Extorting the Diaspora Tamil Tigers Exploit Exiles Abroad to Fund Insurgency

After 25 years of civil war, the Sri Lankan government believes that its goal of militarily defeating Tamil rebels is finally in sight. But cutting off the rebels' financial resources is a different matter.

By Rüdiger Falksohn and Padma Rao

A bus destoryed by the Tamil Tigers in the Sri Lankan city of Buttala: Overstock from a global weapons bazaar

A bus destoryed by the Tamil Tigers in the Sri Lankan city of Buttala: Overstock from a global weapons bazaar

The Sri Lankan flag, with its green-and-orange stripes and yellow image of a lion, fluttered proudly in a brisk ocean wind. President Mahinda Rajapaksa also seemed filled with pride when he stepped up to the microphone to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence on Monday of last week.

"Our security forces are today achieving victories against terrorism unprecedented in history," he said defiantly, referring to the civil war that has crippled the country for the last 25 years. "Terrorism is receiving an unprecedented defeat."

Despite the military parade that followed Rajapaksa's address, it was clear, judging by the many ordinary soldiers positioned behind sandbags, rolls of barbed wire and temporary bunkers in the capital Colombo, that the ceremony was only made possible by tight security precautions. Soldiers and armed security personnel kept a watchful eye on every shop and even every ice cream vendor along the city's harbor promenade.

Nevertheless, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents -- commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who are demanding an independent Tamil state and occupy one-third of the country -- managed to stage several attacks. At least 13 people were killed when a bomb exploded at a Colombo train station. Almost at the same time as Rajapaksa's speech, a bus went up in flames 240 kilometers (149 miles) away in the country's interior, also killing 13 people. Twenty people died in another bus explosion in Dambulla, the site of a cave temple and a popular tourist destination.

The civil war has already claimed the lives of more than 70,000 Sri Lankans, and the cease-fire agreement reached six years ago has long been worth less than the paper it was printed on. After the government formally dissolved the agreement in mid-January, Rajapaksa's troops resumed their bombardment of the LTTE-occupied north and have reported many successes since then. They even claim that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, was mortally wounded in one of the attacks.

One of the World's Most Resilient Rebel Groups

But the Tigers seem unimpressed. In fact, the self-appointed representatives of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority have repeatedly demonstrated, with their attacks and assassinations, that they remain one of the world's most resilient rebel groups. The LTTE is the only guerilla organization in the world with its own rudimentary air force, as it demonstrated a year ago in a surprise attack on the headquarters of the Sri Lankan Air Force near the airport in Colombo. Although the Tigers' aircraft and bomb technology were substantially outdated, the air attack confirmed what had been just a rumor until then: That the LTTE is more than just a collection of jungle fighters, including many child soldiers, and naval vessels.

The Tigers are said to have the second-highest budget of all separatists, outdone only by Colombia's FARC guerillas, with their sizable cocaine revenues. The British military publication Jane's Intelligence Review and the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch recently published details of the group's sources of funding.

Map: Where the Tamils reside

Map: Where the Tamils reside

According to the report, the Tigers raise up to $300 million (204 million euros) a year, or between 80 and 90 percent of their total budget, abroad. Overseas Tamils are expected to donate funds, making private households and businesspeople the group's principal source of funding. Human Rights Watch describes the Tamils' fundraising method as "extortion." Indeed, poor or financially strapped Tamil families living in London, for instance, are asked to pay a monthly contribution of 40 British pounds (54 euros) apiece, while the Tamils who operate a Hindu temple in Canada are expected to come up with the equivalent of 700,000 euros ($1.03 million) -- as a "contribution to the final war."

With one in four Tamils living abroad, the number of potential donors runs upwards of 800,000. The largest diaspora is concentrated in Canada (about 250,000 people), followed by India (150,000), Great Britain (110,000), Germany (50,000), Switzerland, France and Australia (30,000 each). LTTE allegedly demands that Tamil expatriates contribute 20 percent of their earnings to the Tigers' cause, and Tamil cultural organizations are believed to employ money collectors who then funnel the revenues through circuitous routes to "Eelam," as the Tigers' realm is known.

Converting Dollars into Weapons

The collected dollars are often converted into weapons before reaching Sri Lanka. The weapons are shipped to Jaffna, the Tamil stronghold, primarily from southern India. Speedboats take only 45 minutes to cross the 35-kilometer (22-mile) Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. They often arrive loaded with overstock from a global weapons bazaar: Ukrainian explosives, Bulgarian SA-14 short-range missiles, bazookas from Cyprus, grenade launchers from Croatia and guns from Cambodia, Thailand and Burma.

To pay for all of this, the Tigers have apparently even turned to the illicit use of credit cards. In Norway, 16 LTTE supporters were put behind bars for credit card fraud last May. Authorities in Singapore and Thailand have raided criminal gangs outfitted with blank credit cards and reading devices designed to crack secret codes at ATMs.

The Tigers are organized centrally and hierarchically. According to Jane's, the organization's finances are handled by the Aiyanna Group, which is run by LTTE intelligence chief Potta Amman, and the Office of Overseas Purchases, headed by senior LTTE official Kumaran Pathmanathan (hence the nickname KP Department). Pathmanathan is believed to be in charge of securing financial contributions and allegedly works hand-in-hand with groups like the World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC) in the borough of Queens in New York.

The WTCC, for its part, denies any involvement with LTTE, which is listed as a terrorist organization in North America and in the European Union.

Many Tamils who fled Sri Lanka in the early 1980s in the wake of pogroms committed by the Singhalese majority, or who have traumatic memories of the violent acts the government has committed in fighting the Tigers, support the LTTE voluntarily. They see the organization as the defender of a just cause.

Those who don't see it this way receive house visits from money collectors whose repertoire ranges from subtle encouragement to blatant extortion. Anyone who consistently refuses to pay up runs the risk of anything from harassing phone calls to a ransacked apartment, can run into problems when traveling home to Sri Lanka and endangers family members. According to a Tamil who has been at the receiving end of Tiger harassment, "they simply say: we'll show you. We all know that this can be a matter of life and death."

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