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TRO abroad: prejudice drives confusion

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Established almost two decades ago in the wake of the first mass displacements of Tamils by the conflict, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) is today the arguably the leading relief agency in Sri Lanka’s war zones, with 3,500 staff and over 10,000 volunteers.

Whilst the TRO, active in the Northeast since the mid-eighties, has expanded its relief and rehabilitation operations since the February 2002 ceasefire, its greatest efforts have come in the wake of last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami.

Apart from immediate assistance to tens of thousands of people, the organisation has this year built large numbers of transitional shelters – even compelling its inclusion in the Sri Lankan President’s awards for the NGOs contributing most to the post-tsunami temporary rehousing efforts.

Apart from the gratitude of hundreds of thousands of people it has helped through the years, the TRO has also earned the respect of its fellow relief agencies through its dedication and professionalism.

Sinhala nationalists mistakenly saw the Commission’s original ruling as vindication of their claims.

Though until the 2002 it operated mainly in Tiger-controlled areas (it also does substantial work in government-controlled parts of the Northeast now), the TRO is structurally distinct from the LTTE. But the charity – like all NGOs, local and international, working alongside it – coordinates its activities with the LTTE’s administration.

During the times conflict, when areas not controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces were subject to embargo and access restrictions, the TRO was, quite literally, a lifeline for hundreds of thousands.

Utterly dependent on the support of the Tamil Diaspora sourced through its offices abroad – it now has sixteen worldwide – the TRO undertook relief activities, relying almost entirely on volunteers.

But the TRO also became a target of vilification for successive Sri Lankan governments and Sinhala nationalists. The primary denunciation is that the organisation is an LTTE front, raising funds for weapons.

Up until the 2002 ceasefire, Colombo made considerable diplomatic efforts to have the TRO’s fund collection abroad curtailed (even though the organisation has been registered as a charity in Sri Lanka itself).

Sinhala nationalists, including sections of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-owned press, have also put considerable effort into demonising the TRO. For them, the TRO’s functioning abroad has become a site of ideological contestation – almost as much as the issue of autonomy for the Tamils.

For Sinhala nationalists, the TRO simply cannot be anything but a front for the LTTE, duplicitously raising funds for terrorism. Western governments’ refusal to close down TRO offices in their home territories is seen at best as naïve ignorance of the nature of the beast, or, at worst, tacit support for Tamil ambitions to dismember the Sinhala motherland.

In 2001, for example, when extensive lobbying by both the Sri Lankan governments and Sinhala nationalists appeared to prompt Britain’s Charity Commission to freeze the TRO’s accounts pending a review, the decision was hailed as a victory – particularly coming in the wake of the UK’s ban on the LTTE.

'If we had evidence that any organisation was not abiding by the laws we will take necessary action' - US Ambassador

Conversely, Sinhala nationalist jubilation over news in July 2004 that the TRO’s accounts in UK would be closed permanently was tempered with consternation over reports a new charity had been established to raise funds for relief work in the Northeast and that the TRO’s assets would be transferred to it.

The confusion stems primarily from a misunderstanding of the role the UK’s Charity Commission actually plays in regulating fundraising.

Sinhala nationalists saw the Commission’s original ruling as vindication of their claims the TRO was raising money for LTTE violence under the guise of relief work. As such, the Commission was deemed to have delivered a moral denunciation of the TRO and its activities.

In fact the Charity Commission simply rules on whether funds raised in the UK qualify for tax exemption or not. To qualify for this considerable benefit, organisations must adhere to specific accounting regulations as well as desist from political campaigning.

Amnesty International (UK), for example, points out on its website that it is not a registered charity, as a political campaigning organisation is not permitted to have charitable status in Britain.” (Incidentally, because some of AI (UK)’s activities are deemed charitable under English law, there is an AI charitable trust to collect money for those activities).

The Charity Commission’s report on TRO(UK) is yet to be published. But according to the latter, the Commission’s concern was not what the funds collected were being used for, but “non-compliance by TRO(UK) with some of the charity regulations relating to operational management.”

“On the basis of this non-compliance, the Commission, in consultation with the former trustees of the TRO (UK), established a new charity called Tamils Support Foundation (TSF) in 2004. The funds of TRO (UK) were transferred to this new charity,” the organisation said.

“Any illegal activity including those relating to acts of terrorism is a matter for the Police,” Sarah Jones, spokesperson for the British Charity Commission told Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times.

She pointed out that TRO(UK) had been wound up because, in the wake of the transfer of its funds to TSF, “it had no remaining assets and had ceased to operate.”

Asked about terrorist financing by the Sunday Times, Ms. Jones, replied: “you would need to contact the [UK] Home Office to ask for this policy – we are the regulator of charities.”

Indeed, British authorities have found no evidence that the organisation’s funds are being channelled to the LTTE or used improperly for non-relief activities.

But Sinhala nationalists’ refusal to consider the TRO a legitimate relief organisation also precludes their ability to separate any criticism of the organisation from moral censuring of it.

The withdrawal of the TRO(UK)’s charity status and its closure is thus mistakenly interpreted as “a ban” or a “de-listing.” That another registered charity, the TSF, has been, in their view, ‘allowed’ to take over fundraising for relief activities in the Northeast has therefore resulted in stunned confusion.

The withdrawal of the TRO(UK)’s charity status and its closure is thus mistakenly interpreted as a ban.

This week The Island newspaper pressed the United States’ Ambassador to Sri Lanka on the TRO’s ongoing operations in his country – where the LTTE is proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

Pointing out that the US had extensive laws to cover fund raising and was constantly looking into related issues, Mr. Jeffrey Lunstead said, “if we have evidence that any organisation was not abiding by the laws we will take necessary action.”

The stridently nationalist newspaper was unimpressed with this position, particularly as the Ambassador had, according to it, “admitted” the TRO was a registered charity in the US.

The paper’s sentiments were thus helpfully articulated to it by an unnamed Sri Lankan diplomat, who lamented that the “US confined itself to ascertaining whether terror fronts abided by their charity laws [and is] not concerned about where the funds they raised went.”

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