Sri Lankan soldiers in the heavily militarised Jaffna peninsula. 40,000 mainly Sinhala troops dominate the region and its 400,000 overwhelmingly Tamil residents. Photo Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images
The streets of Jaffna were lined with Sri Lankan government soldiers. Posted every 50 metres, leaning up against pockmarked walls, or standing in the thin shadow of a tree in the blazing sun. They rode slowly by on bicycles, in the back of tractor trailers, and cruised past in truck convoys.
Within months of this early summer scene, the uneasy calm would erupt into open battle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE).
There were checkpoints all the way from Jaffna town southeast to the peninsula’s narrow Elephant Pass. Since 1998, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has had control of the Jaffna Peninsula, which curves toward India from the northern tip of this teardrop-shaped island.
In a fierce but failed 2001 attempt to retake the area—the traditional heartland of Tamil culture—the LTTE wrestled away the strategic pass. The group also controls a swath of land directly below the peninsula, stretching across the north and down the east coast of Sri Lanka, effectively cutting off land access to Jaffna from government-controlled areas to the south.
Once through the buffer zone—maintained by the International Committee of the Red Cross just above the pass—and into LTTE territory, the government soldiers disappeared.
But there were LTTE “immigration officers” who checked my passport and read the letter of invitation from the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), which provides humanitarian services in LTTE areas. And there was a young woman in a smart blue-and-white uniform who searched my bag thoroughly—a customs officer for a country that does not exist.
We passed a Tamil Eelam district court, a school, and a police station before arriving in Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE’s unofficial northern state within a state.
Although the Tigers call themselves freedom fighters, the rest of the world is increasingly labelling them terrorists. In a recent diplomatic blow, the European Union (EU) banned the organization, freezing its financial assets and barring it from fundraising. Canada, which has the largest expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil population in the world, added the group to its terrorism list in April. A brief news flash in Canada, the listing caused considerable consternation and rejoicing in Sri Lanka.
Countries such as India, Britain, and the U.S. banned the Tamil Tigers to prevent them from collecting money for military purposes among the Tamil diaspora.
Banning the LTTE was widely rejected among Tamil-Canadians and opposed by some security experts. Others welcomed the move as a sign that the new Conservative-led government was finally taking a hard line in the war on terrorism.
The LTTE says the terrorist label will undermine the peace process and block much-needed contributions to the TRO. The group retaliated by demanding the removal of 37 international ceasefire monitors from three EU countries, stationed there since the February 2002 signing of a “permanent” ceasefire agreement.
On a quiet night on the front porch of his Kilinochchi home, spokesman Thaya Master explained the LTTE’s position.
“The ceasefire agreement was signed between two equal parts: the LTTE and the government,” he said. “Now they put a ban on the LTTE. It’s a one-sided story. It’s not balanced, so how can we proceed with the peace process?”
What about LTTE tactics that led to the terrorist designation, like the use of suicide bombers?
“We have a suicide group, that’s true,” Master said, but he insisted the practice is justified as part of a military strategy.
It’s a fine distinction, which becomes even more blurred when the LTTE assassinates a head of state like former Indian prime minister Rajiv Ghandi.
A history of bad judgments fuels argument against the LTTE’s claims that it is a legitimate government: in 1990 the group, mostly Hindu, chased the minority Muslim population out of the Jaffna Peninsula; it also recruits child soldiers and kills civilians.
Jon Tinker, executive director of the Vancouver-based research group Panos Canada—which describes itself as an NGO devoted to working on issues of human security, pluralism, and peace-building—said he deplores some LTTE tactics but he still disagrees with Canada’s decision to add the group to its terrorism list.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the LTTE has carried out forms of political violence that many people think of as outrageous, but the same can be said of the Sri Lanka Army,” Tinker said during an interview at his UBC office.
The overarching question, according to Tinker—who is writing a book on terrorism and diasporas—is how one defines a terrorist.
“The rhetoric of the war on terror makes it easy to make glib judgments that one form of political violence is justified and another is not justified,” he said. “One of the biggest weaknesses of most definitions of terrorism is they exclude actions by the state.”
Such narrow definitions are out of touch with real-life experiences in a conflict zone, he argued.
“Whether it’s a tank rolling through Jaffna firing tank shells, or a bomb being detonated, the result is the same: people are blown to pieces,” said Tinker, who questioned the utility of “stigmatizing” one party with the terrorism label during critical peace negotiations.
Martin Collacott, Canada’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka from 1982 to 1986, argues the opposite.
“By not getting tough on them, particularly by letting them continue to raise funds in Canada, you take the responsibility for enabling the civil war to continue, because we were probably their biggest source of external funds,” said Collacott, now a fellow at the right-wing Fraser Institute in Vancouver, on the line from Ottawa. “As some people have put it, we have blood on our hands.”
