|Tamil Tigers in Britain - Burning less bright?|
|Friday, 13 June 2008|
Lean times for the Sri Lankan separatists. But Tamils are flourishing.
TERRORISM normally makes front-page news in Britain, so it was odd that the four Asian men charged with terrorist offences last month scarcely made the papers. The charge-sheet explains why: the men bundled out of their homes at dawn are suspected of procuring equipment for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group that has fought a decades-long civil war against the Sri Lankan state and is now banned in Britain. The police took pains to emphasise that there was no link to al-Qaeda; after that, interest dried up.
The Tigers may be little known in Britain, but it is one of their most important constituencies. War has driven a quarter of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils abroad and Britain has the biggest share after Canada: up to 200,000 Sri Lankans (including a big second generation), most of them Tamils. Professionals have thrived in London since the 1950s, helping to hatch the Tigers' nationalist ideology. The movement's international headquarters, now presumed defunct, were in London and Paris.
The historic haven is looking less comfortable these days, however. Britain banned the Tigers in 2001, five years before the rest of Europe. Counter-terrorist officers are devoting “considerable resources” to investigating them. A dedicated crime hotline provides a way for Tamils to tip off the police. And the crackdown may be working. Last year saw the high-profile arrest in London of Colonel Karuna, a renegade Tiger leader, who is still detained in Britain. Last month Canadian police produced a 2004 memo from a senior Tiger who criticised the “insufficient activities of the branches in Canada and England”. Promises of cash from foreign supporters “ended up as fictions”, he grumbled.
Whether donors give willingly to the Tigers is disputed. Police say many contributions are extorted, or obtained through credit-card fraud. But some do, and this has placed Tamil charities under scrutiny. The Treasury lists nine outfits as fronts for the Tigers, and has frozen the assets of four Sri Lankans. In 2005 Britain's charity watchdog wound up one Tamil charity after identifying black holes in its accounting. Another is under investigation; one of its trustees has been forced to step down. Grey areas abound because much of the charity work in Sri Lanka is carried out in Tiger-held territory.
Tamil nationalists face a bigger long-term challenge, however: convincing the next generation. Most of those collared by the police are older folk born in Sri Lanka (those charged last month, for example, are between 34 and 51 years old). Islamist terrorists, by contrast, are often British-born and sometimes still in their teens. At Tamil demonstrations, such as the one on June 10th in London, most are first-generation migrants, not hot-headed students.
That the struggle is rooted in geography, not religion, is one reason. Another is that young Sri Lankans are too successful to need to march or plot. They are more likely than other Asians to be employed (though they earn slightly less than Indians) and Sri Lankan children do better at school than any ethnic group bar the Chinese. Intensive extracurricular learning and well-educated parents (especially the mothers) help to explain it, suggests Jill Rutter of IPPR, a think-tank. Branding helps too: teachers may label Somali refugees damaged basket-cases, but Tamil children, sometimes no less traumatised, are stereotyped as industrious maths geeks. Labels can be self-fulfilling. Popular actresses such as Amara Karan are further signs of the community's success.
But the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka may be better if the diaspora remains politically engaged, argues Danny Sriskandarajah, born in Sri Lanka and director of research at IPPR. Diaspora Tamils, who provided three of the four people sent by the Tigers to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government in 2002, have had a moderating effect on the movement, he reckons. They are freer to criticise the Tigers than they would be in Sri Lanka. But since the group's ban in Britain, anyone who engages with the Tigers risks prison. The movement may shrink, but harden. Britain could yet hear more from them.
(Courtesy : The Economist)
|Last Updated ( Monday, 02 February 2009 )|
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