by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
” Funding the War: LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora” is the title of a 45 page report newly released by the Human Rights Watch organization. The US based HRW report was formally released on March 16th or the Ides of March that spelled out doom to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The report provides a fascinating insight into the fund – raising activities of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the predicament faced by members of the Tamil Diaspora who do not want to contrubute money to tiger coffers.
This report was written by Jo Becker, advocacy director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, based on research conducted by the author in London, U.K., and Toronto, Canada, from October 2005 through February 2006. The report was reviewed and edited by staff in Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division, Asia Division, Legal and Policy Department, Program Department, and Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program.
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.
A strong feature of the report is the vast array of anecdotal evidence presented. The identities of these LTTE victims are not revealed in the interests of their own safety. Direct attribution would certainly have enhanced the reports impact but it was the safety and security of the people interviewed that was more important.
The unwillingness of the victims to come forward openly is by itself a powerful indictment of the fear psychosis exerted over the Diaspora by the LTTE. This however does not detract from the reports credibility in any way and the diligent methodology adopted in compiling this report is patently visible and adds to its strength.
The HRW report has many accounts of experiences undergone by Tamil people living in the West at the hands of the LTTE and its minions. This column is of the opinion that presenting some of these experiences without added comment or interpretation would help make readers understand the various aspects of the problem. Here are some relevant excerpts from the HRW report relating to Tamils in Toronto-
” In late 2005, the escalation of LTTE attacks on Sri Lankan forces and the increase in rights abuses by both sides coincided with a massive LTTE fundraising drive among the Tamil diaspora. In Canada, the U.K., and other parts of Europe, LTTE representatives went house to house and visited Tamil-owned businesses, requesting substantial sums of money, often using intimidation, coercion, and outright threats to secure pledges.
In Toronto, individual families typically were asked to pay between Cdn$2,500 and Cdn$5,000, although some families were reportedly asked for as much as Cdn$10,000. Business owners were asked for amounts ranging from Cdn$25,000 to Cdn$100,000. One Hindu temple reported being asked for Cdn$1 million. In London, many individual families were asked for Â£2,000 and businesses approached for amounts ranging from Â£10,000 to Â£100,000. Individuals and business owners were sometimes told that the money was a “loan” that would be repaid with interest. Others were asked for an outright contribution.
The individuals requesting the funds sometimes identified themselves directly as representatives of the LTTE. In other instances, they indicated that they were from the World Tamil Movement or the British Tamil Association, organizations that are widely believed to be fronts for the LTTE. Some families told HRW that their visitors simply stated that they had been “sent by Prabhakaran” (the supreme leader of the LTTE) to collect the funds. The fundraisers usually traveled in pairs, although some sources told HRW that they had been approached by a group of three or four representatives.
LTTE representatives provided a variety of explanations for how the money would be used. In many of the cases reported to HRW , the funds were sought for “the final war.” Tamil families and business owners were told that the LTTE had a plan for driving out all Sri Lankan army forces from the North and East within two months, and that within that period the war would be over. Others were told that the LTTE was preparing to declare “Tamil Eelam” (i.e. independence) and needed to build its treasury. Some members of the community were also told that the funds were needed to gain United Nations (U.N.) recognition of Tamil Eelam, and that the U.N. would subsequently provide funds to the new Tamil state.
One Toronto family received three visits during one week. The first visit, they said, came from three men claiming to represent the World Tamil Movement.
They said that they had been sent by Prabhakaran to collect money. They had a lot of documents and material, including information about us, such as our phone number and address. When asked what the money was for, they said, “We need to increase our economy. We only have two months to get the Sri Lankan army out. We have all the plans made, but we are asking the Tamil people for final support.”
The men asked the family for Cdn$5,000. “When they asked for the money, they looked at their file. They asked how long we had lived in this house. After we told them, they said, “$5,000.”
After the family refused to give, the men returned two more times. On subsequent visits, the men again stated that the funds they sought were for “the final war.” The men offered to give the family until February 2006 to pay the $5,000, but the family refused.
Several sources indicated that LTTE fundraising efforts intensified in Toronto in December 2005. One Tamil whose job brought him in contact with large numbers of Tamils said he knew of at least seventy or eighty people who had been asked for money and that the majority had given. When asked if the pace of fundraising had increased, he said, “Definitely. Before, there were not that many people who had been visited. Now, everyone is talking about it. I’ve talked to lots of people who have given Cdn$2,000-3,000. They [the LTTE] are getting lots of money, collecting lots of money.”
One Toronto woman said, “In this neighborhood, I talked to everyone and everyone has been visited. Six families.” She believes that the amount that families are asked for varies depending on the assets and income of the family. She said that one family that had paid off their mortgage was asked for Cdn$10,000, while another family with a smaller house was asked for Cdn$2,000.
