn headshot for Column (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

article_imageWe continued to organise and strengthen the Consulate General’s Office. We tried to maintain close contact with the Controller of Immigration in Colombo and strict controls were put in place with regards to the issuance of emergency travel documents as LTTE supporters were known to use them to enter Sri Lanka. There was also close coordination with the Indian Consular Service to prevent LTTE members from entering Sri Lanka via India.

I met with representatives of SLUNA (Organisation which jointly led the battle against LTTE in Canada. More will be written about the heroes of SLUNA later) Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lankan business houses, Sri Lankan Chamber of Commerce, Board of the Sri Lanka-Canada Business Council, Tea Association of Canada and community leaders of Canada on assuming my duties. They were all cooperative and eager to cast a positive light on Sri Lanka as opposed to the adverse publicity generated by the pro-LTTE lobby.

I also met several politicians across the board in Canada including shadow Foreign Minister Bob Rae, Conservative MP David Sweet, who was introduced to me by Noor Nizam from Hamilton. Noor was an ardent supporter of Sri Lanka and extended his hand to me in my fight against LTTE propaganda and operations. I struck a good working relationship with a very decent Canadian MP, David Sweet, and we continue it even today on Twitter.

I also called on my diplomatic colleagues starting with the Indian Consul General, Satish Metha. We both faced threats and therefore were in constant contact with Canadian security officials. Our meetings included discussions with several detectives and intelligence officers. I have to make a special mention of Detective of the Intelligence Service Omid Mojtahead, who worked with me very closely and tirelessly until the very end. Mojtahead, who understood the situation well, was a tower of strength.

Another very good contact I made was John Thompson, President of the Mackenzie Institute. Mr. Thompson hated the LTTE and all terrorists. He had excellent contacts with me and was always ready to help me. I am sure The Island readers will remember the articles written by Mr. Thompson to The Island while I was posted in Canada. I also met with Prof Chelva Kanakanayagam, Prof of English and Director of South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. I was proud of Prof. Kanakanayagam. We stuck a good friendship which continued with its ups and downs due to the pressure we both had. He is no more but, I will always remember him with affection.

We began to establish a data bank with the help of a volunteer to reach out to the Sri Lankan community in Toronto. I began to respond immediately to articles critical of Sri Lanka. I telephoned several pro-LTTE newspapers and radio stations and announced my arrival in Toronto. I invited them all to have a cup of Sri Lankan tea and join me for a chat. I also called the infamous David Poopalapillai of the LTTE front Canadian Tamil Congress and asked him to meet me. We later met during a very interesting TV debate.

The LTTE in Canada protested whenever a Sri Lankan event was held. The first protest I witnessed was at the Sri Lankan of the Year Awards ceremony organised and presented by young and enthusiastic Romesh Angunawala. I looked at the sorry figures from the lobby of the hotel. Toronto Police did an excellent job in keeping the protesters at bay. I ensured that a letter of appreciation was sent with names of every officer. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Toronto Police understood Sri Lanka well. They never liked terrorists or their supporters.

SEPTEMBER 10. 2009. Martin Reg Cohn headshot for Column   (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

SEPTEMBER 10. 2009. Martin Reg Cohn headshot for Column
(Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

The Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka at the time, Ms. Angela Bogdon visited Toronto and I hosted a dinner in her honour with different community representatives in attendance. It gave everyone an opportunity to engage openly and freely. I would always remember Ms. Bogdon with affection though we did not see eye to eye sometimes. On that note, I must state that we did not have to always agree with each other as our job was to look after the interests of our own countries.

Through my friend Prof Rohan Gunaratne, I met one of the most important Canadian journalists I always wanted to meet. Stewart Bell. I had read articles concerning Bell’s battle against terrorism for years and asked Sri Lankan Canadians never to refer to Bell as a pro-Sri Lanka journalist as he only wanted to rid Canada of terror activities. He was a gentle and a humble journalist who had faced threats from several terror groups, not only the LTTE. He exposed them all. The author of the award winning book ‘COLD TERROR- How Canada nurtures and exports terrorism around the world,” Stewart was a Canadian expert on the Sri Lankan situation and LTTE activities in Canada. Stewart and I stuck a cordial relationship and it continues still. I have my highest respect for Stewart Bell as an independent journalist.

Apart from Stewart Bell, I met several other journalists within a short period of my entry to Canada including Martin Regg Cohn, Foreign Editor of The Toronto Star, who proudly displayed a LTTE flag on his desk (I knew his thoughts were misplaced moment I met him at the Star office). He later wrote an opinion piece ‘against’ me, which I think is more of a tribute to the work I did defending Sri Lanka (or that is what the former Foreign Secretary Palihakkara told me).

I met several other journalists including Ajith Jain of India Abroad, who was a highly respected senior journalist, Angie Seth of OMINI TV, who conducted my first TV interview in Canada, Darryl Konynenbelt of Global TV and Thomas Saras, President of the Ethnic Press Council of Canada. I also met journalists from CBC Radio, Indian publications, which were strong in Canada, and also met the President of the South Asian Journalists Association in Toronto and offered to host a Sri Lanka Day.

It was important for us to provide them with a clear picture of Sri Lanka.

I also contacted Toronto based Sri Lankan journalist, DBS Jeyaraj, who wielded a lot of influence in Canada and elsewhere as a journalist. Our friendship continues to date with mutual respect for each other. We also managed to reach out to the Sri Lankan community through community-based newspapers, TV and radio channels.

During my tenure in Canada, the much respected National Post editorial board extended an invitation to me to address them. It was easy for me to bond with fellow journalists as a journalist turned diplomat. The doors were open and it was important for both Sri Lanka and me.