Links between charities and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department, have raised concerns in Western governments that the Sri Lankan rebel group is using aid meant for victims of the tsunami to buy weapons and replenish its depleted ranks with child soldiers.
One of the prominent groups disbursing humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka, the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), has become the subject of scrutiny by politicians in Canada and Australia, and State Department officials in Washington say the charity’s ties to the Tamil Tigers are “problematic.”
The matter is further complicated by the fact that the northeastern areas of Sri Lanka worst hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami are strongholds of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The rebel group has accused the Sri Lankan government of blocking relief supplies to the Tamil-dominated regions, while human rights activists say the Tamil Tigers are intimidating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working there.
The LTTE has been fighting for a separate homeland in the northeast since the 1970s. The conflict has pitted the country’s Hindu Tamil minority against the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
In 1956, Sinhala was made the sole official language of Sri Lanka. In 1972, Buddhism was given a primary place as the country’s religion, further alienating the Tamil minority. Four years later, as tensions heightened in Tamil-dominated areas, the LTTE was formed as a reaction to the government’s efforts to marginalize the Tamils. The government in Colombo has refused to recognize the LTTE as a freedom struggle of the Tamils. The conflict has since taken more than 60,000 lives.
In February 2002, Norway brokered a cease-fire between the rebels and the government but peace talks have been deadlocked since April 2003. In support of the peace process, the Bush administration has made “limited, working-level contact” with LTTE authorities to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid.
According to a report on the “Patterns of Global Terrorism — 2003” issued by the office of the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department last year, despite the cease-fire the LTTE has not renounced terrorism or disbanded its “Black Tiger” suicide squads.
The LTTE also continues to smuggle weaponry into Sri Lanka and to forcibly recruit children into its ranks, the report says.
Ethnic tensions overshadowed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s recent tour of the tsunami-ravaged island when, on the advice of the Sri Lankan government, Mr. Annan decided to avoid the LTTE-dominated regions.
“Annan not going left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people in the LTTE,” said Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka.
The State Department report notes that the LTTE’s front organizations support Tamil separatism by lobbying foreign governments and the United Nations. The LTTE also uses its international contacts to “procure weapons, communications, and any other equipment and supplies it needs. The LTTE exploits large Tamil communities in North America, Europe, and Asia to obtain funds and supplies for its fighters in Sri Lanka.”
Mrs. Schaffer said: “The conventional wisdom was that the LTTE effectively shook down the Tamil diaspora to fund its operations and would send representatives to get money. What tended to make it plausible was that you had periodic shootouts involving Tamil expatriates — some of whom were believed to be LTTE members.”
The State Department has identified the World Tamil Association, World Tamil Movement, the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, the Ellalan Force, and the Sangilian Force as front organizations of the LTTE.
Officials at the department say while the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization is not on this list of “front organizations,” TRO’s relationship with the LTTE is “very problematic and it’s something law enforcement will need to look into.”
The Canadian government has refused to give the TRO tax-exempt status because of the group’s links to the Tamil Tigers.
Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka founded the TRO in 1985 as a “self-help organization.” The group has offices in more than 16 countries. It aims to overcome the economic embargo imposed on Tamil areas in Sri Lanka so that food and medical supplies can reach Tamil refugees.
In the United States, TRO is headquartered in Cumberland, Md.
Bethesda-based TRO Secretary M. Sreetharan says while the charity has to work “alongside” the LTTE, “every cent that is collected for TRO is sent to the TRO’s Colombo office and is used to support the welfare of people in need — mainly in the northeast.”
He blamed the “climate of war” for the suspicions that swirl around his organization. “There have always been accusations that the TRO funds LTTE or vice versa. But the founding premise of our group is that the Tamils wanted an organization for people who needed support.
“Tamils do not believe that the government has been fair in distributing relief,” he said, echoing a complaint frequently voiced by the Tamil Tigers.
Mr. Sreetharan conceded that the State Department’s designation of the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization in October 1997 had worried some in the Tamil expatriate community. “There is a chilling affect,” he said. “I am sure [the U.S. government] is observing our operation, but it has never officially stated that we are a front of the LTTE.”
In December, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the Australian government had not funded the TRO’s development program because of its links to the Tamil Tigers.
In 2000, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service identified eight nonprofit organizations in Canada as fronts of the Tamil Tigers. “Most funds raised under the banner of humanitarian organizations such as the TRO are channeled instead to fund the LTTE war effort,” the CSIS report said.
While the tsunami’s toll on the Tamil Tigers has yet to be ascertained, New York-based Human Rights Watch estimates the wave killed at least 2,000 rebels, including nearly 400 women and girls who were washed away from an LTTE training camp in Mullaitivu.
Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the Tamil Tigers are “preying on the most vulnerable by taking advantage of children who have been orphaned or displaced by the tsunami.”
“Children have always been targeted, but children who have lost their homes or families from the tsunami now are even more susceptible to LTTE recruitment,” he warned.
Mr. Sreetharan said the LTTE is “extremely careful not to recruit children for military purposes. There is no brainwashing done to recruit these kids.”
Kirubairaja Somasundaram, a Toronto-based freelance journalist who has done extensive research on the LTTE, said money collected by TRO “goes to the LTTE fund used to purchase military hardware and to maintain their prisons.”
“There is no harm working with the LTTE, but it becomes a serious issue when the LTTE wants to control all the refugee camps to use men and women who have lost their families as auxiliary forces and recruit children,” said Mr. Somasundaram.
The LTTE is an “extremely hierarchical” organization and its leaders regard outsiders with suspicion, said Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “LTTE is equalitarian with minimum bureaucratic hindrance. When it comes to relief efforts, they are insistent that they handle the work,” he added.
The group, he said, “has done a very good job of ensuring equitable distribution of resources.”
Mrs. Schaffer said reports about tsunami orphans have to be put in context with the Tigers’ history of recruiting children. The LTTE was denied access to most of the east and the northern Jaffna area for a number of years. As part of the cease-fire agreement, the group was permitted to station its cadres in other parts of Sri Lanka.
“Everyone understood that these cadres would do some recruitment,” said Mrs. Schaffer. “Access to some areas from which they recruited was cut off from 1998 to 2002. Then by simple arithmetic it follows that from 2002 there was a supply of 18-year-olds available to them.”
After the 2002 cease-fire, Sri Lanka allowed the TRO to register as a nongovernmental organization in Colombo. “We took great pains to show that although TRO has to work alongside the LTTE on the ground, the operations and financing efforts were totally separate,” said Mr. Sreetharan. “LTTE would set priorities because the Tigers were working on the ground.”
TRO’s U.S. office has collected close to $1 million with the outpouring of support for the victims of the tsunami. Foreign governments will be keeping a close eye on where exactly this money ends up.