Tamil Canadians Dismiss Extortion Claims

Toronto, Aug 27, 1999 (SAMS). As Canadian Tamils watch the scenes of Kosovo refugees fleeing their homes, forced to leave because of ethnic cleansing, they say they see themselves, their families and friends in the images of grief stricken men, women and children who wait to enter desolate camps.

The Tamil community can empathize with the innocent victims of the war, but at the same time they find it difficult to understand how a situation so similar to their own could be dealt with so differently.

While the world has taken notice of the grave human rights violations taking place in the Balkans, Tamils say they can't help but wonder why the international community has failed to come to their rescue.

One of the most obvious parallels is between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Like the Kosovars, the majority of Tamils support their independent army, which they say was a last resort after years of non violent protests against government instituted racism resulting in the massacre of thousands of Tamils.

Rev. Francis Xavier, a spokesman for the Federation of Association of Canadian Tamils (FACT) says the reason Tamils have not been given the same attention as Kosovars is the Sri Lankan government's powerful propaganda machine. "If Milosevic had spent millions of dollars on lobbying... Washington D.C., and the whole world, then the Kosovo Liberation Army would have been seen as the villains and the Kosovo people would have been seen as the people doing the wrong thing," said Xavier.

Support for the LTTE is strong among the Tamil community who have settled into a new life in Canada, despite the Canadian government's official identification of the LTTE as a terrorist organization, a label which most Tamils do not accept.

In recent years, Canadian Tamils have been subjected to intense media scrutiny about their involvement with the LTTE. While the Tamil community has on several occasions admitted publicly that some individuals are voluntarily sending money to the LTTE, they have continually denied allegations of charitable or humanitarian organizations being used as a front to illegally support the LTTE or the Tamils are being extorted by Tamil youth gangs working with the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa is among those who believe the Tamil community is involved in illegally funding the LTTE. The High Commission has met with the Canadian government and say they are doing what they can to stop Canadian Tamils from funding the war. "We have evidence to basically show that approximately $700,000 Cdn, are being collected every month and being channeled to the LTTE from Canada, which would make Canada one of the best generating grounds for the LTTE," said Mohan Samarasinghe, a spokesperson for the Sri Lankan High Commission. Samarasinghe said he was not free to share this evidence because the Sri Lankan government has handed it over to the "appropriate authorities".

The Sri Lankan government believes the problem lies with only a small segment of the Tamil population who are strong supporters of the LTTE, and not the whole Tamil Canadian community. Samarasinghe accuses them of distorting the truth about the situation in Sri Lanka.

Raj Gunanathan, the president of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) in Toronto, says the Sri Lankan government is using propaganda to try and discredit all Canadian Tamils and to prevent them from helping others still in Sri Lanka.

"If you say anything about Tamils, the government says that these fellows are Tigers, they are collecting money for the Tigers... We cannot stop helping the refugees back home, because people are trying to tell you that you are sending money for arms, or whatever. We are not doing that, we are honest to ourselves," said Gunanathan.

The TRO was originally established in the north-east of Sri Lanka in 1985 to help Tamil refugees displaced in the war. Gunanathan says in the past most of the funding for the TRO came from Tamils in Sri Lanka, but in recent years these contributions have dwindled as many of the people who had been contributing became refugees themselves. He says now the majority of money comes from Tamils living abroad where the TRO is working from approximately 15 countries.

Gunanathan denies allegations the TRO is sending money to buy arms or supplies for the LTTE. In an article in the Toronto Star on Feb. 27,1999, Don Gracey, a consultant for the Senate Committee on Security and Intelligence identified the TRO as a front organization for the LTTE. Gunanathan was dismayed by Gracey's statement and by the Star reporter for failing to ask for his side of the story. He has since reviewed the Senate report and says he found no mention of the TRO. He has written a letter to the paper asking for an explanation.

Rev. Francis Xavier was also upset by the report. Xavier met with Gracey last year during consultations for the committee and he is named as a background witness in the Senate report but he says the committee disregarded his contributions.

The Senate Committee report recommends changes to the Income Tax Act making it more difficult for organizations suspected of being involved in financially supporting groups recognized as terrorists by the Canadian government. Revenue Canada would work in cooperation with Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to determine which organizations to deny charitable status. According to the report, some organizations are using the guise of registered charities as a way to have tax-payers subsidize funding. The report suggests those who are being solicited often have no idea where the money is actually going. However the report does not list any specific organizations.

The TRO is a Registered Non Profit Organization in Canada. However, it is not a charitable organization. According Gunanathan, the TRO is a registered charitable organization in the U.S., and it is 100% volunteer run organization with little or no overhead charges. It receives funds raised by different volunteer organizations throughout the year at cultural events, and through collections set up at places such as Hindu Temples. Gunanathan insists the TRO is a legitimate non profit organization and he says he has the documents to prove it.

