x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tamils found a haven in Canada, but so did Tigers

Some immigrants support the separatist militant group, while others say it used threats to extort funds from the community.

TORONTO // Amid the strip malls and industrial areas of this city's east end stands the former office of the World Tamil Movement, a front for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Its mirrored-glass exterior betrays none of its past as a fundraiser for the Tamil Tigers or a social agency for Tamils living in the Toronto area. The only sign of past occupancy is a real-estate lockbox clamped to the mailbox, crammed with copies of Viduthalai, a nationalist Tamil daily newspaper. But the abandoned building indicates how the relationship between Canada, its Tamil community and the Tamil Tigers is changing. Since the anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and southern Sri Lanka in 1983, tens of thousands of Tamils have migrated to Canada. Of the estimated 300,000 Tamils in the country, the largest community in the diaspora, more than two-thirds live in the Toronto area. "Canada has done good for Tamils," said David Poopalapillai, a national spokesman for the Canadian Tamil Congress. "Took them in and gave them new hope and new life." The Tamil Tigers arguably received a greater boost. Its network purchased properties, including a temple, and relatives of the leadership settled in Toronto's east end. Martin Collacott, who served as Canada's ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1982 to 1986 and is currently a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank, said his country was exceptionally generous to Tamil refugees. The Immigration and Refugee Board granted almost automatic approval to Tamil males aged 10 to 45 years and unmarried Tamil females aged 13 to 30 years old from the areas of Sri Lanka controlled by the Tamil Tigers, he said. Mr Collacott said the age and gender profiles happen to be identical to those of the guerrillas. The immigrant profile gave the Tigers cause to believe they are the sole representatives of the Tamil community in Canada. Namu Ponnambalam, the Toronto-based son of a former Communist Party general secretary of the northern region of Sri Lanka, said the Tigers seek to eliminate democratic voices in the Tamil community. "In order to build a one-man leadership, they had to kill off the other leaders," he said. According to Mr Ponnambalam, the Tamil Tigers are the dominant force among the Tamil community because of their violent actions, not because of popular support. Tiger enforcers in the Toronto area have burnt the car of one man, attacked a Tamil-Canadian journalist and intimidated the editor of a Tamil newspaper into ceasing publication. And the suppression of dissent has spread into practices of extortion. According to a 2006 report by Human Rights Watch, Canada is a major source of fund-raising for the Tamil Tigers' military budget, having provided millions of dollars per year since the 1990s. Contributions came from non-profit organisations and companies operating as fronts, and donations were solicited from individuals by going door to door, Human Rights Watch said in its reports, citing companies and Canadian authorities. Many Tamil-Canadians willingly support the rebels, but a significant minority feel they have little choice but to give money. Mr Ponnambalam said the group's knowledge of an individual's family in Sri Lanka and Canada can instil fear in the ambivalent. As one Tiger supporter warned him: "We'll look after you when you come home." According to Human Rights Watch, some Tamil-Canadians were told that if they did not give money, then they could not return to Tiger-held areas in Sri Lanka to see their families. Its 2006 report identified a tax imposed upon Tamil-Canadians visiting Sri Lanka of $1 Canadian (Dh3) per day for the length of time they have lived in Canada. To this day, the Canadian Tamil Congress remains critical of Human Rights Watch's findings. "I think they have not done their homework very well," Mr Poopalapillai said, noting the report's reliance on anonymous sources. Mr Ponnambalam said although the report did not name the targets of extortion, it identified the problems of fear and intimidation within the Tamil diaspora in western countries. "It gives us enough support to say how bad the situation is in Toronto," he said. Coincidence or not, three weeks after the publication of the Human Rights Watch report, Ottawa listed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group. Mr Collacott called it a watershed because Canada's intelligence agency had recommended the move to the governing Liberal Party more than once but was rebuffed. He pointed out that Liberal members of parliament attended events promoting the Tamil Tigers. "The Liberals, their main interest was getting votes," Mr Collacott said. "And since these were delivered largely by Tamil Tiger supporters, they didn't care about moderate voices within the Tamil community." Whether the Conservative Party, which came into power a few months before the report was released and is currently the ruling power, cares more about the Tamil community is questionable, especially to community members. Nonetheless, in June last year Ottawa listed the World Tamil Movement, formed in 1986 as a non-profit organisation, as a terrorist group for being the leading front for the Tamil Tigers in Canada. Ottawa said it wanted to protect law-abiding, hardworking Canadians, especially Tamils, from the banned group's activities. Mr Collacott applauded the decision as a way to staunch the flow of funds to the Tamil Tigers from Canada. "I don't think the [Sri Lankan] civil war could have continued as long as it did without support from Tamils in Canada that the Canadian government did not prevent," he said. Still, for Mr Ponnambalam, the dominance of the Tamil Tigers in Canada has not been solved in spite of the government's actions. The police, he said, do not get enough complaints from the Tamil community. "We have been treated as second-class citizens in this country." blambert@thenational.ae