The South Asia Channel

Why Sri Lanka is Severing Ties Between Tamils at Home and Abroad

Days after the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a resolution calling for an international inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka, the Colombo government began moving to cut links between the country's Tamil minority and its powerful diaspora. The Tamil diaspora, many of whom were driven out of Sri Lanka due to atrocities committed by government troops and rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters, is expected to play a prominent role in presenting evidence at the inquiry, expected to begin later this year.

The Human Rights Council resolution was sponsored principally by the United States, after Sri Lanka showed marked unwillingness to establish a credible domestic investigation into grave human rights violations that occurred during the final months of the civil war that ended in May 2009.

Sri Lanka's civil war began in the late 1970s. After enduring decades of discrimination by numerically larger Sinhalese over language, employment, and education, and then violent race riots, Tamils exchanged passive resistance for armed violence and changed their political demands from federalism to secession. This embrace of violence led to the birth of the LTTE, a rebel group that is charged with heinous crimes against civilians, including suicide bombing.

The Tamil diaspora, said to now total over 1 million, is concentrated in India, Europe, North America, and Australia. The bulk of Tamils emigrated after the race riots of 1983. The diaspora played an important role in the 30 years of armed conflict. Although by no means homogeneous, the group tended to have largely pro-LTTE affiliations before 2009. The rebels used the diaspora to recruit cadre, procure arms, and finance their movement.

Following the demise of the LTTE as a fighting machine in 2009 and Colombo's continuing human rights violations, many diaspora organizations began focusing on holding perpetrators of war crimes accountable and using democratic means to find a political solution to the Sri Lankan conflict. These diaspora institutions function openly and follow the laws of the lands they are headquartered in, be it Europe, Canada, or the United States.

Tamils both in Sri Lanka and abroad continue to have strong fraternal ties; not only do diaspora Tamils empathize with the loss and suffering of their brethren at home who are governed by a repressive military regime, but they also support members of their extended family and community financially. The diaspora also succours new waves of Tamil refugees. Many Tamil diaspora organizations also do politically-focused work, documenting human rights violations to facilitate accountability and justice. This testimony aided the United States in pushing through the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution.

On April 2, the Sri Lanka government moved to break the links between Tamils in the country and the diaspora by introducing regulations that named 16 organizations and 424 individuals in the diaspora as financiers of terrorism. The regulations also freeze the financial assets that those on the list hold in Sri Lanka. The regulations are derived from the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 of 2001, which requires countries to freeze the assets of those "who commit or attempt to commit terrorist acts."

While the regulations state the listed organizations are being penalized for terrorism financing, their broader effect is to prevent Tamils in Sri Lanka from using the diaspora as a conduit to alert the world about human rights violations. These measures aim to isolate Tamils living within the country from those abroad. 

Under Sri Lanka's draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), Sri Lankans with ties to an organization allegedly linked to terrorism can be charged for aiding and abetting terrorism and, if convicted, imprisoned for 20 years. The PTA defines terrorism extremely broadly. Any Sri Lankan speaking to a diaspora organization or individual listed for financing terrorism can be charged with aiding terror.

The regulations also prevent political parties and civil society organizations that are sponsored by the Tamil diaspora from traveling overseas for conferences, public meetings, and fundraisers. In many of these meetings, Tamil politicians and activists exchange ideas and harness the support of the Tamil diaspora for programs related to democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka. The diaspora has also worked hard for post-war reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils. For instance, the Britain-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) has worked closely with the Sri Lankan government, with the principal Tamil political party -- the Tamil National Alliance -- and with South Africa for reconciliation through transitional justice. GTF was banned under the regulations.

The Sri Lankan government's regulations are also aimed at discrediting the listed organizations and individuals by labeling them financiers of terrorism. For this purpose, Sri Lanka is diligently attempting to use U.N. resolution 1373 to freeze the assets and financial resources of persons and organizations on its list, but outside of the country.

To successfully enforce the Sri Lankan ban internationally, the government will have to provide credible evidence that these organizations and individuals are involved in terrorism. That has not yet occurred. In the meantime, however, Colombo will still try to use its diplomatic leverage to undermine these organizations and individuals in the countries where they work and live. This is likely an attempt to discredit the United Nations' inquiry by calling into doubt the rectitude of the witnesses appearing before it.

Supporters of the Sri Lankan government have used similar tactics to try to discredit diaspora organisations in the past. One target was the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), a democratically-elected parliament in exile, and its head Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran. In 2009, a group of Sri Lankans accused him of links to LTTE terrorists because he was a participant during peace talks between the government and the LTTE in 2006, but the charges did not stick. Both Rudrakumaran, a lawyer in New York, and the TGTE, which continues to function in the United States and elsewhere, were accused of financing terrorism in the Sri Lanka government list that was announced in April.

The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) was also included in the list. In Canada this February, the Superior Court of Ontario awarded the CTC damages when it successfully sued Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan terrorism expert, for defamation. Gunaratna had described the organisation as "an LTTE front."

Colombo's move to list organizations and individuals in the Tamil diaspora as financiers of terrorism has one motive: to silence Tamil voices both within the government's jurisdiction and overseas. By doing so, the government hopes to prevent them from contributing to the international inquiry and thereby avoid accountability.

Tamils within Sri Lanka and in the diaspora are vigorously preparing to push back against Colombo. But other countries too, have a responsibility to call the Sri Lankan government's bluff and ensure the U.N. Human Rights Commission's resolution for a credible, independent inquiry is successfully implemented.

J. S. Tissainayagam is a Sri Lankan journalist now based in Washington, D.C.

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