Canada pinches Tamil Tigers' pocketbooks

It labeled the Sri Lankan rebels 'terrorists' to stem coerced fundraising among Tamil expatriates.

As Sri Lanka teeters on the brink of civil war half a world away, Canada is cracking down on a rebel group that has long relied on expatriate funding to fuel its fight for an independent homeland there.

With the largest concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad, Canada has been a key revenue source for the separatist Tamil Tigers. One of the first major acts of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new Conservative government this spring was to declare the Tigers a terrorist organization, a move the previous Liberal government had resisted.

That April 10 decision makes it illegal for Canadians to support - financially or otherwise - the Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). "The decision to list the LTTE is long overdue," said Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day. "Our government is clearly determined to take decisive steps to ensure the safety of Canadians against terrorism."

The United States, Britain, and India have already banned the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization. And Canada's Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) recommended that Canada ban the group in accordance with the Anti-Terrorism Act on three separate occasions, most recently a year ago.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in March described how Tamils in Canada and Europe have been systematically threatened and intimidated into giving money to the Tigers. The report also said that LTTE monitors expatriates who travel in LTTE-controlled portions of Sri Lanka, restricting the movements of those who have not paid up.

One Toronto Tamil interviewed by the Monitor, who asked not to be named because he fears for his safety, says two LTTE-affiliated fundraisers threatened him when he refused to give them money.

"He told me, 'If you come back to our motherland, we'll see you,' " the man says. "It means you will be killed. It's the LTTE - it's 100 percent sure you will be killed if you were to go back."

The Tamils' reputation for violence is "well-deserved" says James Ross, a senior legal adviser for HRW in New York, adding that the group is "one of the best funded insurgencies in the world. They clearly rely heavily on foreign funding."

Some experts believe that 80 to 90 percent of the LTTE's military budget in the 1990s came from overseas donors. In 2000, CSIS reportedly estimated the Tamil Tigers raised $1 million to $2 million a year in Canada.

Of the estimated 800,000 Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka since the fighting began in 1983, about 250,000 have settled in Canada. Toronto has the greatest urban concentration of Tamils in the world, according to HRW.

Mr. Ross says he hopes the Canadian ban will ease the pressure on the Tamil diaspora, though he says the Canadian government needs to do more to educate and protect Tamil immigrants - many of whom don't speak or read English and may not even know about the ban.

"It sends a very powerful signal to the Tamil community that it is wrong to give money to this group," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. Soon after the listing, Canadian federal police underscored that strong signal, raiding the Toronto and Montreal offices of the World Tamil Movement - a community group suspected of being a front for the LTTE. The search warrants were sealed, and the authorities have not commented on what they were looking for or what they might have found. The group's leaders say their organization is sympathetic to the LTTE but does not collect funds for the group.

Some in the Tamil community believe the Canadian government's ban on the Tigers is unfair. Arul Singam, a coordinator with the Tamil Youth Organization in Toronto, sees the Tigers as freedom fighters.

"The ongoing genocide in Sri Lanka is what prompted the Tigers to take up arms," says Ms. Singam, who moved to Canada as a teenager in the '90s. "We have always asked the Canadian government to take a positive role in the peace process. By barring one side, and not condemning the other side ... that just doesn't make any sense.

"It's just creating a fear among the Tamil community, and that is what we are all outraged about," adds Singam, who says she fears all Tamils will be labeled terrorists. She says she's also concerned about her aunt and uncle back in Sri Lanka now that attacks by the rebels and counter-strikes by the military are growing more frequent.

Even experts who applaud Canada's ban on the Tigers aren't optimistic the move will stop the fighting in Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island off the southeast coast of India. Mr. Gunaratna says LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran "is only to a very limited extent dissuaded by public opinion or international opinion. He will also follow the political track, but he has not renounced violence."

Since the 1980s, fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military has killed nearly 65,000. Tamil Tigers have carried out more than 200 suicide bombings - more than any other terrorist group, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The group reportedly invented the individual suicide bomber "jacket" of explosives, a tactic later adopted by Al Qaeda and Hamas.

In the last month, more than 130 people have been killed in fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military, making it the deadliest period since a truce was signed in 2002. That cease-fire is in danger of failing now, as LTTE pulled out of peace talks scheduled for April 24-25 in Geneva and has increased attacks. Sri Lanka has responded with air strikes.

As for the Tamils back in Canada, Ross at Human Rights Watch says he hopes their lives will be improved by Canada's crackdown on the LTTE. But, he notes, "the Tigers have been banned in the U.K. for some time and there are still acts of intimidation going on."

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