HRW sheds light on Tiger fund raising in the West – by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has done it again!

The respected US based organization which brought out in 2004 a comprehensive report on recruitment and conscription of child soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has released a new report on the ides of March about fund raising activities by the tigers in the West.

Despite denials by the LTTE the issues of Child soldiers and fund raising by the tigers are well – established facts. The Sri Lankan government and its propagandists try to exploit these problems to their advantage by exaggerated charges, many of them quite unbelievable.

It has been left to organizations such as HRW, Amnesty International etc to focus attention on these issues in a credible and intelligent manner.

LTTE fund raising in Sri Lanka and abroad is well – known. The Tamil Diaspora ,dispersed in many Countries from Australia to Zambia , has for long provided material support to the Tamil Liberation struggle. Tamils living in the west being relatively better off financially are a perennial source of revenue.

Milking these cash cows has been two – fold. While some give willingly others have been unwilling and so “milked” ruthlessly through force and intimidation. In order to do this maximum control over the Diaspora is necessary. To facilitate this “hold” terror tactics are practised where all dissent or independence is stifled.

The grip exerted on the community by minions of the LTTE functioning under various “front” aliases is not realised by the mainstream population. What goes on in the new immigrant, visible minorities are not a major concern to the population at large or their governments.

Reports such as the one released on March 15th by the Human Rights Watch are therefore most welcome for shedding light on some dark areas within Western Society. Jo Becker Advocacy director of the HRW who wrote the earlier report on Child Soldiers has written this one too. Becker, as in the case of the earlier one, seems to have done diligent research in compiling this report too..

The 45-page report, Funding the ‘Final War:’ LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora, details how representatives of the LTTE and pro-LTTE groups use unlawful pressure among Tamil communities in the West to secure financial pledges.

People were told that if they did not pay the requested sum, they would not be able to return to Sri Lanka to visit family members. Others were warned that they would be “dealt with” or “taught a lesson.” One Toronto business owner said that after he refused to pay more than C$20,000, Tamil Tiger representatives made threats against his wife and children.

“The Tamil Tigers are exporting the terrors of war to Tamils living in the West,” says Jo Becker, author of the report. “Many members of the diaspora actively support the Tamil Tigers. But the culture of fear is so strong that even Tamils who don’t feel they have no choice but to give money.”

“Sri Lankan Tamils living in the West fear that if they speak out about Tamil Tiger abuses, they may put themselves and their families at risk,” says Becker. “Despite the diaspora’s size and potential influence on LTTE practices, the Tamil Tigers’ threats, intimidation, and even violence have effectively stifled dissent.”

A brief summary of the HRW report provides an insight into the history and background of the problem.

” Between 1983 and 2002, the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) cost an estimated 60,000 or more lives, and was marked by gross human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war on both sides. The war prompted nearly one-quarter of Sri Lanka’s Tamils to leave the country, many fleeing government abuses, creating a Tamil diaspora that now numbers approximately 600,000-800,000 worldwide.

As Sri Lankan Tamils established themselves in Canada, the United Kingdom (U.K.) and other Western countries, the Tamil community became a significant source of financial and political support for the LTTE in its struggle to establish an independent state, “Tamil Eelam,” for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka’s North and East. While many members of the Tamil diaspora willingly and actively support the LTTE, others have been subject to intimidation, extortion, and physical violence as the LTTE seeks to suppress criticism of its human rights abuses and to ensure a steady flow of income.

Journalists and activists in the Tamil diaspora who openly criticize the LTTE or are perceived to be anti-LTTE have been subject to severe beatings, death threats, smear campaigns, and fabricated criminal charges. In 2005, the LTTE detained two British Tamils for several weeks in Sri Lanka in order to gain control over a Hindu temple in London. Such incidents have created a culture of fear within the Tamil community, stifling dissent and discouraging individuals from organizing activities that are not sanctioned by the LTTE.

The LTTE has for many years pressured members of the Tamil community to provide financial support for its operations. In late 2005 and early 2006, as armed violence escalated in Sri Lanka’s North and East, threatening the four-year-old ceasefire between the government and the LTTE, the LTTE launched a massive fundraising drive in Canada and parts of Europe, pressuring individuals and business owners in the Tamil diaspora to give money for the “final war.” Fundraisers for the LTTE and LTTE-linked organizations went from house to house, and approached businesses and professionals, demanding significant sums of money for their cause. In Canada, families were typically pressed for between Cdn$2,5002 and Cdn$5,000, while some businesses were asked for up to Cdn$100,000. Members of the Tamil community in the U.K., France, Norway, and other European countries were asked for similar amounts.

