Tamil Tigers: defeated at home, defiant abroad
The war in Sri Lanka has been lost. But London's Tamils are still committed to the dream of their own state. Jerome Taylor investigates the campaigners with the zeal – and resources – to carry on the fight
Saturday 23 May 2009
When Sri Lankan soldiers found the bloated corpse of Vellupillai Prabhakaran on the shores of Nandikadal Lagoon days ago, it was clear that one of the world's most notorious terrorist networks had been dealt a crushing military blow.
For more than 30 years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had terrorised Sri Lanka with their brutal, suicidally brave and increasingly desperate armed struggle to carve out a homeland for the island's persecuted Tamil minority.
Now with the death of their vicious but revered leader and the near-total annihilation of its top brass, the Tamil Tiger dream of a separate state lay smashed in the bomb craters of north-eastern Sri Lanka.
As western governments called on Colombo to help the estimated 250,000 desperate Tamil civilians crammed into internment camps, they quietly celebrated the supposed destruction of a terror network that pioneered the dreaded suicide bomber long before the jihadis realised the potential of martyrdom attacks.
But an Independent investigation has revealed that despite suffering a catastrophic defeat on the battlefield, the Tamil Tigers' vast international funding and smuggling network remains largely intact and – with the help of Tamil sympathisers, including those in Britain – the terror group is more than capable of rebuilding itself with potentially devastating consequences for the future of peace in Sri Lanka.
As one British-based Tamil Tiger sympathiser told The Independent this week: "The original Tamil Tigers were like the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. What will come next is a Tamil Tiger Hamas."
It is no secret that without support and funding from the Tamil disapora outside Sri Lanka the LTTE would never have been able to continue their violent campaign for so long. Tamils living in Tooting or Toronto view the Tigers in much the same way Irish-Americans once thought of the IRA, as romanticised freedom fighters whose brutal tactics can be excused, ignored or forgotten. An estimated 80 per cent of the LTTE's military budget came from overseas, primarily from Tamils in Britain, Canada, Switzerland and Scandanavia.
"The LTTE may have been destroyed militarily but the international financing structure is still in place," says Nesan Shankar Raji, a senior London-based leader of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation, which has similar goals to the LTTE but is opposed to their violent tactics. "Almost all the Tigers' funding came from abroad and British Tamils played a huge role in keeping the organisation going. Whether peace prevails in Sri Lanka will just as much depend on what happens on the streets of Southall, Tooting and Harrow than within Sri Lanka itself."
Mr Shankar Raji's warning is a stark reminder to the British government that support for the Tamil Tigers in the UK will not peter away with the death of Prabhakaran. If anything, the ongoing protests in Parliament Square show how the recent conflict has unified Britain's Tamils, particularly young students who have rallied under the Tamil Tiger iconic red flag like never before.
Tensions are already spilling over. Although the protests in Parliament Square have been peaceful, over the past two weeks a Buddhist temple in Kingsbury, north west London, and a fast-food restaurant in Hendon owned by a Sinhalese businessman have been attacked. Police are investigating both incidences as "faith-hate crimes".
In the areas of London with large Tamil populations – such as Tooting, Mitcham and Harrow – donating to the Eelam cause is still as easy as going down the shops. The LTTE were proscribed as a terrorist organisation in March 2001 so those business and charities that once operated openly for the Tigers have since closed. But insiders say Tamils will continue to donate through the undiyal system, a shadowy money transfer network where LTTE-friendly businesses send money to Tiger-run businesses in Sri Lanka much like a backdoor Western Union system. Shortly before the war in Sri Lanka intensified, the Centre for Social Cohesion, a London-based think-tank, estimated that the undiyal system netted the LTTE £250,000 every month from Britain alone.
To make matters worse, this fundraising drive will likely continue with little interference from British police or security services. A security source told The Independent that Islamic terrorists are stretching resources so thinly at present that it is unlikely the LTTE's activities in Britain will ever become a priority for the security services.
The police are similarly disinterested. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said yesterday that anti-terrorism officers were "working to disrupt and prevent all forms of terrorist funding, to pursue those responsible and help bring them to justice". But even when the Tigers were at the height of their power, few prosecutions were brought against them.
The only major victory against the Tigers in the courts since 11 Septmeber was this year, when Arunachalam Chrishanthakumar, a prominent 52-year-old businessman from Norbury, south London, was convicted of supplying the Tigers with electrical components used to make bombs.
Rajasingham Jayadevan, a prominent London-based Tamil who used to be close to senior LTTE leaders but has since fallen out with them, believes that the Tigers will continue to be powerful unless their international sources of funding are cut off. "In the short term, the donations will stop because people are shocked, angry and recovering from the fact that the Tigers have been defeated," he said. "But it will resume again unless some sort of peaceful settlement is reached. The senior military leaders may have been destroyed but the fundraisers in the UK or Canada are still alive and well."
Kumaran Padmanadan, an LTTE leader based in South-east Asia who is thought to be their main arms procurer and is wanted by Interpol, still remains at large. S Pathmanathan, the equally elusive head of the LTTE's international relations wing, is also still active and insisting that Prabhakaran is still alive.
Many anti-LTTE Tamils are concerned that the general disbelief within the Tamil disapora that Prabhakaran is dead will mean fundraising will continue. Of the 300,000 or so Tamils in Britain – most of them in London – Mr Jayadevan estimates "somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000" are hardcore pro-LTTE supporters who have actively engaged in fundraising.
Nirmala Rajasingham (no relation to Jayadevan) is the founder of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, an anti-Tiger Tamil nationalist group based in London. She believes the British government and police now have a responsibility to go after the LTTE money network. "The first place they should start are temples and charities."
Although both entities undoubtedly provide much-needed humanitarian work in the region many have been constantly dogged by accusations of sending money to the LTTE.
The Muththumaari Amman temple in Tooting is a colourful hub of activity for south London's Tamil community, a large proportion of whom hail from Valvettithurai, where Prabhakaran was born.
The temple officially runs five orphanages in Sri Lanka but last year the Charity Commission froze the finances of the charity wing because it suspected that money was being sent to the LTTE.
When The Independent visited the temple this week, Nagendram Karunanithy, a trustee, said they were trying to persuade the commission to lift the ban. "We have never supported the LTTE," Mr Karunanithy insisted. "Ninety per cent of Tamils support the LTTE ideologically but that does not mean they give money to them." Asked whether the temple still gets donations for their work abroad, he said: "We advise devotees to send [charitable donations] directly instead."
Many prominent LTTE critics believe that the destruction of the terror group's military capabilities in Sri Lanka offers Britain the perfect opportunity to dismantle the Tigers' presence in the UK. But they fear their calls will be ignored.
"Just the other night I was asking myself how the western world could help the democratic Tamil opposition and cutting off the LTTE's international funds would be top of my list," says Mrs Rajasingham. "The sheer size of their criminal network warrants investigation. The LTTE may have been crippled militarily but they do not lack money. Unless that is taken from them they will never be fully defeated."
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