The recent meltdown of the ceasefire agreement has been accompanied by finger-pointing on both sides.
There had been violations almost daily for months, but on June 15 tensions were ratcheted up when 64 people were killed in a bus explosion in central Sri Lanka. Most passengers were Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up the majority of the country’s population.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lankan forces have fought for years to control the Jaffna Peninsula, which is the centre of Tamil culture.
The government blamed the rebels, and fighter jets strafed LTTE positions. By June 19, the LTTE and the SLA were exchanging heavy-weapons fire on the Jaffna Peninsula, which eventually opened up into another front in what some are calling a war.
The LTTE denied responsibility for the bus attack, blaming the government or forces backed by the government. Like so many events in Sri Lanka’s more than two-decades-long conflict, the details of the incident are sketchy and the facts murky. But the war is real enough, as is the poverty and displacement it creates.
In the village of Visvamadu, a funeral for an LTTE cadre killed in a firefight the day before blocked the road. A marching band of teenage girls led the procession, white dress uniforms shining in the midday sun.
At the graveyard, a thousand identical concrete graves splayed out around a monument, and an LTTE flag—a snarling tiger—flew at half-mast. The LTTE is big on monuments.
On our way to the coast, women sat in the schoolyard of each community, receiving arms training from female LTTE cadres. Large wooden clubs substituted for guns. The village men trained in the morning, I was told.
In Mullaittivu, houses were going up amongst rubble left by the 2004 tsunami, each one stamped with the TRO logo next to the door. Contributions from overseas Tamils as well as funding from foreign governments are paying to rebuild this quiet fishing community on the northeast coast. But 17 months after the tsunami, many people were still living in temporary camps, and construction was coming to a standstill as the government blockaded building supplies for fear, it said, that the LTTE might build new fortifications.
Soosaipillai Arasarednam worried that the tarp and thatch roof over his temporary home wouldn’t make it through another monsoon season.
Tigers’ spokesman Master claimed that preventing groups connected to the LTTE from raising money will undermine attempts to help victims of the tsunami and the conflict.
“It will affect the humanitarian work,” he said. “People will be reluctant to give money because of the ban.”
Lawrence Christie, the TRO’s planning director, was more optimistic about the issue. “I think the Canadian government will behave in a humanitarian manner, because it’s a humanitarian issue,” he said.
Inland, on the outskirts of Kilinochchi, children left homeless by the tsunami, war, and poverty live and study at a TRO-run home.
One corner of the young children’s quarters was reserved for those who arrived malnourished. They lay in bed listlessly as the healthy children pranced around, finally sending us off with a rendition of “Itsy-bitsy Spider,” first in English, then in Tamil.
Christie said that financial contributions from Canadian Tamils support children between ages six and 12 in the TRO home. The diaspora is the TRO’s most important source of money, according to Christie, and prospects would be grim if these funds dried up.
“If the Canadian government wants to starve the people and let them die…” he trailed off.
In fact, the government of Canada has a long history of delivering aid to LTTE areas. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) contributes to TRO-run programs, including demining the fields around Kilinochchi and manufacturing prosthetic legs for mine victims.
This work will continue despite the listing, according to CIDA.
“CIDA and its partners in Sri Lanka do not provide resources directly to the LTTE,” said spokeswoman Bronwen Cruden in a phone interview from Ottawa. “We carry out [activities] with the necessary diligence to continue to ensure that no CIDA funds are diverted to the LTTE.”
The Fraser Institute’s Collacott finds little reassurance in such reasoning.
“If an aid-delivery organization is identified closely with the Tamil Tigers, that would give me problems,” he said. “We’re in effect strengthening the Tigers’ hold and the ability to establish itself through that means.”
For Panos Canada’s Tinker, the same argument could be made for cutting off aid to projects run by the government of Sri Lanka.
“That cannot fail to be strengthening the ability of the Sri Lankan government to pursue this conflict,” he pointed out.
Whether listing the LTTE as a terrorist group will actually have any effect on its ability to fundraise in Canada is an open question. Although Canadians now face a possible 10 years in prison for knowingly contributing money to the LTTE through front groups, the government has yet to list any such groups.
Collacott said the government should take the next step and name them. He deplored the soft approach the Liberals took with the LTTE, accusing them of refusing to crack down because of substantial LTTE support in the Tamil-Canadian community.
“The Liberals were getting so much electoral support from Tamil Tiger supporters that they were not ever going to designate them as a terrorist group,” he said. “For anyone criticizing the Liberal government, they were a punching bag on this issue, because it was so obvious they should designate them a terrorist group and they just refused to.”