Another Toronto family told HRW that they were pressed for several thousand dollars. After the family repeatedly stated that they would not pay, the LTTE representatives produced a form and said, “Can you fill this out and write down that you don’t believe in what the LTTE is doing?” The husband refused. He said, “Then they began writing and turned around the form and asked me to sign it.”
In one case reported to HRW , the house of a Toronto family was vandalized after the family refused to pay the LTTE. Although the police were unable to identify the perpetrators, the couple believed that the LTTE was responsible. Fearful of remaining at the same address, the family reportedly moved to a different home.
A Toronto area businessman was visited by the LTTE in October 2005 and asked for Cdn$8,000. He responded that his business was having trouble and he did not have any money to give. Several weeks later, he was visited again at his business by four men from the LTTE. This time they asked for Cdn$20,000. The businessman again indicated that he had no money to contribute. The men responded, “Others have no room to give, but they find a way. This is your duty. You have to help your community from here. This is Mr. Prabhakaran’s request. You need to help start the war.”
The businessman said that when he continued to refuse, the LTTE said, “If you don’t want to contribute, say that you don’t want to.” The businessman again said that he was financially unable to do so. Finally, the LTTE said, “Okay, we understand that you do not want to help us, but you will learn the lesson soon. We understand that you are not considering your wife and your children.” When HRW asked if he was worried about the safety of his wife and children, the man said, “Yes, of course.”
Within the Tamil diaspora, individuals hold a variety of views regarding the Tamil Tigers and their decision whether or not to give financial support is often based on a complex set of factors. As noted above, many are active supporters of the LTTE, and perceive the Tigers as an important and effective representative of the Tamil people and their interests. They believe in the LTTE military struggle for independence in the North and East and willingly provide financial support for “the cause.”
Others within the community do not necessarily support the LTTE’s goals or methods, but give money to protect or enhance their standing in the Tamil community or their business interests.
Some people also provide funds because they have family or property in Sri Lanka and fear negative repercussions against family members or even confiscation of their property if they do not give. They also often want to maintain their ability to visit their families without encountering problems from the LTTE. Some Tamils are told that if they do not pay funds to the LTTE, they will not be allowed to return to Sri Lanka or will have “trouble” when they do.
In other cases, the LTTE suggests that a refusal to give money will put family members in Sri Lanka at risk.
There have been abductions back home of people, businessmen or relatively affluent people who have refused to give them money, and who have all their children abroad, seen to be doing well. And many such people have been abducted. In such circumstances, the action is initiated there. They target a person who has obviously some considerable money and is not in need.
If they have many children or close relatives living abroad, they abduct them, and then the relatives here raise a lot of money and send it back home. And of course such stories then have a huge impact here, and those who feel vulnerable give money without much questioning. This has happened many times over the years, and I personally know of people to whom this has happened.
Pressure is particularly intense for members of the Tamil business and professional community. Many rely on the Tamil community for a significant portion of their business and fear that if they are labeled as anti-LTTE, they will lose customers or clients. One shop owner told HRW , “If I continue to ignore their requests, they might label me as anti-Tiger and tell people “don’t do business with him.”
An attorney told Human Rights Watch, “Most professionals pay, because they are afraid that if they don’t, the World Tamil Movement will give them bad publicity and it will negatively affect their client base.”
At a very practical level, some people agree to give simply because they do not want the hassle of being repeatedly called and visited.
Finally, a portion of the community (according to most accounts, a significant minority) is actively opposed to the LTTE. Some may have initially supported the Tigers’ cause, but have either become convinced that the Tigers can never achieve their goals militarily, or have become deeply disillusioned by the Tigers continuing record of human rights abuses, including the recruitment of children as soldiers and their practice of murdering political opponents. Of this group, some may still give money to the LTTE, because they feel that they have no choice, while others refuse on principle.
A Tamil in London told Human Rights Watch, “I think that most people who are giving money are not giving money for the cause. They give because of fear.” A medical professional in Toronto was visited by the LTTE at his office three times within a ten-day period in late 2005. Each time, he indicated that he had patients and was too busy to talk. He told us, “I heard from other businesspeople that they are asking for money.” He didn’t press for details, however. “Here, you don’t know who you are talking to, whether they are in favor of them or not. “He also said that he had relatives in Jaffna. “We are scared of what happens to them.”
Few individuals dare to refuse directly the LTTE’s requests for money. In this respect, most of the individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report are not typical in the Tamil community. Individuals who are willing to speak to a human rights organization about their experiences are also much more likely to stand up to the LTTE. In many other cases made known to HRW, individuals gave funds under pressure but declined to speak to us for fear of exposure or possible reprisals from the LTTE.
Many of the individuals interviewed for this report stated clearly that they did not support the LTTE’s methods and refused to give money, and were subsequently not pressed further for funds. One Toronto man who refused to give said, “If you are scared, they will come and sit, but if they know they won’t get anywhere, they will leave.” Another individual said similarly, “If you are scared, they will push; if you are firm, they will back down.”
