Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict

Slow Creep — the World Tamil Movement and Tharisanam TV

The banning in Canada last week of the World Tamil Movement (WTM) and the taking down in London of Tharisanam TV a couple of days ago, hit the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a double punch that largely went unnoticed in Sri Lanka.

Last week’s listing of the WTM as a terrorist organization by the Canadian government, caused a furor in that country that went beyond the usual GoSL-LTTE split. The decision by Ottawa sparked as much debate on both sides of the Liberal-Conservative constituencies as can be seen on any Sri Lankan blog. Many of the voices remain supremely ignorant of the war in Sri Lanka, as well as the greater Tamil nationalist struggle, with much of the argument taking the predictable route of “terrorism is wrong” vs “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.

Announcing the ruling, Canada’s Public safety Minister Stockwell Day said that Ottawa had sufficient and reasonable evidence that the WTM had been raising funds for the LTTE, a Sri Lankan terror organization that Canada finally banned only in in 2006. Day also went on to say that the federal government will seize WTM assets and make it illegal for Canadians to help the group, financially or otherwise.

What is most significant is that this is the first time Ottawa has used its Anti-Terrorist Act (passed in the wake of 9/11) to shut down a Canadian community group for its links to terrorism. Until now, groups listed by Ottawa (40 in all) have been actively engaged in terror; organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas, and the WTM’s parent group, the LTTE.

Active investigation of the WTM by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s federal law enforcement agency, began in 2002, but it wasn’t until Ottawa’s proscription of the LTTE in 2006, that the WTM came under the RCMP microscope as a possible front organization. The RCMP raided the WTM’s headquarters, housed in a red brick industrial building, a block from Highway 401 in Toronto’s suburb of Scarborough, while they looked into the organization’s financial connections to the LTTE. Earlier this year, dozens of bank accounts tied to WTM officers were frozen across the country and the group’s Montreal office shut down. By April, the Scarborough headquarters had ground to a virtual standstill, the building in the hands of RCMP officers.

The World Tamil Movement has operated in Canada since the 1980s, using the country’s large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora as a source for funding which the group claims is used for community projects in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged Northern and Eastern Provinces. While the LTTE commands a huge support base in Canada, there have been complaints that the WTM employs heavy-handed fund-raising methods that border on extortion.

While police investigation of the WTM only began in 2002, the group had been under the scrutiny of the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) as far back as the mid-’90s, when staffers of the WTM were investigated for laundering money channelled to the LTTE. One of these individuals was Manickavasagam Suresh, who was sent to Canada by the LTTE in 1990 to head the WTM. He was arrested in 1995 and accused of buying military equipment for use in terrorism. He is still awaiting deportation, an order which Suresh is fighting to have turned down. By 2000, the CSIS had concluded that at least eight non-profit organizations and five commercial companies operating in Canada were fronts for the LTTE, the WTM being one of them.

However, successive Liberal governments turned a blind eye to LTTE financial operations in Canada, ignoring repeated CSIS recommendations for proscription and bowing to their Ontario MPs, who in turn were courting a large Tamil constituency in the Toronto area. Liberal MPs routinely attended LTTE funding events right upto the 2002 proscription, and even though Canada’s previous Liberal government banned LTTE fund-raising after 9/11 as a part of the Anti-Terrorist Act, they stopped short of formally declaring the group a terrorist one. Several Liberal MPs attended the recently organized remembrance ceremony held in Scarborough for the head of the LTTE’s Peace Secretariat, killed in a Sri Lanka Air Force decapitation strike.

This being the first Canadian proscription of a non-combatant group, it remains to be seen how much Vim will be used in Ottawa’s prosecutions. That having been said, it is hard to see any real future for the WTM in Canada or elsewhere.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the London-based Tharishanam TV, an LTTE-funded pay channel announced it was going off the air. This was the latest battle in the propaganda war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE for the eyes and ears of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. In March this year, GoSL influence on the Italian Ministry of the Interior resulted in the closure of Swiss-based Tamil V Channel Euro Television’s Milan transmitter. Last year saw the shutting down of the Paris-based Tamil Television Network (TTN) in May, and the removal by Washington-based Intelsat of National Television of Tamil Eelam (NTTE) from their network. TTN alone had 22,000 subscribers in Europe, pulling in roughly 330,000 euros a month.

Tharisanam TV is a client of France’s Globecast, and operates on the Israeli Satlink platform, off the Hotbird 8 satellite. Initial announcements on Tharisanam TV stated their reason for going off the air was “pressure exerted by the Government of Sri Lanka”. That pressure was exerted on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which obviously has many interests in Sri Lanka, particularly in the area of military trade. It’s interesting to note that the now-defunct Swiss-based Tamil V Channel also used an Israeli platform, RRSat, which was even preparing to support a resurgent Voice of Tigers (VOT) radio transmission out of Serbia this month, before GoSL intervention nipped it in the bud.

The letter to Satlink CEO David Hochner from Yaron Meir, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Vice Manager of the Southeast Asia Department, informing Satlink of the decision, says in part: “For your knowledge, the Tamil underground LTTE, is battling for independence in east of Sri Lanka and is making use of means of terror and violence. Said underground is defined as a terror organization in the United States, Canada, the European Union countries and India. It is not yet defined as a terror organization in Israel. However, any connection between it and an Israeli body is highly problematic and even extremely severe in light of Israel’s coping against the terror organizations.”

While it is gratifying to see this progress in the international arena, particularly at a time when very little verifiable news is available from the battlefield, the fact that many nations still remain unaware of the LTTE’s true nature (Serbia claims they revoked VOT’s license when they discovered their mistake), is a strong indictment of the GoSL’s overall failure in the international propaganda war.

Canada remains a propaganda disaster for Sri Lanka, where many successive federal administrations have refused to take action to curb the LTTE in North America. It is clear that with the long run up to the banning of the World Tamil Movement, the LTTE would have taken steps to transfer funds to other still unlisted front organizations. Whether Ottawa will continue this momentum against the LTTE will depend not just on internal Canadian politics, but on the GoSL’s ability to manage its own international image.

Sent by the author, with original post available on his blog here.