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Canada’s Tamils still bank on Tigers despite ban

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Canada’s recent listing of the Tamil Tigers as a forbidden terrorist group is not enjoying a lot of popularity in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.

Talk among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora at the beginning of April usually centers around the Tamil New Year that falls in the middle of the month, but this year, different announcements have eclipsed that attraction: the Canadian Conservative government’s ban on the Tigers, which would limit their fundraising for any future war.

The Tigers are now listed in Canada with 38 other terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and Hamas. It is illegal for any person to provide funding for or participate in the activities of a terrorist group.

The Canadian government’s listing came after reports last month of alleged extortion attempts for “a war fund” by Tamil Tiger operatives in Canada.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter McKay has indicated the Canadian government is intent on helping to achieve a negotiated settlement to the ethnic problems in Sri Lanka. “The LTTE’s repeated use of violence since signing a ceasefire agreement,” he says, “is unacceptable and seriously calls into question its commitment to the peace process.”

While the Canadian government sees the move as forcing the Tigers out of their combat fatigues to the negotiating table with the Sri Lankan government, it may be a little out of sync with the Tamil community itself, who the listing is supposed to help by protecting them from extortion and intimidation.

Montreal-based veteran Sri Lankan Tamil leader V. Navaratnam insists on the futility of talks and agreements with the Sri Lankan government. “The Tamils can no longer trust the Sinhalese [in government],” he says.

The 96-year-old Navaratnam, a former member of the Sri Lankan parliament, is the only living co-founder of the defunct Federal Party. This political party is credited with starting the Tamil struggle for rights in Sri Lanka, sparked in 1956 by the Sinhalese-only language act. Navaratnam points out how the initial Tamil struggle was modeled on Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. “We had been struggling and carrying out our campaign in a non-violent manner. It didn’t pay.”

In 1957, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the founder of the party, entered into a pact with the then prime minister of Sri Lanka, Solomon Bandaranaike, for the devolution of powers to the northern and eastern provinces of the island that were predominantly populated by Tamils. Caving into Sinhalese political opposition, Bandaranaike abrogated the pact. Soon after, he was slain. His assassin is believed to have been a Buddhist monk angry with Bandaranaike for being soft on the Tamils.

According to Navaratnam, Sinhalese politicians since Bandaranaike have reneged on every promise they made to the Tamils. In his view, only an “absolute separation” could ever bring a true and lasting solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem. He doesn’t think federalism will work. “You cannot put the fate of so many Tamils in the hands of Sinhalese politicians,” he says.

Other members of the Tamil community are also convinced that the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict can’t be resolved peacefully. “The Sri Lankan government will never give us anything,” says Vakeesan Natarajan, who has lived in Canada for some 25 years and teaches Sunday school at a diaspora Hindu temple. “We [Tamils] have to fight for it.”

Kanthan Tharmalingam, a 34-year-old Tamil shopkeeper, says he and his wife have never supported any armed warfare “because people are only going to die” but he isn’t opposed to the Tigers either. He remembers the 2004 tsunami: “If the LTTE hadn’t been there, the government wouldn’t have helped our people [the Tamils].”

The Sri Lankan government entered into an agreement called the post-tsunami operations management structure or P-TOMS with the Tamil Tigers to share tsunami funds with the affected regions in the north and east, but it fell through after strident opposition from Buddhist political parties in Sri Lanka.

“The Sri Lankan government is split four ways,” says Tharmalingam. “They don’t carry out what they agree on. They just listen to the Buddhist monks and keep wavering. The LTTE has always stood firm.”

He doesn’t bank much hope on the peace talks in Geneva this year. “Even if they [the Sri Lankan government] implement what they promise in Geneva, the situation would be okay. But it appears as if they want to drag the LTTE into war.”

Taking a different stand, R. San, a Tamil jeweler who has been in Canada for 10 years, says the rebel struggle in Sri Lanka is now unnecessary. He is strongly opposed to the Tigers. “I don’t want any of this. The rights we have now in Sri Lanka are good enough. I want to live in peace.”

San says he was asked to contribute $5,000 to the rebel movement recently. “Where will I go for the money? I don’t have that much money.” San has a mother and two sisters still living in Sri Lanka whom he wants to bring here. „I have to have about $27,000 in my savings to be able to sponsor their immigration papers.”

But San doesn’t seem to represent the majority. The prevailing opinion in the diapora is that most Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada are sympathetic toward the Tigers.

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives, when interviewed in July last year, offered some insight into why support for the Tigers runs so high among Sri Lankan Tamils, both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

“By and large, the vast majority [of Tamils] think the LTTE will get them the best deal. Historically, that’s been true,” he says. “I think the government’s failing has been to find a political and constitutional settlement that meets the aspirations of Tamil people within [a one-state] Sri Lanka.”

Embassys describes itself as “an unbiased and authoritative newsweekly focused on international affairs from a distinctively Canadian point of view and on the diplomatic community in Ottawa.” [email protected]

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