There are approximately 300,000 Tamils in Canada. About two thirds live in the Greater Toronto Area, where they form an important voting block in 10 ridings.
Collacott’s argument was brought forward in Parliament in 2000 by Conservative MP Monte Solberg (now Citizenship and Immigration Minister), who slammed then–finance minister Paul Martin for attending a fundraising dinner for the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, which supposedly had ties to the LTTE.
“To condemn these people, to call them terrorists, is anti-Canadian,” Martin responded in the House. “There is Irish blood coursing through my veins, but that doesn’t mean I am a member of the IRA.”
The Liberals defended their policy by claiming that listing the LTTE as terrorists would undermine peace negotiations. (The already troubled negotiations would take a nose dive after Canada and the EU listed the group.)
When the Tories banned the Tigers, the National Post applauded the government. “Now, the Tories have placed national security above partisan interests,” the newspaper said in an April 8 editorial. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day called the move “long overdue”.
But even if the government were to revert to Liberal hands, the LTTE’s standing in Canada might not improve. Liberal leadership front-runner Michael Ignatieff supports the ban, especially in light of a Human Rights Watch report this past spring detailing alleged LTTE extortion of Tamil-Canadians.
“It doesn’t matter much to me what’s going on in Sri Lanka. What matters to me is that Canadian citizens should never be intimidated or threatened by a political movement, period,” Ignatieff told the Straight in May when in Vancouver for a Liberal leadership forum. “Let me also make it clear that I am aware that the Sri Lankan government authorities are also guilty of human-rights abuses,” he added.
Tinker pointed out that the LTTE has never engaged in acts that could be considered terrorism outside of Sri Lanka or India, which had militarily intervened on the Sri Lankan government’s side at the time. And the charges of extorting Canadians are best left to the courts, he argued.
“If the picture that Human Rights Watch is painting is true, then the police forces have been somewhat underzealous in protecting the interests of Tamil-Canadians,” he said.
The Conservatives’ decision to categorize domestic police concerns as international terrorism points to a larger political current, Tinker suggested: “It’s one of a number of worrying signs that this administration is more willing than the last one to give an unthinking endorsement to the U.S. government’s concept of the war on terrorism.”
Master claimed that the charges of intimidation were drummed up by anti-LTTE elements in Canada. “We are not a terrorist group,” he insisted. “We have been fighting for the Tamil peoples’ rights for the past 20 years.”
Collacott was in Sri Lanka two decades ago when the civil war began with the LTTE’s killing of 13 high-ranking Sinhalese police officers. In retaliation, some Sinhalese in Colombo began killing Tamils and looting their homes and businesses. The atrocities drove many Tamils into the arms of the LTTE, which had previously been one of a number of somewhat obscure armed groups.
The riots also drove Tamils to other countries, including Canada, which opened up a special immigration program, Collacott recalled. “I was also, interestingly, a hero of the Tamils because I was the first head of mission to go up to Jaffna after the riots broke out,” he remembered.
Collacott met with the LTTE in his hotel room, but even then he had no illusions about the nature of the organization, he said. “It had already established itself as a terrorist organization in terms of assassinating moderate Tamils,” he claimed. “It certainly assassinated a lot of my moderate Tamil friends after that.”
Government forces used equally horrifying tactics, including death squads, as war raged on. And other factions committed further atrocities. More than 64,000 people died before a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement in 2002.
But the agreement signed by the government and the LTTE “has broken down in all but name”, according to a June 5 report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“There is a serious danger that they are drifting back to an overt war, which is likely to be even bloodier than the last one,” the Centre warned.
The picture would darken even further. On August 14, government jets bombed a Tamil orphanage in the northeast, saying it was a training ground for child soldiers—a claim denied by the UN. When 17 humanitarian workers were massacred on August 7 in the northeastern town of Mutter, the UN and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission pointed the finger at government troops. The government denies the allegation.
In early June, Mahendren Rajthungam, the advertising manager of Uthayan, a Tamil-language newspaper in Jaffna, told me that conditions on the peninsula were almost as bad as before the ceasefire.
“It’s all gone in a circle,” he said, pointing to rising food and fuel costs, a stagnating economy, frustration about living under military occupation, and increasing violence. Just a month earlier, gunmen had burst into the newspaper’s offices and opened fire, killing two employees and seriously wounding the editor.
The government blamed “armed terrorists”, while groups like Reporters Without Borders pointed to the pro-government Eelam People’s Democratic Party, noting that the newspaper had carried a cartoon of the party’s leader the previous day.
Rajthungam declined to speculate on the reasons for the attack or who was responsible.
“Jaffna is a land of controversy,” he said simply.