Individuals who refused were sometimes threatened. Some were told that if they didn’t pay the requested sum, they would not be able to return to Sri Lanka to visit family members. Others were warned they would be “dealt with” or “taught a lesson.” After refusing to pay over Cdn$20,000, one Toronto business owner said LTTE representatives made threats against his wife and children.

The LTTE and groups linked to it such as the World Tamil Movement repeatedly call and visit Tamil families seeking funds. Some families have received as many as three visits in a single week. Fundraisers may refuse to leave the house without a pledge of money, and have told individuals who claim not to have funds available to borrow the money, to place contributions on their credit cards, or even to re-mortgage their homes.

The LTTE identifies Tamils from the West who return to Sri Lanka to visit family members, and systematically pressures them for funds when they arrive in LTTE-controlled territory in the North of Sri Lanka. The assessed “rate” is often Cdn$1, £1, or €1 per day for the length of time they have lived in the West, so individuals who have been abroad for years may be asked for thousands, and told they may not leave until they produce the requested amount. In some cases, the LTTE may confiscate their passports until the money is paid.

Many members of the Tamil diaspora vividly remember government abuses during the war, and willingly contribute funds to the LTTE. They see the Tamil Tigers as a legitimate and important representative of the Tamil people and their interests. They support the LTTE’s goal of establishing an independent Tamil state and the use of military means to achieve that objective.

Other members of the Tamil community do not wish to contribute, either because of their personal economic circumstances, or because they do not believe in the LTTE’s goals or methods. Some support Tamil political parties that have been decimated or marginalized by the LTTE. However, under intense pressure or outright threats, these individuals may be forced to provide financial support for LTTE operations, including its continuing pattern of child recruitment, political killings, and other human rights abuses that have continued, even during the four-year ceasefire. ”

The methodology adopted by the HRW is outlined as follows

” Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report from October 2005 through February 2006, conducting interviews in person and by telephone with members of the Tamil communities in Toronto, Canada; London, U.K.; Geneva, Switzerland; and Dusseldorf, Germany. The focus of the investigation was on the Tamil communities in Canada and the U.K., as together these two countries host nearly half of the global Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. In both countries, Human Rights Watch interviewed Tamil business owners, professionals, activists, journalists, and other individuals. Most interviews were conducted in English; some were conducted with Tamil translation.

We also talked with representatives of the London Metropolitan Police, the Toronto Police, the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the World Tamil Movement, and independent experts. In February 2006 we submitted questions in writing to the LTTE in Sri Lanka regarding the issues covered in this report, but did not receive a response. In February 2006 we also contacted the British Tamil Association by both telephone and electronic mail with questions related to this report, but did not receive a reply”.

Some of the testimonies by those interviewed by HRW are quite revealing and insightful.

“Over the last decade and a half, there have been many incidents like this, mainly against people who attempt to put any ideas against the LTTE or criticism against the LTTE . . . so periodically, there are these attacks to keep the community quiet.” Says V. Loganathan, a German Tamil who was physically assaulted in November 2005 after organizing a memorial service for an LTTE critic killed in northern Sri Lanka .

“I used to openly say how I feel, but now am very careful. People who are open get targeted, so their work is very short. You start something, you want to work for human rights, you want to make changes, but the space is very limited.” says a Tamil activist in Toronto, Canada.

A Toronto woman pressured to pay a monthly pledge to the LTTE has this to say “My brother’s children are in the Vanni [LTTE-controlled territory in the north of Sri Lanka]. The LTTE is collecting money here and using the money to train children to fight and die with the [Tiger] army. The people who collect the money here are living a very good life and drive a nice car. They don’t seem to care that it is the children there who are forced to fight and die.”

A London Tamil, approached by LTTE representatives in August 2005 says “They asked for £2,000. They said, ‘If you contribute here, you can go to Sri Lanka and visit your family. We will give you a PIN number. That number will allow you to move freely in Jaffna. Otherwise, you will have problems. If you don’t pay here, you will pay double or triple when you go to Sri Lanka.’

