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Home > 2023 > Canada’s Tryst with Tamil Tigers | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 39 September 23, 2023

Canada’s Tryst with Tamil Tigers | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 23 September 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy


DBS Jeyaraj, like so many Sri Lankan Tamils, made Canada his home some years after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots swept Colombo, giving much needed oxygen to the nascent Tamil militancy. A journalist, Jeyaraj reported from Sri Lanka the deteriorating ethnic ties as the Tamil separatist campaign went from strength to strength before he quit his country and made Toronto his new home. Like many other Tamils, he too saw the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), initially, as the answer to Sinhalese chauvinism. As years rolled by, he moved away from the shadow of the LTTE and eventually became its critic.

Canada too over time became a refuge and home for the largest bloc of Sri Lankan Tamils outside the island nation. Toronto came to be known as a Little Jaffna as tens of thousands of Tamils concentrated there, each cycle of violence in Sri Lanka bringing more and more Tamils. The LTTE, which had offices all across the West, viewed Canada as a strong hub due to the presence of the steadily ballooning Tamil population.

With its liberal values and outlook, Canada rarely said ‘no’ to Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing what turned out to be one of the deadliest armed conflicts in the world. An overwhelming majority of the Tamils who applied for asylum, later leading to citizenship, were accepted. LTTE operatives helped many to enter Canada and then to find their way through the Canadian bureaucracy. Fellow Tamils helped one another find a job or open a business so that people could stand on their own feet.

But the LTTE being LTTE, it refused to accept any dissent. This was more so after it had destroyed rival Tamil groups and targeted even senior Tamil moderate politicians in Sri Lanka — anyone it deemed a “traitor”. Jeyaraj wrote often critical pieces on the Tamil Eelam war for both the Sri Lankan media and other media. He also edited his own Tamil magazine which refused to peddle half-truths put out by the Tamil Tigers. Naturally, the LTTE hated Jeyaraj.

LTTE operatives warned him many times to change his ways but Jeyaraj refused to buckle under pressure. In February 1993, a band of thugs with links to the Tigers set upon the journalist at a car park in Toronto. He was thrashed with baseball bats, injuring him in the head and leg. Jeyaraj may have been shaken but he still refused to bend.

Two years later, the LTTE vandalized shops in Toronto which sold his Tamil magazine. Some buyers were threatened. Advertisers were warned not to associate with Jeyaraj. He got threatening messages over the telephone from unlisted numbers. It came to a stage when his magazine folded up. Such was the fear of the LTTE even in Western countries that not many Sri Lankan Tamils spoke up for him. On the contrary, LTTE critics living in the West were often tauntingly asked: “Do you want to end up like Jeyaraj?”

Although Jeyaraj had recognized some of his attackers, Canadian authorities never made any arrest and no one was punished for the brazen act of crime. It is another matter that Jeyaraj continues to write even today — without facing any danger. That is because the LTTE has died although many in Canada continue to believe in its nihilist ideology — a la supporters of the Khalistani movement who too have made Canada their home.

Indians who may feel incensed when they see how casually Canadian authorities turn a blind eye to the activities of Khalistani adherents need only to remember the long rope Ottawa gave for decades to the much more deadly and vicious LTTE. Of course, Canada was not the only Western country to do so. But the sheer number of Sri Lankan Tamils who lived in that country made Canada’s case unique.

According to the International Crisis Group, Canada granted asylum in the 1990s to roughly 80 percent of all Tamils who applied. At the height of the Sri Lankan conflict, the Tamil diaspora contributed an estimated $200 million a year to the Tigers. Canada accounted for a large share of this. The LTTE raised funds both legally and illegally. In Canada, like elsewhere, the Tigers controlled restaurants and other businesses.

Tamils in Canada were also expected to pay a monthly “tax” to the LTTE’s war machine — and contribute on special occasions too. The “tax” would in many cases be $C 30 per family or per person every month. One must remember that all Tamils were not wealthy and many struggled to make two ends meet. It is only after the LTTE’s military rout that Tamils stopped paying the rebel “tax”.

It is not the Canadian authorities were unaware of the massive amounts of money going to the LTTE to keep the war going; it is just that they did not care. The Canadian/Western attitude was simply one of hypocrisy: as long as no harm comes to any Canadian individual or institution, we will be blind to what terrorist groups like the LTTE and its henchmen do.

This is precisely the attitude that today’s Canada has taken vis-à-vis Khalistanis.

The LTTE’s assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the equally horrific assassination of Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa two years later did not prod Canada into any meaningful action. The LTTE continued to have a free run in Canada. LTTE supporters even got into the Canadian bureaucracy as interpreters — enjoying a vantage spot to spy on fellow Tamils seeking asylum and their political thinking.

On rare occasions, the Canadian authorities acted against some known LTTE operatives — when it would have been too glaring to keep quiet. But even as the LTTE continued to assassinate one Sri Lankan leader after another and itself turned into a virtual mafia group in the north and east of the island, nothing stirred in Canada. The ban on the LTTE in 1997 by neighbouring United States did not cast a shadow on Ottawa. Canada belatedly banned the LTTE in 2005 — just four years before the Tigers met an inglorious end.

Just as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his party pander to the Sikh community to secure electoral support, many politicians in Canada feel no guilt if they speak favourably about the LTTE — as long as this earns them Tamil votes in elections. One has to ask: would Canada have dared to give so much of space to Al Qaeda or similar Islamic groups in the name of so-called liberal values?

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