A firm refusal does not always guarantee that a family will be left alone, however. One Toronto Tamil was visited at his home in January 2006 by two men who identified themselves as representatives of the World Tamil Movement. When the man raised questions about the LTTE and made it clear that he did not support the LTTE, the World Tamil Movement representatives threatened him, saying “We will deal with you. Nee kavanamai iru. Unnai Kavanippom. Nee poorathai parpom.” The man said, “When you repeat this phrase to an English-speaking person, people don’t take it seriously. But for a Tamil person, the implication is that you will be killed.”
Short of outright refusal, many members of the diaspora use a variety of methods to avoid giving money. When LTTE fundraisers come to an apartment building or neighborhood, families that receive a visit will often call their neighbors to warn them that fundraisers are in the area. Many then simply pretend that they are not at home and do not respond when the fundraisers knock.
When fundraisers make contact, the individuals approached will often claim that they are not able to give because of financial problems. They may say that they have invested all of their money into their business, that they are unemployed or make very low wages, or have to support other members of their family. If they are not able to avoid giving entirely, they may use these reasons to negotiate a lower payment.
Such arguments may elicit little sympathy from the LTTE, however. Individuals who have tried these arguments have been told by LTTE fundraisers that they should borrow the funds, make a contribution on their credit card, or even re-mortgage their home.
A lawyer with a Toronto practice reported that from March through November 2005, he had at least a dozen clients who had been pressured to pay money while visiting Sri Lanka. He said, “All of my clients who have been to Jaffna have had the experience. If they go by land, it is a sure case.”
He reported that clients who fly to Jaffna may not immediately be identified, but that word often spreads quickly in local neighborhoods when someone visits from abroad. “Then by the second or third day, someone will come and say, “You should go to the Kondavil office [LTTE treasury].” If you try to avoid him, the man will come again. Then your family says, “You need to go. If you don’t, you will create a problem for us.”
According to the attorney’s clients, they were required to give detailed personal information at the LTTE office in Kondavil, a village near Jaffna town. He said that individuals were often unsure of how much personal information the LTTE already possessed, so were afraid to give any false information.
Some of his clients reported that they were told they could not leave Jaffna until they paid the amount of money requested, and that if they didn’t have the money with them, they should get it from family members in Canada. “If they are told not to leave, people don’t want to take the risk, so they get their family to wire the money.” He was unaware of anyone who was forcibly detained, but said, “The mere verbal order is more than enough to upset them.”
Even people who have given contributions while in the West may be pressured to give when visiting Sri Lanka. The attorney said, “If you say that you have given, they say they don’t have a record. They ask, “Do you have a PIN number?” Or they will enter your name and date of birth in a computer and say, “No, we checked, you didn’t give money. You have to give.”
In some cases, the LTTE confiscates the passports of visiting Tamils until they pay the requested amount of money.
Not every expatriate who travels to the North is pressed to give funds. One Toronto university student who traveled to Jaffna by road in mid-2005 was told at the checkpoint to visit the Kondavil LTTE office in Jaffna within three days. “They said, ˜You must go.” I was kind of scared, so I went there. Some people said if I don’t go there will be big trouble. They said I might not be able to leave.” At the Kondavil office she was asked for personal information. Her impression of the meeting: “The main idea is that they want the money from us.” She told the LTTE representatives that she was still in school, had loans, and was not working. In her case, the LTTE did not press her for immediate funds or a pledge, but informed her that once she got a job, she should start to give. She expressed concern that they would continue to monitor her. “They have my current address, so they can come to my house.”
As word of such stories spreads, many Tamil families reportedly have begun to change their travel plans and even cancel planned trips to visit Sri Lanka for fear of being forced to pay amounts that they cannot afford or are not willing to give. The attorney in Toronto told Human Rights Watch, “Many people have cancelled plans to go, even if they are strong LTTE supporters. I know three or four families who have cancelled plans to go visit.”
The HRW concludes with the following observations –
“The LTTE’s use of intimidation, harassment, extortion, and even physical violence against members of the Tamil diaspora is effectively stifling Tamil dissent regarding on-going LTTE human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. LTTE extortion is also forcing Tamils, including those who do not support the LTTE, to provide financial support for LTTE operations, including its continuing pattern of child recruitment and political killings. Both intimidation and extortion have significantly limited the ability of Tamils in the West who do not support the LTTE’s pattern of human rights abuses to effectively speak out and influence LTTE behavior.
Western governments, although obliged to protect their residents and citizens from such abuses, have done too little in response to the patterns of intimidation and coercion that victimize members of the Tamil community. Governments with a significant Tamil diaspora should take stronger action to protect members of the community, ensuring their right to express themselves on issues of vital concern to their community and to live without fear”.
[Ms.Jo Becker, at a Toronto presentation of report titled “Living In Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka”, in December 2004 – Pic by Tamil Canadian]
The HRW report is a result of painstaking effort. The Human Rights Watch in general and the author Jo Becker in particular are to be commended for a worthwhile effort.