Because of the significant security risks for Tamils interviewed for this report, the names of most individuals are kept confidential. Some locations and other identifying details are also withheld or changed in order to protect the identity of those who spoke with Human Rights Watch. Some cases reported to Human Rights Watch have been omitted entirely, because it was not possible to describe the reported incidents without putting the individuals involved at risk.”

The understandable refusal of affected people to come out openly against the LTTE may have reduced the report’s impact. Explicit details of the victims could have added to its value. Nevertheless the meticulous research and documentation that went into the report is discernible. The problem with all its dimensions is encapsulated by HRW.There is an authenticity about it which cannot be dismissed easily.

The HRW has spotlighted the prevailing problem from different perspectives. This is done mainly through direct interviews with affected people though identities are kept secret for obvious reasons. Here are some excerpts –

” The LTTE and its supporters often use family members–both in the West and in Sri Lanka–to convey warnings to dissidents. In Toronto, one activist received a telephone call from a relative saying that an LTTE representative had warned that “If you are not going to control yourself, they will take care of you.”.

A London activist who criticized the LTTE on a radio program was later contacted by his brother in Sri Lanka. The brother had been invited to a colleague’s home, where he was met by two LTTE members. The LTTE reportedly told him, “Your brother should shut up; otherwise it is not good for him.” The colleague later admitted that he had invited the brother to his home under explicit instructions from the LTTE. The London activist said, “My brother is very worried about his own family.”

In many cases, overt or even implicit threats are not necessary to silence LTTE critics. Well-known incidents of killings, assaults, threats, and targeting have prompted members of the Tamil diaspora to police themselves. Relatives often discourage family members from speaking out, worried about possible repercussions, including to family members in Sri Lanka. Continued political killings attributed to the LTTE in Sri Lanka have convinced many Tamils that anyone could be at risk.

One Toronto man involved in a cultural organization that has been repeatedly identified as “anti-LTTE” in the Tamil media described the impact of the LTTE’s control over the Tamil community: “Canada is not actually a democracy because we can’t even open our mouths against the LTTE. People are scared to open their mouths. Only a small minority are willing to open their mouths and do some small, small work.”

In London, a Tamil man who said he was once a strong supporter of the LTTE told us:

“Personally, I supported the LTTE. Ninety percent of our people support them. Most of the people are behind them, even if you don’t take the gun, we support them. But later on, things change and certain groups are targeted. Whoever questions them. We can see their behavior. Whoever asks questions about their activities, they don’t let them live. You don’t have any freedom of speech. I was very quiet for some time, having family in Sri Lanka, so I kept within limits. I didn’t want to expose myself. I can see by experiences that if I do anything, there is a lot of reaction. . . . I’m concerned about my life and my family. The community is very scared.”

A Toronto Tamil who was once targeted for her activity in a multicultural organization, said, “I used to openly say how I feel, but now am very careful. People who are open get targeted, so their work is very short. You start something, you want to work for human rights, you want to make changes, but the space is very limited.”

Mr. Sithampalam , president of the World Tamil Movement has been interviewed. The WTM is the acknowledged front otganization of the LTTE in Canada. Mr. Sittampalam insults the collective intelligence of the Canadian Tamil Diaspora by blandly denying the fund raising. This despite the case of Manickavasagam Suresh, former WTM administrator who was issued a national security certificate on charges of being a tiger fund – raiser.

When asked about the World Tamil Movement’s relationship to the LTTE, Sittampalam told Human Rights Watch, “We are sympathetic to our cause there and because the LTTE is fighting for our rights and in the vanguard we have always campaigned to help them.” The organization’s website prominently features quotes from LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

However, Sittampalam denies that the World Tamil Movement collects funds directly for the LTTE, or for any other organization. He told Human Rights Watch: ” We don’t raise funds, but we canvas and advise people to help our people there [in Sri Lanka] for rehabilitation from the war and the tsunami. . . We ask them to give it to the TRO [Tamil Rehabilitation Organization] or SEDAT [Social and Economic Development Association of Tamils]. Some give to the TRO branch here, or some give bank to bank transactions. People do it individually in their own way.

