By Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

THE debate in Australia over the influx of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka should take into consideration the nature of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan conflict that ended on May 19.

Since the LTTE’s defeat, the Sri Lankan government has been weeding out hardcore LTTE fighters to ensure that the group cannot regenerate. So far, according to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence, out of nearly 272,000 internally displaced persons, 9818 LTTE fighters have been identified and interned. Nonetheless, the government remains cautious, as suggested by Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe: “There are still some persons among the IDPs who have not disclosed their former affiliation with the LTTE.”

In early August, the Sri Lankan government suspected that about 10,000 unidentified LTTE fighters were hiding in IDP camps, posing as civilians. However, in early October the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front, Veerasingham Anandasangaree, claimed that most, if not all, of the remaining undetected LTTE fighters had fled overseas.

Sri Lankan military officials believe that two categories of refugees are fleeing: those who are fighters or who have collaborated with the LTTE; and those who are fleeing for economic reasons. Many of these civilians are known to have been strong supporters of the LTTE and constitute maveerar (war hero) families whose children fought in elite LTTE units.

In September, reports emerged that since May about 20,000 IDPs have escaped from dozens of these camps; many of them are suspected by the Sri Lankan government of being former LTTE fighters.

Conditions in these camps have been the subject of considerable media debate, but recent visits by senior foreign officials suggest that significant improvements have been made. For example, IRIN News quotes Walter Kaelin, the UN Secretary-General’s representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, as saying: “Certainly people do get food, they do get medical assistance and there is education in the camps. So from that perspective, the government and international community have done a lot.”

The Indian daily The Hindu reports that 41,685 IDPs have been released and resettled and the government is engaged in the process of resettling another 58,000 in line with its target of releasing and resettling more than 70 per cent of the IDPs by January 31.

The LTTE in the diaspora is engaged in a process of reorganisation and there are no credible indications that it will move away from terrorism, a view affirmed by Canadian terrorism expert Tom Quiggin, who says: “The LTTE has not given up its program of an independent homeland, and they will continue their campaign of violence from wherever they can re-establish themselves.”

It is beyond doubt that hardcore LTTE fighters have infiltrated the Tamil refugees who have arrived in Australia, as noted by Victor Rajakulendran, who represents the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations: “There will … definitely … be (LTTE) in these boats. The ex-combatants are in danger in Sri Lanka so they will have to flee somewhere.”

Australia needs to be aware that many LTTE combatants were involved in serious acts of terrorism against Sri Lanka and its citizens, including suicide bomb attacks, other forms of bombing, torture and murder. For instance, there was a sustained LTTE campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Sinhalese and Muslim populations of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, which from 1984 to this year involved an estimated 257 attacks that killed 4485 civilians, wounded 5897 and displaced close to 200,000 Sinhalese and Muslims. Furthermore, according to Dharmalingam Siddharthan, leader of the anti-LTTE People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, at least 10,000 dissident Tamils were eliminated by the LTTE during the conflict.

Rajakulendran claims that LTTE combatants “are not going to be fighters here. They were fighting for a cause, even if some of the tactics are unacceptable … They are not going to fight for a cause here. They are not like Islamic terrorists.” However, evidence of LTTE activities in the West suggests otherwise. For instance, a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, Final War: LTTE Intimidation and Extortion in the Tamil Diaspora, reported serious LTTE infringements of law and order in the West, including extortion, wanton intimidation, violent repression of dissenting Tamil voices and even homicide.

Canadian-Tamil journalist D.B.S Jeyaraj has written that “the activities of pro-Tiger elements in the West have often been provocative and blatantly defiant of Western laws governing terrorism. In spite of the LTTE being banned under anti-terrorism laws, the diasporic Tiger supporters have flagrantly flouted them.”

Examples of serious LTTE infractions of the law in the West include: the murder of a French policeman; suspected murder of dissident Tamil journalist Sabaratnam Sabalingam; death threats to the dissident Tamil Broadcasting Corporation in Britain; assault and intimidation of dissident Norwegian-Tamil journalist Nadaraja Sethurupan; and, according to the Asian Tribune, alleged death threats against Selliah Nagarajah, a political columnist and law lecturer at the University of Western Sydney. In addition, dissident liberal Sri Lankan Tamil group University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna claims that the LTTE was responsible for the murder of Subramaniam Muthulingam, an Australian citizen who was on holiday in Sri Lanka and was known to have refused to co-operate with LTTE attempts to streamline fundraising from a Hindu temple in Perth.

Hence, based on its actions in Sri Lanka and abroad, it is not surprising that the LTTE is outlawed in 31 countries. Indeed, the US FBI website states: “The Tamil Tigers are among the most dangerous and deadly extremists in the world (and their) ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including al-Qa’ida in Iraq.”

The FBI goes on to say: “(The LTTE) perfected the use of suicide bombers, invented the suicide belt, pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks, murdered some 4000 people in the past two years alone and assassinated two world leaders (former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa), the only terrorist organisation to do so.”

While the Australian government ponders whether to outlaw the LTTE, as practically every other Western country has done since 2006, it should take an uncompromising view of LTTE combatants and operatives and ensure that a thorough screening process is conducted.

Clearly, not all the Tamil refugees coming to Australia fit this category, but those found to be members of the LTTE should be treated no differently from the way Australia would expect other countries to treat operatives of Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qa’ida.