"We send these donations to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization in the North of Sri Lanka and we tell them that this money is to be used for these specific purposes for which we are sending, like for providing food for the refugees," said Gunanathan. The aid being sent into areas under LTTE control but Gunanathan says the money is being used to help the people, not to buy weapons. He says the LTTE has no choice but to make sure the people are cared for and the people appreciate any help they can get.

"The Tigers are duty-bound to provide. Otherwise the people will revolt against them, they will throw them out" said Gunanathan.

"The Tigers who are in control have an obligation to feed the people and we, the TRO on a humanitarian basis alone are providing some relief, so it is welcome by the Tigers." Gunanathan says the most money the TRO has raised in a year is $200,000 and he calls this "a drop-in-the bucket" compared to the money, which would be needed to support the LTTE's military.

Samarasinghe says the TRO is not a recognized relief agency in Sri Lanka and he doubts their legitimacy because he says it is impossible for any supplies they claim to be sending to get through Colombo unnoticed. Samarasinghe cited the example of a recent campaign to raise money for blankets for the refugees. He called it a "bogus" campaign saying officials in Colombo deny having seen any delivery of blankets.

In a previous interview Gunanathan also referred to the blanket campaign as an example of the work of the TRO.

He explained all of the TRO's donations are sent as cash because the Sri Lankan government will not let any supplies into areas where the refugees are. "There was an appeal made to us that we supply some blankets. So we appealed to the people here for blankets. I think we collected about $100,000 on that appeal alone. So we sent that money and said, "now use this only for buying blankets for the people" said Gunanathan.

Sri Lanka has banned over 30 items from reaching to the LTTE controlled areas and routinely stops other goods from going into those areas. Established relief organizations such as MSF also complains about the routine harassment.

In addition to claims about charitable organizations supporting the LTTE, in recent years the media has also reported stories about Tamils being extorted, threatened or forced to give money to the LTTE. The Sri Lankan High Commission believes Tamil Canadians are being extorted. "From all angles, from what we've heard from different people and from what we gather from speaking with the Canadian arms of law enforcement, yes, we do believe that Tamils in Canada are being extorted for money, in other words, there are a lot of people being forced to give money," said Samarasinghe.

An article in the Ottawa Citizen news paper on August 14,1997 which quoted an unnamed "top immigration department source" as saying that Tamils were being threatened and forced to give money was retracted by the Citizen next day.

In a letter to Ottawa based Tamil group, Don Butler, the executive news editor of Ottawa Citizen, regretted printing the story without verification or proper investigation of the alleged "Extortion of funds" charges against the Tamils in Canada. Many Tamils believed it was another attempt by the Sri Lankan government to slander Canadian Tamils for criticizing Sri Lanka's human rights record.

Xavier says the extortion reports remain unfounded to this day and he has never heard of any Tamil giving money to any cause against their will.

"There is no extortion of funds...It is true we go an ask for collections, it is true that we ask like any other group does it for suffering people, it is true that we have cultural events, and collect money for this cause. Now there may also be, that in support of the LTTE work, some people may be giving money, but there is nobody who is being extorted," says Xavier.

Tamil youth violence in the Toronto area has also been associated with allegations of extortion and crime profits going to support the LTTE.

Indrakumar Pathmanathan is a coordinator for the Canadian Tamil Youth Development (CANTYD) in Toronto. The organization was formed in February 1998 to "empower Tamil youth" and keep them away from crime said Pathmanathan. CANTYD has been studying the Tamil gang problem. They say a preliminary report revealed the Tamil population may be funding the LTTE on an individual basis, but they were not being extorted and gangs were in no way associated with such activities.

Det. David Malcolm of the Tamil Task force in Toronto says their investigations have "leaned" in the direction of looking for links between Tamil organized crime and the LTTE, he says cannot release details as the investigations are ongoing. However, Malcolm says there is no evidence of a connection between Tamil gangs and the Tamil organizations supporting LTTE. While he admits gang members don't appear to be related to the LTTE or fund raising organizations, he feels some are taking advantage of the situation.

"We've had gang members say that they are doing certain things for a cause and that they are doing this because of what is going on back home in Sri Lanka. The gang people are taking advantage of that when they are going into businesses. They may collect money from businesses or force them to pay for certain things, or force them to buy certain stuff," said Malcolm.

Malcolm says it is important for the Tamil community to work together to catch the small minority of Tamils involved in criminal activity targeting their own community.

Coordinators at CANTYD have been working closely with the police and the community and they say they think the media has finally realized there is no connection between the gangs and the LTTE.

They are currently planning an awards ceremony for next November, which will honor the academic achievements and community work of Tamil youth. They hope the media will take this opportunity to view the Tamil community in a different light.

Copyright 1999 South Asian Media Services

Courtesy: SAMS