When asked about reports that representatives from the World Tamil Movement ask directly for money, Sittampalam responded, “I think that is not correct. We are asking them to help these people and send it [the money] themselves.” He also denied that the World Tamil Movement collects money for the LTTE. “We do not say, ‘Give it to the LTTE.’ There are no LTTE here who are asking for money.” This statement is contradicted by numerous testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch.

In a bid to elicit the LTTE viewpoint on the issue a questionnaire was sent to the tiger leadership in Sri Lanka. There was no response. If Mr. Sittampalam , by blatant denial, muddled up an opportunity to present the LTTE case on the subject , the tiger hierarchy has let it suffer through default.

The LTTE is yet to realise that as an organization claiming to represent Sri Lankan Tamils it should present its side of the issue in public fora instead of adopting silence. This “silence” does not help in making the problem go away but serves as a damning indictment.

The HRW report observes that “the LTTE’s dependence on the Tamil diaspora for financial support, and the diaspora’s substantial size and influence, give the diaspora unique potential to influence the LTTE’s policies and behavior, including its human rights practices. However, that potential has been effectively neutralized by the LTTE’s effective use of intimidation and extortion within the community”.

The report also notes the apathy or lack of concern shown by Western Governments and law – enforcing authorities on the matter.” The governments of countries that host substantial Tamil populations have a responsibility to protect individuals from these abuses. However, government authorities admit that responding to such activity has not been a high priority, and they have taken little action to respond. Although fear within the Tamil community has resulted in few individual complaints to the police or other law enforcement, clear patterns of intimidation and extortion should prompt proactive government action, including police investigations, prosecutions, and public outreach to the community to publicize individuals’ rights and avenues of complaint.” points out the HRW in the report.

Human Rights Watch has urged government authorities in Canada and the U.K. to take stronger steps to protect members of the Tamil diaspora from violence, intimidation and extortion. The report recommends the creation of an inter – agency task force to investigate intimidation and extortion linked to the Tamil Tigers, public education campaigns in the Tamil community to publicize relevant laws and available avenues of complaint, establishment of special hotlines for victims of intimidation or extortion, and meetings with the Tamil community to discuss concerns related to LTTE activities.

“This is not just a matter of responding to isolated criminal acts, but protecting an entire community’s right to live without fear,” says Jo Becker. “In a multicultural society, governments cannot treat this simply as a Tamil problem. This is a Canadian problem and a British problem.”

The HRW has also appealed to the LTTE and related organizations to mmediately stop all use of violence, threats, intimidation and harassment to solicit funds from the Tamil community, including among the diaspora and from members of diaspora communitieis making return visits to Sri Lanka;

It also urges them to Immediately stop all use of violence, threats, intimidation or harassment against Tamils who express criticism of the LTTE or organize events or activities independently of the LTTE.

As far as the Tamil Diaspora in the West is concerned the HRW calls upon them “when it is possible without undue personal risk, ensure that funds provided to organizations in Sri Lanka are not directly or indirectly benefiting the LTTE so long as the LTTE continues to commit serious human rights abuses.

It also entreats them to seek opportunities to promote human rights within the Tamil community, including dialogue regarding the community’s role in improving the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

As the HRW report correctly notes ” many members of the Tamil diaspora do willingly and actively support the LTT; But there are ” others have been subject to intimidation, extortion, and physical violence as the LTTE seeks to suppress criticism of its human rights abuses and to ensure a steady flow of income”. It is these sections who need protection.

Realistically tiger fund raising cannot end unless the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka itself ends through a negotiated settlement with justice, honour, equality and democracy for the Tamil people. Effective steps must be taken however to protect and safeguard people who do not want to give money to the LTTE and this is the underlying focus of the HRW report.

The HRW in general and Ms. Jo Becker in particular are to be commended for this praiseworthy effort. Anyone desiring insight into how the LTTE generates funds overseas from members of the Tamil community and how it supresses free _expression through terror tactics need to read this report.

Meanwhile it is up to the various Governments, Law enforcement agencies, media, the Tamil Diaspora and the tigers themselves to draw their lessons from the report and act accordingly.

The LTTE in particular must wake up to current realities and transform their attitudes and approaches. Western Governments and mainstream media too cannot ignore this problem and pretend it just does not concern them. It is their problem and hopefully the HRW report may help them realise that. [TamilWeek, Mar 12, 2006]

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