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Canada ban fanning conflict - Tamilselvan

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In a villa surrounded by tall jak fruit trees and a squad of cadres toting T-56 assault rifles, S.P. Tamilselvan, the political leader of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, sits pondering the political missteps of Stephen Harper’s rookie government in Canada.

“We know the complexity of the political problems any party would normally come across during a period of transition or a change from one party to another,” he says.

Tamilselvan says he’s been searching for a plausible reason Harper’s government ignored Canada’s 200,000-strong Tamil community and placed their “freedom-fighting organization” alongside Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah on a list of criminal terrorist groups.

Canada used to be well-respected here in Kilinochchi. It was known as a haven for thousands of Tamil refugees fleeing persecution by the Sinhalese-dominated government during a civil war that raged in the 1980s and ‘90s, leaving 64,000 people dead.

But since Ottawa’s decision in April, Canada is now thought of as a country that turned its back.

In the first Canadian interview he’s given since Ottawa’s decision, Tamilselvan says he suspects Harper is playing a cheap game to score political points early in his minority mandate.

“These are things quite understandable in politics,” he says. “But politics and freedom struggles are two different things. Politics has machinations.”

Recent decisions by Canada, the European Union and the United States to list the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a terrorist organization could have great bearing on the tattered peace process in Sri Lanka, especially as the nation appears poised to return to all-out civil war at any time. Since April, more than 700 people have been killed in escalating violence.

There is reason enough, Ottawa argues, to add the Tigers to the Criminal Code’s list of terrorist groups, making membership and participation in its operations illegal. (Fundraising for the Tamil Tigers has been illegal in Canada since 2001, when the government adopted a set of United Nations anti-terror funding regulations.)

“The decision to list the LTTE is long overdue and something the previous government did not take seriously enough to act upon,” Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said in April. “Our government is clearly determined to take decisive steps to ensure the safety of Canadians against terrorism.”

But the implications of listing the Tigers as a terrorist group means Canada can no longer participate as an effective broker in the peace process, Tamilselvan says. Ottawa has clearly chosen to side with the Sri Lankan government and against the Tigers.

“The extremist elements in the south always get encouraged when somebody outside gives them a pat on the shoulders that they’re doing a good job and that the LTTE is a terrorist organization,” he says.

The result is that the government has “accelerated the pace of violence let loose on the Tamil people.”

“This ban,” he adds, “has only helped the extremist elements to fan the flame of communalism and racism.”

Some observers worry Tamilselvan may be correct, saying that the Sri Lankan government has become more brazen in its acts of violence since the international community appears to have endorsed its position.

“It also gives an opportunity for the government to try to use the war on terror to engage in violence. There’s a danger in that as well. It kind of releases pressure on the government in that it can feel like it has the right, in a way, to do certain things,” says Mirak Raheem, a peace and conflict researcher at Colombo’s Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Some also worry that, by effectively alienating the Tamil Tigers, Canada has thrown away any leverage it once had to influence the group.

“They have nothing much to lose when they attack, because they have lost the international recognition they were aiming for and I don’t see a lot of things that could prevent them from going on with those attacks,” says a Western diplomat in Colombo. “There are no incentives we can really offer them.”

Tamilselvan’s parting plea to Harper is to “address the issue justly and reasonably” and reconsider.

“We have under no circumstances engaged ourselves in any acts of, call it terrorism or violence or whatever, in any other nation,” he said. “All our acts are intended to drive the enemy away from our homeland. This does not, in any way, impact life in Canada.”


Andrew Mills is a Canadian freelance journalist

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